Celebrating the Fourth of July When America is in Doubt

Frederic Edwin Church, “Our Banner in the Sky” (1861)

Insofar as the Fourth of July is the American Midsummer Day, full of warm weather conviviality, playful communal rituals, and the climactic glory of fireworks, it is a day of pleasure and joy. As a celebration of our founding ideals, however, it has always been fraught with the ironies of our national and cultural imperfections.

I have noted these troubling ironies in recent years. “Your Celebration is a Sham”—Indepedence Day in an Age of Cruelty (2019) and Fourth of July 2020: Last Rites for a Dying America? are the most recent examples. In light of the January 6 insurrection and all the calamitous behavior in its wake, one could write volumes about the weird vibe of this year’s holiday affirmations about “America.” But a separated shoulder suffered a week ago, when I flew off my bicycle for a painful meeting with unforgiving concrete, has momentarily limited my ability to sit for long at a computer, and I need to go into the garden now to renew my love for America in conversation with Dickinson and Thoreau. But let me pass on a couple of things before I do.

When a friend posted Church’s 1861 painting, “Our Banner in the Sky,” today, it struck me an image of where we are as a country today. When Church painted it at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was expressing his support for the Union cause. In the most tempestuous of times, he assures us, our flag shall yet wave. But to me the painting seems fraught with fundamental tensions. Is that sunrise or sunset in the background? Does the flag made of colored clouds and a patch of clear starlit sky promise the endurance of an ideal written in the heavens, or does the dematerialization of Old Glory signify the vanishing of a perishable dream? Does the withered tree anchoring the flag imply death—or resurrection? In America 2021, the answers seem no more certain than they did 160 years ago.

Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a usually long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.

In 1852, the eloquent abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass was invited to give such an oration on July 4 by the Ladies’ Antislavery Society of Rochester, New York. But due to the absurdity of celebrating Independence Day while slavery persisted, Douglass chose to speak on July 5 instead.

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers,” he said, ” is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”

For Independence Day 2021, in a country still beset by rampant racism, National Public Radio invited young descendants of Frederick Douglass to recite portions of that 1852 speech, followed by brief reflections of their own. Like any truly prophetic text, Douglass’ address condemns our sins, urges repentance, and preaches hope. This video is a compelling and moving updating of the traditional Fourth of July oration, and I hope you will make its viewing (and sharing) a part of your own celebration this year.

Juneteenth: Recalibrating the Narratives of Race in America

Enslaved African Americans in Virginia, May 14, 1862 (Library of Congress).

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8).

I went to have my eyes checked this week. In the waiting room, I had a conversation with a man my age whose family has lived in Washington state for six generations. His great-grandfather had come to the Northwest on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. “He was a Presbyterian minister,” he told me. “Before coming west, he managed the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s plantation in Tennessee.” 

This man was clearly proud of his family heritage, as though the whole history of America were coursing through his veins. But the thousand-acre Hermitage, the source of Jackson’s wealth, had only grown and prospered through the labor of enslaved people. I wanted to ask this man what he knew about his great-grandfather’s story. How did a minister of the gospel end up in charge of such a brutal and evil enterprise? How could he have justified it? How did his descendants feel about this stain on their family tree? How does the descendant right in front of me feel about it?

I sensed that such questions would not be welcomed. And it was not the best setting to explore them. Before I could frame a response, I was summoned to the examination room, where I would learn that my eyes were fine. But what about America’s eyes? When we look at ourselves and our history, can we see clearly now?

In 1989, African-American poet Lucille Clifton took a tour of Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina. She was the only black person on the tour. Throughout the tour, not a word was said about slavery. But when the tour took them to the family burying ground, Clifton noticed some crosses and markers outside its walls—the nameless graves of slaves. So she asked the guide, “Why haven’t you mentioned slaves?” 

The guide said that she hadn’t wanted to “embarrass” her, and Clifton responded, “Well, I’m not a slave, and I don’t know why you think I’d be embarrassed.” So the guide, somewhat chagrined, looked in the plantation inventory and found that there had been ten male slaves there, plus however many uncounted females, who were not considered valuable enough to inventory.

Clifton’s experience became a poem:

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.…

tell me your bashful names
and i will testify.… [1]

After she had read this poem around South Carolina for a while, Ms. Clifton got a letter from the director of the group that has restored the plantation, saying that they had built a model slave cabin and were now telling the story of all the people who lived there. And then, after one of her readings, a woman came up to her and said that her family had once owned Walnut Grove, but she herself had never gone back—she was too ashamed. “The next time I come here,” Clifton told her, “you and I will go together.” [2]

As a white American man, I know that I need to go on such a journey, to the places where the “bashful names” can testify about the racism in our culture and in our selves. I need to get my eyes checked, my ears checked, my heart checked. We all do. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. 

The disturbing eruption of overt racism in recent years has shocked and horrified us—This isn’t who we are!—but perhaps some good may come from its blatant visibility. Issues of race in America are now harder to deny. The need to repent is harder to ignore. A hard diagnosis quickens a healing response. Confession fosters renovation. 

Not everyone in America is willing to do this work.  Right wing cringing over “critical race theory” is reaching ludicrous proportions. Texas politicians are crafting laws to protect fair-skinned children from having their feelings hurt by learning about white folks doing evil things to black folks. A watchdog group in Nevada wants teachers to wear body cams so they will never dare say a bad word about American history. 

But for God’s best friends, the way of fear is the way of death. As Episcopal priest Stephanie Spellers puts it, “many of us long to live as beloved community and to reckon with the pain that racism has inflicted – and continues to inflict – in our personal lives, our churches and institutions, and society as a whole.” [3]

Spellers is part of the team that has created Sacred Ground, a powerfully formative church engagement with race and racism in America, using films, readings and dialogue “to call us from our small worlds and small screens and into intentional, sustained circles in which we can pray, watch, share our own stories, reflect, wonder, reckon, heal, and commit to action.” [4]  In small groups on Zoom, my own local parish has been making this journey on sacred ground over the past seven months. The material is rich and the conversations real. Some of our learnings are unsettling, even heartbreaking, but the trajectory of healing and transformation predominates. We move with our eyes on the prize, toward that promised land undimmed by human tears. [5]

To mark the inauguration of Juneteenth, the new federal holiday celebrating the end of slavery in America, journalist Amy Goodman interviewed writer and poet Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Responding to the criticism that the new holiday doesn’t really change anything, Smith argued that “names and symbols and holidays … aren’t just names and symbols and symbolism. What they are are reflective of the stories that people tell. And those stories shape the narratives that societies carry. And those narratives shape public policy. And public policy, that shapes the material conditions of people’s lives. Which is not to say that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee or making Juneteenth a holiday is going to erase the racial wealth gap. Of course not. But what it is is part of an ecosystem of narratives and stories and ideas that can help us recalibrate our understanding of why certain communities look the way that they do and what needs to be done and invested in those communities to create a new set of opportunities.” [6]

I encourage you to view or read the entire interview, but let me leave you with Smith’s conclusion, when he recited a powerful passage from his new book.

“I come from a city abounding with statues of white men on pedestals and Black children playing beneath them, where we played trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie song that’s still whistled in the wind. In New Orleans, there are over 100 schools, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. Every day, Black children walk into buildings named after people who never wanted them to be there. Every time I would return home, I would drive on streets named for those who would have wanted me in chains.

“Go straight for two miles on Robert E. Lee, take a left on Jefferson Davis, make the first right on Claiborne. Translation: Go straight for two miles on the general who slaughtered hundreds of Black soldiers who were trying to surrender, take a left on the president of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black bodies the cornerstone of his new nation, make the first right on the man who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be put on stakes and spread across the city in order to prevent the others from getting any ideas.

“What name is there for this sort of violence? What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagined you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named after people who would have wanted the bricks to crush you?” [7]


Beyond the ordeal: A biblical vision

[1] For the complete text, and a recording of Clifton reading it: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Lucille-Cliftons-at-the-cemetery-walnut-grove-plantation-south-carolina-1989

[2] From Clifton’s 1995 interview with Bill Moyers: https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/bill-moyers-interview-cemetery-walnut-grove-plantation-south-carolina-1989

[3] The Rev.Canon Stephanie Spellers, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground/message/

[4] Ibid.

[5] For more information on Sacred Ground and how to get it for your community: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sacred-ground/

[6] For the video interview: https://www.democracynow.org/shows/2021/6/18   For the text of the interview: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/6/18/juneteenth_federal_holiday

[7] Clint Smith, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Little, Brown and Company, 2021).  Available at https://www.clintsmithiii.com

Walking on the Sea with Jesus: A Homily on Matthew 14:22-33

Gustave Brion, Jesus & Peter on the Water (1863).

This is the text of a homily preached from a kayak “on location” in Puget Sound, a stand-in for the Sea of Galilee where the gospel for this Sunday takes place. You can view the video below. 

“Get in the boat!” Jesus tells the disciples. “Get in the boat and go to the other side of the lake.” We don’t know the exact words Jesus used, or his tone of voice, but Matthew’s gospel is pretty clear about the forcefulness of his command. The original Greek words suggest that he had to force them or push them into the boat. They clearly were reluctant to go. But why?

They may have been hesitant to go anywhere without their trusted teacher. And certainly none of them would be eager to go to the other side. That’s where the Gentiles lived, those weird foreigners who were so disliked and feared. The other side, in the disciples’ eyes, was a bad neighborhood, infested by Roman rats.

But the scariest thing was the sea itself. Although the Sea of Galilee is only a large lake (about one-third the size of Lake Tahoe), its original Hebrew name, Yam, means “roar,” perhaps because of the tempestuous waves created by its infamous sudden storms. A few years ago, 80 swimmers in that lake had to be rescued when strong winds swept them out into deep waters.

I have only seen the Sea of Galilee in good weather. But almost without warning, it can become a wild and dangerous place. The fishermen disciples knew the risk of drifting too far from the shore, but here was Jesus making them cross its depths for five or six miles—that’s the distance between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. Would you want to do that in a small boat in a big storm?

For biblical people of the land, wild seas were not just physically dangerous. They conveyed a cosmic threat as well, manifesting the primal chaos which threatens to undo the harmonious stability of the world. Only the divine Creator can tame this chaos. As the Psalmist says,

You rule the raging of the sea.
When its waves roar, it is you who subdues them.
(Psalm 89:9)

Scriptures like that made the world seem safe, but when the winds kicked up and the waves began to wash over their little boat, Jesus’ disciples were probably thinking of another Psalm:

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me. (Psalm 69:1-3)

Matthew tells us that “the wind was against them.” No matter how hard they tried, they could make no headway. When the sun went down, the storm continued to batter them in the dark. They became exhausted, disheartened, and afraid. Would the long and terrible night ever end?

This was the archetypal night-sea journey, where everything familiar and safe is left behind in a perilous passage through a formless sea of unknowing and unmaking which threatens to swallow the voyager.

We know something about that, don’t we? We are all on a night-sea journey now, in this strange and anxious time. Having left behind the shore of “normal” life, battered by the fierce waves of multiple crises, we are trying desperately to stay afloat in the darkness. But like those first disciples, we find ourselves against the wind.

So how does the gospel story end? In the darkest hour just before dawn, Jesus “came walking toward them on the sea.” It’s an extraordinary moment in the gospel narrative, but a few centuries ago it became something of an embarrassment. Empiricists declared it to be the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen, and authors of books with titles like Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) began to purge the gospels of anything “inconsistent with the Light of Nature, and the eternal Reason of Things.” [i]

Christian rationalists sought plausible explanations for gospel miracles. Healings were deemed psychosomatic, for example, and walking on water, if not dismissed altogether, was explained as Jesus wading in the shallows along the shore, or standing on a raft which disciples couldn’t see in the dark.

This isn’t the time to address the complex questions about biblical miracles, but let me say in passing that we should be careful about applying modernity’s criteria for what is possible to anything dealing with the transcendent. The gospel stories come from a different thought-world, and sometimes they describe realities not yet fully realized in our fallen and unfinished world. Those of us who have grown familiar with biblical texts can forget just how strange the stories really are, and how strange Jesus is.

In both Jesus’ day and our own, the powers-that-be tend to affirm and enforce a “reality” of suffering, cruelty, and violence. “It is what it is,” they tell us. But then Jesus invades this so-called reality and calls it into question. He not only preaches the impossible, he proves it: the blind see, the lame walk, prisoners go free, mourners dance, and the poor inherit the earth.

Make no mistake: Jesus leads us into a very different world, and that world, in comparison to the present state of things, can appear miraculous to inexperienced eyes.

As for the story of Jesus walking on water, the question of its historical plausibility is not a critical question for me. It’s not the kind of thing I expect to happen, but I won’t rule out the possibility of something uncanny and transcendent lying behind this enigmatic narrative.

Jesus was in but not of this world, and the mysterious is an inseparable element of his story. How much does it matter what we are able to make of the story’s strangeness? What really matters is what the story makes of us.

And the story, like the disciples’ boat, is built to transport us out into the sea of unknowing, to find something we will miss if we remain on shore. So get on board, little children, get on board. Even if you are reluctant to embrace the miraculous, get on board. The story wants to take us all to the other side.

And so we soon find ourselves far from shore, awash in the sea’s brawling swells, helpless against the wind, hearts breaking in the endless night, when suddenly we see something—someone—walking toward us, walking on the sea like the Maker of heaven and earth who once “trampled the waves of chaos” (Job 9:8).

How can this be! It’s a ghost! A phantasm. A figment of our imagination. Our fear is making us crazy. But then we hear that voice we know so well:

“Take heart, it is I;
do not be afraid.”

It’s still hard to make out what we’re seeing in the darkness, but Peter calls out, “Lord? Oh Lord, if it is really you, call me, and bid me come to you.” The voice answers, “Come.” And that’s what Peter does. He climbs out of the boat, and begins to walk toward Jesus, striding impetuously across the water as if it were solid ground.

His eyes see nothing but the gaze of his Master. But just before he reaches Jesus, he remembers the storm, the wind, the waves. He remembers his fear. He takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the raging water. Immediately he begins to sink, and the sea is swallowing him. “Lord, save me!” he cries. Jesus grabs his hand. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I like to think Jesus says this tenderly, with a smile.

And as soon as the two of them get into the boat, the wind ceases. The storm is over. The sea grows smooth and still. After so much turbulence and drama, this sudden calm may be the story’s greatest miracle, one we so desperately need today.

Buffeted on every side by so much danger, affliction, and loss, we have come to know the demons of anxiety and sadness. We’ve drifted too far from the shore, the wind is against us, and some of us are starting to sink. Who can even remember what it was like to be at peace in an uneventful time?

James Martin, a Jesuit author and teacher, wrote a book about Jesus based on his pilgrimage to the places where the gospels happened. At the Sea of Galilee, he recalls a time when he was deeply stressed by the relentless grind of nonstop speaking engagements. It felt like a ceaseless storm, and he was drowning. So he decided to pray about it with a visual meditation on Jesus and Peter on the sea.

“When I closed my eyes,” he says, “the first thing I saw in my mind’s eye was Jesus, clad in a light blue robe, standing silently on the sea, a glassy calm. He stretched out his hands as if to say, ‘Come.” But unlike Peter I didn’t feel the invitation to walk on the water, as if to prove something. Instead, he seemed to be saying, ‘Why not come into the calm?’ The wind whipped around his blue garments, with the sound of a flag in the wind, but both he and the sea remained calm.” [ii]

Why not come into the calm? What a precious and necessary gift this story wants to give us, inviting us into the calm. We all need that calm so very, very much. And I would be tempted to leave it at that, but I believe there is something else, equally important, we need to take from this story.

Last year, a minister in the United Church of Canada, Hilde J. Seal, was speaking with a parishioner at the door after worship. The woman thanked Seal for her sermon, and then she said, “I wish you would speak about racism.”

The preacher thought about that challenge for weeks, but she worried that the volatile subject might take her congregation, as she put it, into “troubled waters … Deep, murky, swirling, rushing, dashing water… exploding like a storm.” It’s not something a pastor does lightly.

But when it came time to preach on Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter on the Sea of Galilee, she knew she had to go there, to address systemic racism in her country in the light of the gospel, because the middle of that storm, or any other, is exactly where the church needs to be if it wants to fulfill its vocation, trampling on the waves of sin and fear.

“Jesus calls us into the rough waters,” she said, “to meet the power of God’s presence within the storm. So let’s get out of the boat, to walk on the water toward Jesus. “But I warn you,” she added, “that once our toes are splashed by the swirling, rushing, dashing water… we might feel like we are about to drown.” [iii]

The wild sea, the storm-tossed boat,
the sinking disciple crying for help—
these are powerful and challenging images.
Most of us would rather remain on shore,
or at least inside the boat.
Who among us is prepared to step out into the deep?

That kind of courage doesn’t come naturally. British novelist Olaf Stapledon once described comfortable moderns as ill-suited for times of crisis.

“[A]ccustomed only to security and mildness,” he wrote, “[we] were fit only for a kindly world … We were adapted only to fair weather, for the practice of the friendly but not too difficult, not heroic virtues, in a society both secure and just. Instead, we found ourselves in an age of titanic conflict … when grave choices must be made in crisis after crisis, and no simple or familiar principles were adequate …” [iv]

Those words from 1937 could have been written yesterday. We are indeed better suited to fair weather and a kindly world. But that is not where we are right now, is it?

A 14th-century prayer, the Anima Christi, incorporates the powerful words that Peter shouted against the wind: O good Jesus, … call me and bid me come to you.

And faith knows how that prayer gets answered:
Come.
That’s what Jesus says to Peter,
and he says it to us as well:
Come.

Sometimes that will mean seeking the place of calm in a stormy world; and sometimes it will mean consenting to leave our comfort zone for the wild sea, where our only stay against drowning will be the touch of the Master’s hand.

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

O good Jesus, call me, call your church,
and bid us come to you –
wherever you are,
even when you are
in the heart of the storm.

 

 

[i] John Toland wrote Christianity Not Mysterious. The quote is from from Matthew Tindal’s Christianity As Old As the Creation (1730).

[ii] James Martin, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (New York: Harper One, 2014), 237-238.

[iii] Hilde J. Seal is a minister at the United Churches of Langley, British Columbia. Her excellent homily, “With-in a Storm” (August 11, 2019), is online: https://www.unitedchurchesoflangley.ca/podcasts/sermons/2019-08-11-with-in-a-storm

[iv] Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) is a science-fiction classic admired by H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Doris Lessing, and Arthur C. Clarke. This passage is cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London: SPCK, 2008), 509.