Bishop David Alan Bard challenges us to see our nation and its history with honest eyes, not only celebrating the things we love but working together to change it for the better…
I write this on the cusp of the July 4 national holiday. Independence Day has been celebrated in some fashion since 1776. Congress made it an unpaid federal holiday in 1870, and then it became a recognized paid federal holiday in 1938. No matter that the history is a little convoluted, I appreciate having the annual opportunity to celebrate this nation.
There is much I love about the United States. The literature of our country includes some of my favorite writing: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Robert Bly, Mary Oliver, and Louise Erdrich. Since I was a boy collecting baseball cards, I have loved the sport, a uniquely American invention, even as it combined a few traditions from other places. America has created in its popular music new sounds which continue to combine and influence one another. Folk ballads, mountain music, western music, and the blues all contributed to country music. Country music, western swing, and rhythm and blues came together in rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz integrated African rhythms, the blues, and unique forms and instrumentations. Country, rock, and jazz continue to influence one another, and unique forms such as soul and hip-hop have developed. We have also contributed uniquely to classical music. I listen to it all and am particularly fond of classic jazz, classic rock, and classic country. I cherish our democratic political traditions.
I am proud to be from the United States and am pleased to celebrate that every year. And yet I cherish this nation with eyes wide open. During annual conference this year, I made two statements that I repeat here in print.
“Not every question raised about a specific program to address racism and racialized thinking, to promote anti-bias and anti-racism work, is a deflection or a backlash. It is okay to ask critical questions. And we also need to be honest that there are times when criticism becomes little more than resistance to any work being done to overcome historical inequities and historically carried racialized thinking. Some parts of our history are uncomfortable, yet need to be acknowledged, for their impact lingers.”
“To simply assert that any examination of our history that looks honestly at where we have segregated, oppressed, discriminated, and propagated racist thinking, to simply assert that this is ‘critical race theory’ and dismiss all honest attempts to grapple—labeling them foreign to our work, well that is unhelpful and intellectually dishonest. We do this work because we are the church, the community who names the name of Jesus, who proclaims that Jesus Christ seeks to bring into one community persons from all of humanity. Jesus Christ breaks down dividing walls and seeks to create beloved community. Many of Paul’s letters are about the challenges of bringing together diverse people into community. That’s why we do this work. And it is helpful to be clear that this can be difficult work, challenging work, hard work. To honestly grapple with our history can be painful. We’ve not always loved our neighbor nor heard the cry of the needy. We’ve not always seen the image of God in others who look different from us. Our history is a mixed bag of wonderful moments of love, compassion, justice, caring, and the calling forth of high ideals, and difficult moments of segregation, oppression, diminishment, and cruelty. To ignore either is untruthful, and we are people who trust that the truth sets free in Jesus Christ.”
One dimension of the perniciousness of white Christian nationalism is its refusal to look honestly at our nation’s history.
Our history as a nation, and as a church within this nation, is genuinely mixed. There are grand moments of beauty and wonder, soaring rhetoric that calls out our best. There are ugly and brutal moments—slavery, callousness toward persons indigenous to this land, the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II, pervasive anti-Semitism, cruelty to those who are “different,” whether that difference be related to race, education, economic status, gender, or sexual orientation.
In 1 Timothy 2, followers of Jesus are encouraged to pray for those in governing authority. “This is right and acceptable before God our Savior” (v. 3, NRSVUE). Love for country is admirable. Prayers for our country and government should be frequent. July 4 is a wonderful day for celebration.
And we have an obligation to continue to work to make our country better. In his book Christian Perspectives on Politics, Methodist ethicist J. Philip Wogaman wrote: “For if the state’s functioning well has some kind of theological importance attached to it, then Christians have theological reasons for wanting to assure that it does function well.”
There is theological importance to the healthy functioning of government. In my doctoral dissertation almost thirty years ago, I wrote, “Approximate realizations of God’s purposes within history contribute to the full realization of God’s purposes in the Kingdom of God.” In other words, how we live life together, treat one another, care for the hungry and left out, encourage freedom and beauty, and promote justice make a real difference. Part of the discipleship work of our churches is to develop people who, in the name and Spirit of Jesus, care about the world, its people, the environment, justice, fairness, beauty, and dignity.
And to do this work, we must be honest about our history, its beauty, and its brutality. As the author James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
On July 4, have a picnic, gather with family, listen to music, swim, stroll, watch a fireworks display, go to a parade, and feel gratitude for the good that is in our country. Know that on July 5, the work to make us better continues, in the name and Spirit of Jesus.