It is Independence Day. A day in the United States reserved for celebration, barbecues and fireworks. A day to thank the good Lord for all the abundant blessings that we have as a nation. Growing up, I never had a doubt that we were the greatest nation in the history of the world. The tasty mustard on my hot dog and refreshing Coca-Cola in my glass confirmed it.
I no longer hold such illusions.
‘America’ as we so obliviously call ourselves (forgetting that Canada and Mexico join us in North America, let alone all the nations of Central and South America)—is great only if you are white and middle or upper class (with a few exceptions).
America is great, only if you think nothing of caging, detaining and deporting people who speak a different language or have skin a slightly darker shade than yours.
America is only great if you applaud that we ignore what the rest of the world believes about human rights and protecting the planet.
America is only great if you think spending the largest bulk of our resources on weapons of mass destruction is somehow admirable.
America is only great if you think pre-emptive war (i.e., state-sponsored terrorism) is a good idea.
America is only great if you aren’t ashamed by the philandering, inarticulate, narcissistic TV charlatan holding our highest office.
America is only great if you never fear the neighborhood police presence because you aren’t black.
America was never great. We were birthed by white, land-holding colonizers who thought nothing of stealing land from indigenous peoples and importing slaves to cultivate the land. We, like every nation in history, are ordinary. A mix of the will to survive, the desire to thrive, and the terrible things people to do make their own lives better no matter who is hurt along the way. Yes, there is beauty in our nation and history. There is brilliance and ingenuity and the best of humanity. But make no mistake that there is also, in no short supply, the worst of humanity.
And as patriotic citizens, it is our duty to pay attention to all of it. To not paint over our history with stars and stripes or view it all through red, white and blue glasses. Fewer and fewer in this nation can afford to remain blissfully ignorant. As wealth coalesces among the few, wages fail to keep up with inflation, health care continues to fail, tax plans favor the wealthy—most in this nation are not in a position to ignore reality. The President said just last week, “People say, ‘the elite.’ We got more money. We got more brains. We got better houses, apartments. We got nicer boats. We’re smarter than they are. We’re the super elite.”
Meanwhile, most of us in this ‘great nation’ are lucky if we own a home, and more likely are struggling to pay the rent, squeezing to pay off college loans and medical bills, and if we aren’t white—live in fear every day of a confrontation with the law. But the best of our people are also those who care for and love their neighbors, who share front porches and meals, and who turn out by the thousands to say that caging children and detaining families is unconscionable and far from great. Some of the most patriotic Americans are those who kneel when our national anthem is playing, because they realize that we are far from living up to our ideals.
Can you celebrate the Fourth of July while knowing all of this? Absolutely. Enjoy your burgers and Cokes and backyard shin-digs. Shoot off some fireworks. Fly your flag. Express some patriotism. And know that tomorrow—tomorrow we will continue to fight. For justice for those we currently oppress—in our borders and beyond them. For equality for all people. For peace instead of power. And for a welcome that the world might actually look at and say, “You know, that is pretty great.”
Bryan Berghoef is the pastor of Holland UCC, author of the book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation and God , and co-host of the podcast Pub Theology Live! He’s also a big fan of his kids, baseball, and a good scotch.