Truly I am your servant, LORD;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.
I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
and call on the name of the LORD.
-Psalm 116:16-17 (NIV)
I’m thankful that I live in a country in which I’m free to practice my faith. I’m thankful even that I’m allowed by my government to choose, when necessary, my faith in Jesus over loyalty to my country. I’m thankful that I’m allowed, if my faith demands, to be openly critical of my government. There are many places in the world where that isn’t possible. There are people in America who would restrict that particular freedom. I’m thankful that, with occasional lapses, that freedom has remained part of our identity.
I’m thankful that no one is forced to share my faith. Faith becomes something else when it is coerced. Religion only becomes “the opiate of the masses” when it’s used as a tool of government. It becomes a means of conquest, oppression, and domination. Christianity thrives best in a context in which we’re out of power and outnumbered, in which there’s no political advantage in being a Christian. It’s when our motives are most pure, our mission most clear, and the necessity of trust in the Lord most apparent.
I’m thankful that justice is an important part of our national conscience. Though its wheels sometimes seem to turn infinitesimally slowly, they do turn. When voices cry out in complaint that they are marginalized, mistreated, and defrauded, our lawmakers — in time — respond. It almost never happens as quickly as we might like. It’s almost always more incremental than those who have suffered injustice deserve, and it almost never solves all of a marginalized population’s problems overnight. But it almost always happens, and when it does it opens the way for others who are the victims of injustice to finally have their day. Nearly all Americans today deeply regret the suffering of Native Americans, blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and a host of other ethnic and cultural minorities. Most of us hate injustice in any form (despite sometimes being complicit in it) —whether it be toward ethnic and racial minorities, children, the elderly, or the poor. A nation founded on subjugation and cruelty became a place of freedom and hope for millions. It continues to be a place of new beginnings for refugees across the world (Even when we don’t know how to welcome them). Our economic and justice systems, flawed as they are, make it possible for people to prosper in ways unimaginable in much of the world.
I’m thankful that our country continually rises above its leaders. We’ve had some amazing leaders, certainly. But we’ve also had our share of despots, tyrants, and fools. When they’re in power, there are always voices that remind us that the emperor has no clothes. Sometimes they are of the minority party. Sometimes they take the form of grassroots movements or local initiatives. Sometimes, even, it has been the church that has spoken with a prophetic voice calling for sin to be removed from the palace. From whichever direction they come, they always come, and they convince, coerce, and shame us into actually being in some way or another the country that we like to tell ourselves we are.
I’m thankful that loving our nation doesn’t require that we uncritically accept everything done in it and by it.
Despite the “love it or leave it” attitude some “patriots” take, America has always invited the critique of its citizens. We can protest, we can write, we can speak, we can contact our lawmakers. Our voices are unsuppressed, and we can raise them to call our nation to account.
So can those who disagree with us, and we can listen to them and learn why and how they disagree, and our nation can be that much stronger and broader and deeper.
I’m concerned, though.
I’m concerned that we don’t listen to each other. I’m concerned that social media, which should have made national discourse easier, threatens to choke it out. Faced with a differing viewpoint, many of us now resort to unfriending, blocking, and in other ways metaphorically sticking our fingers in our ears so we don’t have to hear the voices dissonant from our own. It’s that national discourse on which our nation is built. From our origins, people with differing viewpoints and agendas have hammered together alliances in service of the greater good of freedom, justice, and opportunity. To lose that discourse now would be fatal to our nation.
I’m concerned that our national identity as a land of opportunity is eroding, replaced with the conviction that we can Make America Great Again by strengthening our borders, fetishizing the military, raising tariffs, and protecting jobs. There seems to be a battle raging in our national conscience between our impulse to close ourselves off and surround ourselves with others like us and our understanding that it’s always been in our diversity that we’ve been at our best. We’ll never Make America Great Again by making it less diverse. I pray that we don’t forget that.
The United States isn’t what we sometimes want to pretend it is. It’s not a Christian nation. (It borders on blasphemy to say so.) It’s not above criticism. Our national myth, that anyone in America who works hard enough can be prosperous and successful, is not true for very many of our citizens and those who come to our shores. Neither is the “hard work” part of the myth true for the percentage of our population that was born wealthy. We’re like many other powerful nations, full of contradictions. We speak of peace and freedom, but are built on bloodshed and oppression. We claim to be a land of opportunity, but deny that opportunity to many who could benefit the most from it. We have in some undeniable ways been blessed by God, and yet routinely deny that our blessings are from him. In some undeniable ways we stand under God’s judgment, and yet refuse to learn our lessons and turn from our sins. And so it shall be until the Lord returns.
Today, as millions of Americans celebrate independence by taking a day off work, cooking out, going to the beach, watching fireworks, my friend Juan is working. He’s painting our church classrooms. When I asked him if he wanted to take the Fourth off he said he’d rather come to the building, if that was OK with me. “I don’t have any benefits,” he said. “I need to work.”
As we celebrate our freedom, as we celebrate the good things about our nation, let’s remember that they are gifts of God. We don’t deserve them more than others. All we can do is thank our gracious God.
And let’s remember Juan, and others like him: hard-working people for whom the American Dream is anything but a certainty, and who know that disaster is just a step away.
When we ask for God’s blessings on America, may we also ask him to help us be as generous to people like Juan as he has been to us.