Friday, July 1, 2011

Living and dying with inconsistency

We treat the Fourth of July as impor-tant enough that the holiday never gets moved from its real day, but we leave its meaning to flags and picnics and rodeos and fireworks. Something in all of that is about patriotism, about love of country, but the day should make us focus on the real stories of our values and prompt us to examine our faithfulness to those values.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to commit treason, publicly. With rhetorical flourish but full knowledge of the real risks they faced, these founding fathers stated in the Declaration of Independence that "we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." For that, they deserve our respect.

But there is a dark side to the first July Fourth story. While they were building their country on the fundamental truth that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, the founders had learned to live with slavery, many as slaveholders. The majority seemed unbothered by the incon-sistency of the ideal of equality and the reality of slavery.

That's why there is a second story.

On July 4, 1863, at Gettysburg, Pa., 50,000 soldiers died over that inconsis-tency. Abraham Lincoln later stood on that battlefield asking whether the found-ing fathers' promise of a nation in which all men are created equal could long en-dure.

Like the founding fathers, we are living with dreadful inequities. A handful of pa-triots are far away from family in seem-ingly endless wars where the fireworks come from the flash of gunfire. The rest of us eat potato salad and complain about the taxes required to support them.

Corporate bosses take their profits off-shore and are rewarded with tax breaks and stock options. The rest of us begrudge benefits for government workers who grow old building our highways and bridges.

European ancestors who could pursue the American dream after they made it to our shores are celebrated and respected. Today, Americans who sound or look or speak differently are dismissed as "other" and sent away. And we wish the poor would just fade away.

Lincoln gave his life to the cause of freedom because John Wilkes Booth could not or would not accept the patriotic pledge that all men are created equal. Every year when the Fourth of July comes around, as we are relaxing amid the fes-tivities, we need to ask ourselves about the quality of our own patriotism.

We need to answer honestly whether, as Lincoln promised, this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the peo-ple, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

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