Today is the 4th of July, “America’s birthday.” Red, white, and blue banners are everywhere, the smell of grilling hamburgers permeates the air, and somewhere, someone is playing that damn Lee Greenwood song. People are shooting off fireworks, lining the streets to watch parades, and listening to bands and orchestras in parks all over the country. Folks are celebrating.
For many of us, the celebration feels very different this year. We’re celebrating a birthday, but it feels like the birthday of a loved one who has recently died. It feels like a wake.
Several years ago, I attended a professional conference in Arlington, Virginia. I took some time to go into Washington DC and do the touristy stuff. If you’ve never been to DC, there are monuments everywhere covered with quotes expressing beautiful visions for the country. These truly are lofty ideals for the America that can be. I was struck by the vision of these earlier generations of American leaders yet sobered by the realization that we as a country have not lived up to these ideals; that, for some, the lofty vision of America was not meant for them.
The poet, Langston Hughes, pleaded:
Let America be America again,
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.
Copyright © Langston Hughes, 1955
Throughout the poem Hughes states in a parenthetical aside that “It was never America for me.”
Despite our shortcomings as a nation, I (and many others) wanted to believe that we were learning, growing, and striving to be better, that we were working to realize the lofty ideals set forth in our founding documents. It is a dream that now lies in ashes at our feet.
For the first time in our history, the Supreme Court has turned its back on precedent and actually taken away rights. With the overturn of Roe v. Wade millions of women no longer have the right to control what happens to their bodies, making them, as some have said, little more than livestock. Justice Clarence Thomas has set his sights on other rulings based on the 14th Amendment: the right to contraception, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage. Conspicuously absent from Thomas’ list of rulings that should be revisited is the ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which grants interracial couples the right to marry. Overturning Loving would invalidate his marriage.
The Supreme Court has been busy. They’ve issued rulings targeting the Establishment Clause, deregulating power plant emissions, and overruling state restrictions on carrying guns. Next term, it looks as if they’re going to hear cases concerning non-discrimination laws and how states decide election results. The latter has some deeply troubling implications.
It seems that every day brings news of yet another mass shooting, the latest one being today at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois. School shootings, road rage killings, using a gun to end an altercation betray our cultural obsession with violence. Our first resort is to solve problems with violence and guns are the tool of choice. Even the obscene number of children shot and killed attending school doesn’t seem to get through to some. One politician even said that he was willing to sacrifice children if it meant preserving the 2nd Amendment. The 2nd Amendment has become our culture’s Moloch, a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice, a practice strongly condemned in Leviticus.
In my home state of Tennessee, our governor has aligned himself with entities that want to dismantle public education, standing by silently while representatives of those entities disparage our teachers and our state’s colleges and universities.
This is just the tip of the iceberg; I could probably fill several pages with a list of all the problems we have. I will say that many of us are experiencing an existential threat. We make jokes referencing Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale but, deep down, we believe that it’s not a joke and we are terrified.
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”Mark 12: 28-31, New Revised Standard Version
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.Galatians 3:28, New Revised Standard Version
I keep hearing that we are a Christian nation, but what I’m seeing has little to do with the teachings of Jesus who came to show us a better way to live., the Jesus who told that the greatest commandments were to love God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves. Instead of caring for the poor, the sick, and those without housing we demonize them and blame them and/or their lack of morals, character, and faith for their condition. Instead of caring for the strangers in our land as our own we lock them up, and often send them back to the dangerous and life-threatening conditions they were trying escape. What happens to a culture that forgets that all are made in the image of God, that we are all God’s children? How long can we ignore that what we do to one we do to all of us? Is there hope for us as a nation? Can America survive a descent into a Randian hellscape where everyone is only concerned for themselves, and fuck everyone else? I would like to believe so. It won’t be easy, and it will most certainly get messy. I leave you with the concluding stanzas of Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America. (The entire poem is here.)
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be! Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!