"Liberty and Justice for All"
It’s Independence Day in the United States of America and those of us who live here will today be deluged by all sorts of quotes from our foundational documents proclaiming that all men are created equal, that everyone is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps we may also hear speeches or read articles about the many immigrants who, over the years, sailed into the New York Harbor passing by the statue of Lady Liberty, being welcomed with open arms: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses tearing to breathe free.
In our own contemporary times, this nation is being torn apart by racism, poverty and prejudice, we are divided by our politics and culture wars. We are afraid of strangers and many want to build walls to keep out immigrants. So, on this Independence Day, there will no doubts be those who will lament how far away we have drifted from our foundational and fundamental American values. And yet, the truth is that we have never been a nation in which everyone was treated with equal value and dignity. We have always suffered from prejudice, poverty and racism, and there has never been a time when each and every person from distant lands was equally welcomed with wide-open arms.
Back when this nation was first given birth, our “founding fathers” understood full well that the values of “equal dignity,” “liberty and justice for all,” “embracing foreigners and strangers,” were lofty aspirations. They knew that we could never be a nation that “perfectly” lived according to these fundamental, founding values but they also trusted that we could be a nation that would yearn for, aspire to, strive after these values. Our “founding fathers” never talked about establishing a “perfect” union but rather a “more perfect union,” a nation that would and could become more perfect by aspiring to the lofty goals that would guide our common life and serve as a standard to judge how well we were doing as a society.
I recall a often-quoted “Latin” phrase that seems to embody a guiding principle that underlies the foundations of American democracy:
Per aspera ad astra
The literal translation of this phrase is “through difficulty to the stars.” The stars, the lofty aspirations upon which this nation was built can never be perfectly achieved and yet we can reach for the stars - through the hard work and common sacrifice of fellow citizens we can indeed be guided by the better angles of our common humanity and achieve a “more perfect union.”
On this Independence Day I am not dismayed nor do I despair over the fact that we have not achieved our goals as a democracy; but I am very fearful that many (if not most) Americans may have abandoned those lofty aspirations established at our foundation.
I fear that many if not most of us no longer aspire to build a nation in which every citizen is equally valued. Many people feel that they are more entitled to a better life than the other guy and many citizens believe they certainly deserve a better life than someone who is a foreigner or a stranger in this land.
When and if we abandon our aspirations and no longer reach for the stars we are on a slippery downward slope from which we cannot possibly survive as a nation.
In the Christian Church, baptized people are asked some fundamental questions and invited to make promises that express the essence of what walking the way of Christianity involves. Two of these “promises” particularly strike me on this Independence Day.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people
and respect the dignity of every human being?
There is a related promise:
Whenever you fall into sin will you repent?
Striving after justice and peace for all people and promising to respect the dignity of every human being is obviously a “lofty aspiration” and there will inevitably be times (maybe many times) when we might all stray from the path of that promised goal. That’s the reason for the second promise - when (not if) we lose our way or stray from the path, we also pledge to recalibrate, to repent, to try again to engage in the hard work of moving toward the “stars.”
On this Independence Day these “baptismal” questions and promises made by Christian believers seem to be wise and helpful questions to ask of each and every citizen of our land.