The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
July Fourth and the War Within
Good morning. It’s good to be back with you all on this Fourth of July Weekend. Those who attend church on any holiday weekend like this get bonus points in my book. I hope you’re getting some rest and enjoying this very different experience of Independence Day that we’re having.
Our church calendar is amazing. Last Wednesday at our service we celebrated the saint assigned for that day, who just happened to be the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. When I noticed that, This year, July 5 falls today, on a Sunday, I couldn’t believe it. Last month many learned for the first time of the significance of Juneteenth in the black community. June 19th was the day when Union soldiers reached Galveston Texas to tell the enslaved people there that they were free–two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Well, July 5 in a similar way is a day well known among black people. Someone said to me a month ago that white people’s attention when something happens like the killing of George Floyd lasts for about a month. I can’t help but believe that July 5 is on a Sunday this year to keep us engaged.
In 1852 Frederick Douglass was asked by the Rochester Women’s Anti-Slavery Society to give a speech for the Fourth of July in Seneca Falls, New York. Douglass had been a runaway slave who made his way north under extremely dangerous conditions. Two years before his speech at Seneca Falls, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, where northern law enforcement was charged with capturing those who had escaped bondage. It was a horrific law, and Douglass had much to be despairing of when he gave this speech.
He called it “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” He would have known that many black people by then had criticized July 4 as a day not for them. Many began to celebrate July 5, to make this point. But it was Douglass’ speech that made it famous.
So, since it’s not every year that July 5th falls on Sunday, or that our country is so engaged with issues of race and inequality, I’d like to read a little bit from Douglass’ speech this morning. It’s hard to hear, but we need to hear it.
I say … with a sad sense of the disparity between us, I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, [is] inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? …
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than. all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Can you imagine a room full of white people hearing this in 1852? The discomfort in the room must have been audible. After years of progress it still makes me squirm. This year, the Fourth of July is a call to do better, and finally deliver those ideals we trumpet. Maybe we needed a break from barbecues and pool parties to think about Who are we as a nation, almost 170 years after Douglass said those words.
In our reading from Romans today is contained what almost sounds like a summary of our country’s fault from its founding. This country with its lofty promise of freedom and liberty, but not for all. This country that confused even the founders, who were aware of their hypocrisy. Who wanted to do the right thing (in many cases) but who also knew Enslaving people was profitable, that it would be on their backs that our country would most quickly become economically independent. The side they took, the compromises they made against their own principles would tear this country apart. It’s still torn.
Paul wrote in a totally different time and context, but still, listen to how evocative they are of our country’s duplicity:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin… Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Paul ends with hope. Douglass’ speech was actually hopeful. Go listen to it this afternoon. This time in our country, is hopeful. Perhaps we haven’t always, but we can do the good we want. We can will what is right–and do it, too. May this war within us end today, or soon, God willing.
That is my prayer for us on this Fourth–actually Fifth–of July. Amen.