Happy birthday United States! The 236 years has put a bit of wear and tear on you, but you’re looking pretty good, and the millions of us who are blessed to be a part of you will toast to your good health today.
Unfortunately, there will be no fireworks for me this year. I am at camp with more than 100 middle school students from around the Valley, and because of fire restrictions, our fireworks will be the simultaneous flickering of flashlights. A poor substitute, but rest assured, we will celebrate.
I suppose it is appropriate that my Independence Day will be spent at church camp. July 4 causes me to ponder how my spiritual life and my civic life both mingle and collide. Am I an American who happens to be a Christian, or am I a Christian who is also an American? When push comes to shove, which am I first? Is there a difference between responsible citizenship and faithful stewardship? Is there a time when the prophetic voice of the church must speak out against public policy?
I think of a friend of mine — a retired pastor — who was arrested marching from Selma to Birmingham in 1965 in support of African Americans who were attempting to register to vote. He took a substantial risk with potentially life-threatening consequences, but he could not watch from the sidelines; he could not preach good news without seeking good news for all. How do I answer Micah’s call to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God” and what happens when doing so may force me to violate or at least challenge the law?
Celebrating our national identity is terrific, but might Independence Day also be an opportunity to take some time to reflect on the things that need our attention? It concerns me, for example, that this great nation ranks 35th in the world for infant mortality. I am troubled that there are 44 million working people who cannot earn sick time and lose income and sometimes their jobs if they take off work to care for a sick child. I am bothered that 300,000 American children are sexually exploited for commercial purposes. I am worried that the financial bottom line is often the top priority regardless of who gets hurt.
These challenges have both a civic and spiritual dimension. Do I participate as a citizen in a way that works toward the call to love neighbor as self, or do I give only lip service to justice and equality while seeking what is best for me and mine?
And that brings me back to Independence Day. What we celebrate this week is a breaking away from an empirical system of domination. It is a familiar biblical theme. Our national founders resisted injustice and persevered against tyranny, just as Jesus challenged both the religious hierarchy and empirical power. He did so in a way that valued the least and the lowly equally with the powerful and mighty. He did so in a way that placed the common good ahead of any individual interest, even when that meant opposing religious or civil law or both; even when the stakes were very high.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.