I love July 4th. Every year around this time, I romantically anticipate the massive fireworks displays, time with old friends and family, and delicious American picnic food (watermelon, corn on the cob, and burgers). This year though, a sense of underlying grief haunts the usually celebratory Independence Day. Nashville’s fireworks are cancelled due to COVID-19. All of my friends and family seem divided by the semantics of “systemic racism.” And me calling anything about July 4th good seems to offend somebody.
This July 4th, in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic murder, many Americans seem to be wrestling with our nation’s past. And our “no holds barred” style of social media grappling has left us fractured.
News organizations slander individuals falsely as they show more concern for immediacy than accuracy. Cancel culture has hit a fever pitch. And now words, phrases, and actions with positive motives can be taken completely out of context to get well-meaning people fired. On top of our media feeding frenzy, police departments are being defunded. And cities have been burned.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched Mark Wahlberg get trolled for hate crimes he committed as a teenager 30 years ago. I read news stories about statues of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln getting vandalized and torn down. And I saw just saw a 21-year-old female journalist get cancelled from her internship because celebrities like Lebron James and Pink piled onto a blatantly false social media narrative.
As mobs of people set out to topple iconic statues of imperfect men and social media trolls scramble to dig up past dirt on public personalities, a cruel new morality seems to be emerging. Needless to say, it’s sad. It’s disheartening. We’ve entered a small window of time when many people are choosing to ignore context, embrace outrage, and seek revenge instead of reconciliation.
“Good Old Days” vs. Utopian Future
In response, some would like to return to the “good old days,” when there was a sense of common decency. Others would like us to enter a brave new bias-free utopia like Seattle’s “CHAZ” or “CHOP.” Here’s the distinct problem with both of those options. The nostalgia for our golden past and the confidence in our bright future both gloss over the reality of who we are with fantasies of who we wish we could be.
Were the “good old days” the early 2000’s when the World Trade Center fell, the Patriot Act was passed, and we went to war against Afghanistan and Iraq? Were the “good old days” in 1991 when violent crime was at an all-time high? Were the “good old days” in 1973 when abortion was made law? Or when Jim Crow Laws and voter suppression were still in effect? Or when we fought in World War I, weathered the Great Depression, and then ignored the Holocaust until entering World War II?
It seems that the “good old days” were never good for everyone.
Similarly, many who want to burn down the past idolize a utopian future that never comes. In an effort to build a new world, many regimes have ignored history and multiplied the cruelty and brutality of the previous government. For example, Hitler’s government killed over 6 million Jews. The USSR government killed over 58 million people. China has killed over 73 million people. During the 2011 Arab Spring, Egypt’s authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was deposed and replaced with an even more iron-fisted ruler. And, in Seattle, within one week of forming the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone to protest police brutality, everything was covered in graffiti and people were beaten for publicly voicing opposing views.
On a very, very small scale, it’s easy for me to relate to both sides. My tendency to wish for a golden past or put my faith in a bright future is primarily rooted in my desire to escape the present reality. It’s easy for me to wish for the next career, job, relationship, or experience while simultaneously wanting to go back and re-live my life from five years ago.
All Fall Short
When I re-enter my present reality and engage honestly, I start to recognize the full context of now. Here’s the full context: I live in an imperfect world full of imperfect people, of whom I am the most imperfect.
While it’s important to confront the nation and the people we love with their sins, faults, and shortcomings, it’s also important to celebrate the good things they’ve done for us.
George Washington owned slaves, which was a horrible evil. He also freed half of his slaves in his will and helped lead the country toward less tyranny and more freedom by voluntarily walking away from the presidency. He could’ve been a lifelong elected king. Instead, as celebrated in the Hamilton musical, he chose to begin the slow process of making voters the kings who chose their servants at the ballot box.
Ulysses S. Grant owned a slave and was complicit in his wife owning slaves, which again was unspeakably evil. But he later freed his slave, fought for the emancipation of all slaves, and actively fought the KKK with federal troops during his presidency.
And Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a saint either. His views on slavery evolved from believing slavery was wrong and shouldn’t be expanded to fully moving to abolish all slavery everywhere in the United States.
When I look back on the history of the United States of America, it’s easy for me to either gloss over or magnify the sins of past leaders. It’s also easy for me to unfairly judge them outside of their historical context.
I can easily demonize them for holding sinful views and being apart of a sinful system at any point in their lives, but if I dismiss all of their accomplishments because of their faults, I actively disregard their surroundings. They were a part of a slow moving time in history where their upbringing, their limited experience, and their limited travel defined their views. They didn’t have access to cars, airplanes, or internet search engines, which provide us with free flowing information and experiences with all different types of people.
Again, I don’t want to dismiss their failures. They had many sins and shortcomings. But we all do. I know I do.
Why I Celebrate
When I celebrate July 4th this year, I’m not celebrating a past full of perfect saints. And I’m not celebrating a future capitalist or socialist utopia. I’m celebrating how imperfect people of all races have moved us closer to the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I mourn the death of George Floyd, but I also commend the many police officers who work to make their communities better places to live for all races. I’m sad that slavery existed and that racism exists still today in some places, but I’m pumped to see we live in a nation where people of all colors and ethnicities can peacefully protest in solidarity together.
No single person besides Jesus has ever been perfect. Because of that, no nation will ever be perfect until He comes again.
In the meantime, I’ll choose to follow His example. I’ll choose to celebrate and love imperfect people. That’s why I choose to celebrate and love an imperfect United States of America. Happy Independence Day!