O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. – The Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Peace.
July 4th represents a milestone in our lives as citizens of the United States of America. Not just America, which includes the countries of Canada, Central and South America, but the specific fifty (hopefully to soon become the fifty-first) states that make up our country. July 4th marked the day when the Congress approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence of the combined colonies, having declared their independence from England on July 2nd. All the signatures on the original document were not completed until August 2nd, 1776.
There were not a lot of fireworks demonstrations, parades, or even people gathering in the streets to mark the occasion. Probably most people did not get the news for days, weeks, or possibly months. Still, the country, led by delegates from the thirteen colonies, believed in the dream and boldly (perhaps not as prominently as John Hancock, but yet with great resolve) signed their name to a document that would be the foundation of the new nation.
We celebrate this holiday and remember the men who brought the idea into being. Many were men of some wealth, and some were even slaveholders. Many condemnations have been made of Jefferson’s statement of “all men are created equal,” based on the fact that women were not mentioned (or given any legal status) and that slaves were still slaves, considered far below the rank of white men. Despite proclamations to the contrary, “men” meant white men, not slaves, women, or Native Americans.
I have to consider the times during which the document was written. It was not exclusive to the new colonies, but was much of a worldwide perception. It is hard to blame the writers and signers for espousing something that represented much of the viewpoint of the world, much less the colonies, over 200 years ago. I think we have to give some leeway to those wordsmiths and their culture as we do the Bible and its ancient cultural biases.
The signers seized their freedom from a distant ruler and parliament by declaring their independence from a system that held them in contempt while profiting from the goods and services of the colonies. Freedom became independence, but the two things are not precisely equal. Freedom means that a person or person has the right to act according to his or her own beliefs, moral code, and understanding (as long as it does not infringe on anyone else’s rights). Independence gives them that ability, as well as creating a structure that benefits all under its umbrella. Christians have the right to their beliefs and practices, along with other religions within the borders of the country. They do not have the right to dictate that only Christian beliefs and practices (especially specific beliefs and practices to one denomination) are permitted.
Independence precludes the government from establishing a state-sponsored religion to which all must subscribe or face the consequences. We have the liberty to enjoy life and the pursuit of happiness – but we should not use that right to tread on, stifle, mock, or otherwise quash those of others, as long as the beliefs of others do not infringe on other individuals or groups. In short, hate groups and crimes are against the will of God and the good of humanity.
The Collect for Peace is one I look to on Independence Day because it reminds me that God gives liberty to those who trust and follow God’s path. It does not mean a Christian’s life is going to be all peaches and cream. There are times when Christians, true Christians, have to stand up and be counted. They have to stand for the teachings of Jesus, which echoed the practices of the ancient Hebrew religion about caring for the needy, the sick, the elderly, and so on. Jesus did not preach a gospel of prosperity but of giving away, sharing with one another so that no one would suffer from needing help. God gave us the independence to respond to those teachings positively or negatively. Those who followed them found that “perfect freedom” that comes from God.
The Collect also reminds us that God is with us, standing with us as we seek to rid the world of the slavery of inequality and protecting us from adversaries who would seek to destroy us and what we are trying to build. I think that’s something we need to remember in this time of fear, anger, uncertainty, cruelty, and pain. Even if the peace we find is only within ourselves through the grace of God, we can pray that prayer and reflect that grace to others who need it so badly. We have the personal freedom to go without masks, but those who follow God’s wishes will wear them to protect others from potential contamination. It is thinking of others that show true freedom.
I think that makes this prayer one that should be read, marked, and internally digested, especially on this national holiday. It could replace gathering in large groups, potentially spreading infection, and shooting off fireworks (which will save a lot of animals from becoming lost and frightened).
Happy Independence Day. Let us thank God for our freedoms and for those who felt strongly enough about them to risk all to help create a new nation.
Image: Facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, Original by Thomas Jefferson et al. Engraving and facsimile by William J. Stone (1798-1865). Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is proud to be from the small town in Virginia whose native son, Thomas Nelson Jr., called home and where he fought for our independence. He is buried in the Episcopal churchyard in that town.