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Fourth of July festivities, where I live, have already begun. The shocking and randomly timed booms of consumer fireworks remind me that I’m not in New York anymore. True, it’s been a long time since I lived there, but I spent the first twenty-plus years of my life in that state. Bottle rockets were the exciting consumer fireworks, purchased only by crossing the state line into Pennsylvania.
Despite my annoyance with Michigan state policy, I enjoy a good fireworks show, especially one over water. So, if my husband and I dare wake our daughter only hours after she’s gone to bed, I might find myself commemorating this year’s holiday in the same way that I’ve done for most of my life.
Yet when I think about this holiday’s festivities, dubbed Celebration Freedom in Holland, MI, my mood is dampened, to say the least. How can one celebrate freedom with integrity in this day and hour?
It’s been two weeks since the mass murder of nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church—a historic black church with a long legacy of civil rights involvement. Since this recent act of racial terror, seven churches (six of which are predominantly black) have burned in the South. Two women pastors of AME congregations in Clarendon County, SC have received threatening letters denouncing their leadership.
Four fires have been designated as arson so far. Regardless of the investigative findings, all of these fires are traumatic, connected to a long history of attacks on African American churches, institutions supporting black liberation and empowerment in light of God’s history of deliverance. One only has to think of the original destruction of Mother Emanuel, burned to the ground in 1822 because of its association with Denmark Vesey, a free black man who planned a slave revolt. Or the KKK’s 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, which killed four young girls and injured twenty-two others. Or the burning of over thirty black churches in the United States in the mid-1990s.
So when I think about celebrating freedom this weekend, I am chastened by its inherent duplicity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” These beautifully penned and powerfully articulated words from the Declaration of Independence preach; they promise; and they also highlight an unmistakably egregious performative contradiction at the heart of our national existence. Not all were (are) free. Not all were (are) treated with dignity. Not all had (have) equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Just think of the millions of Native Americans whose lives were snuffed out and the millions of Africans who were torn from their homelands and brutally enslaved in another. And let’s not forget the subjugation of women.
When freedom and prosperity for some are purchased through the enslavement, torture, murder, and ongoing dominance of others, then there is no real freedom for anyone. There is privilege and benefit, to be sure. But not true freedom. No one is truly free in a racist society. Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism, articulates well the cost of racism to white people:
- distorted perspective on history
- loss of contributions of people of color to our neighborhoods, schools, relationships
- loss of interpersonal relationships because of the strain of racism
- skewed assessment of danger and safety and ineffective responses to actual violence
- damaged moral integrity
So if I make it to this Saturday’s fireworks, it won’t be in the same spirit as other years, because I’ll be remembering these nine lives lost:
- Reverend Clementa Pinckney
- Cynthia Hurd
- Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
- Tywanza Sanders
- Ethel Lance
- Susie Jackson
- Depayne Middleton Doctor
- Reverend Daniel Simmons
- Myra Thompson
And these two women pastors:
- Reverend Mary Rhodes
- Reverend Valarie Bartley
And these seven churches:
- Collegeville Seventh Day Adventist Church, Knoxville, TN
- God’s Power Church of Christ, Macon, GA
- Briar Creek Road Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC
- Fruitland Presbyterian Church, Humbolt, TN
- Glover Grove Baptist Church, Warrenville, SC
- Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church, Tallahassee, FL
- Mount Zion African American Episcopal Church, Greeleyville, SC
And I’ll be praying for the healing of our land, which in the words of Isaiah come only when we participate in the “whole cloth dismantling of unjust relationships:”
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:6-12)