Today is the 242nd commemoration of the ratification of the United States Declaration of Indepedence, which took place on July 4th, 1776. Had it been left up to John Adams, however, a signatory of the Declaration, an agitator for independence and, subsequently, our first vice president and 2nd president under the U.S. Constitution, we would have had a three-day weekend this week.
Adams declared in a letter to his wife, Abigail, that July 2nd, the day the 2nd Continental Congress passed a resolution sponsored by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia declaring the establishment of "these United Colonies" as "free and independent States", would be the day Americans would celebrate in the years to come:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
While his date may have been off by a couple of days, his belief that this day would be celebrated from that point forward has been validated. Of course, we find ourselves in yet another challenging moment in our nation's history and, for many, it's hard to celebrate. Adams recognized that the cost of obtaining and maintaining our way of life would be high, and there would be times when it didn't seem like this experiment was going to succeed:
You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.
Yet Adams and all those who fought for liberty throughout our history - from the Founders to the abolitionists, from the suffragettes to the civil rights marchers, and all who pursue liberty today, however they perceive it - were and are optimistic that this idea called the United States of America could and would prevail:
Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.
We are not a people at peace these days, but if we can "see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory", we can persevere. To that end, I would encourage you to expand your horizon, open your eyes, ears, mind and heart, and take in not just the things that reside in your narrow field of vision but the whole context of the nation in which the Lord has placed you. There is so much more goodness and so much more freedom in our land than our constricted view allows us to see.
The apostle Paul implored the church at Philippi to set their thoughts on the good, true and beautiful, and assured them that if they did so, peace in spite of their circumstances was sure to follow:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things (Philippians 4:8).
Some have expressed the sentiment that this doesn't feel like America anymore, as if you're in a foreign land, but the Lord implores us to be a lighthouse in whatever land we happen to live, even if we feel like we're in exile:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
Those of us who follow Christ will always be exiles no matter where we live, for this is not our home. Nevertheless, no one on the planet is where they are without reason or purpose. Acts 17:26 says, "From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands." We are where we are, at this time in history, because we were marked to be here. Flourish in the land where the Lord has placed you. Pray for prosperity for everyone.
Most of all, never surrender your agency. There is much in this life that we cannot control, but we are so focused on the things outside of our influence that we forget how much agency we actually possess. Danielle Allen, a noted scholar at Harvard and one of the nation's foremost experts on the Declaration of Independence, gave a stirring commencement address recently at Pomona College in which she essentially said the blueprint for change is already spelled out in our founding document, and all we need do is take hold of it:
It’s not just about individual rights—about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—it moves from those rights to the notion that government is something that we build together to secure our safety and happiness.
Were you listening closely?
We have two jobs: laying the foundation on principle—clarify your values, know what you stand for; and organize the power of government to secure those rights, to effect of safety and happiness. The best we can do is figure out what is most likely to effect our safety and happiness. We make probabilistic judgments. We make mistakes! We have to enter into the business of democratic agency with humility.
And this job of laying the foundation of principle and connecting it to how we organize the powers of government entails two important things.That foundation of principle, what does it amount to?
The sentence gives us some ideas. It says we have these rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Among which! It’s examples, people!
It’s not a complete list! The job of thinking is not done.
It is your job. All right?
Clarify your values. Maybe you care about sustainability. Maybe you care about gender equality. Maybe you care about free markets and capitalism.
But connect them to the basic question of what is good for our community together. A shared story. And then, don’t forget: Activism is valuable, no question about it, but our job at the end of the day is to build institutions that secure our shared rights. That means understanding the user manual. All right? The institutions. And yes, we can alter them. They’re not given in perpetuity. Originalism is about understanding democratic empowerment, which is about recognizing that democratic citizens build and change their world.
You lay the foundation on principle—and that requires talking to each other and everybody else—and figure out how to organize the powers of government. Understand the user manual well enough to use it and modify it.
So what's the takeaway for July 4, 2018?
Focus on the good, true and beautiful. Flourish in your own life, the lives of your family members and your community, and constantly pray for the nation. Never surrender your agency. Before long, the "rays of Ravishing Light and Glory" will come into view.
I hope you have a raucous revelry this Independence Day - and a safe one! Peace be with you.