Every year, my birthday falls 10 days before the celebration of the United States of America on Independence Day, July 4. I am a proud citizen of The United States, this country into which I was born. I celebrate the many accomplishments of our nation, celebrate the way it has been a place of hope and opportunity for many, celebrate the principles enshrined in its founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and key historic speeches and texts such as The Gettysburg Address; Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman;” Chief Joseph’s 1877 speech; Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty; Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land is Your Land;” Brown v. Board of Education; and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream,” and his “Letter From a Birmingham City Jail.”
Respect and appreciation for one’s country is encouraged in texts from our scriptures. In Romans 13, Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, honor to whom honor is due” (v. 1 and 7). The author of I Peter echoes this sentiment: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution” (2:13).
The Bible also acknowledges that governing authority can go awry, and the principles of a nation be subverted by its actions. The words of the prophets ring out against the powerful “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (Amos 4:1), encouraging them change, so as to “hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15). Revelation 17-18 paints a picture of power misused and abused, the Roman imperial government cryptically symbolized as “Babylon the great…a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit.”
Even as we celebrate the United States, celebrate our accomplishments, extol our highest principles, we need to acknowledge our failings. We need to see where we have fallen short of our highest ideals. In a phrase I heard David Brooks use, we need to complexify our understanding of history. One hundred years ago this year, an entire Black district in Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned to the ground and hundreds of people were killed. For years, few people talked about this history, particularly in Oklahoma. Reading Isabel Wilkerson’s recent book “Caste,” one’s heart breaks to hear the stories of exclusion and oppression, and to hear that Nazi Germany formulated some of its anti-Jewish race laws based on racial segregation laws in the United States.
Jemar Tisby, in his new book “How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice,” offers a model for working against racism: awareness, relationships, and commitment. Awareness includes a deep awareness of our complex history and its continuing ripple effects. This is discipleship work. This is soul work. That we have added Juneteenth to our national holidays is a step toward deepening our awareness of our complicated history.
Celebrations of significant days offer opportunities for reflection. In addition to seeing both the bright and shining in our history together with the difficult and painful, we might ask how we can continue to help our country live into its highest ideals. Allow me to offer that now may be a good time to consider the overall health of our democracy. This, too, is work with a spiritual dimension.
“If a democracy’s functioning well has some kind of theological importance to it, then Christians have theological reasons for wanting to assure that it does function well.” I penned those words in the concluding section of my doctoral dissertation 27 years ago, a work in which I offered a moral vision of democracy rooted in Christian theology. One of the important elements of the vision of democracy I offered was that it was participatory—that is, people had the right and ability to participate in democratic decision making. In the United States, the most common form of political participation is voting.
How healthy is our democracy when we think about voting rights? We hear often about concern for the security of the ballot. This is a valid concern. I also hear concerns about how laws formulated in the name of ballot security can function to exclude persons from political participation. Allow me to offer a couple of thoughts.
Our current debate about voting rights needs to be viewed against our complex history. As we celebrate our history of free and fair elections, we also need to acknowledge our history of voter suppression and exclusion, often based on racialized thinking. Listening to communities of color, I hear their concerns over some of the proposals being made or enacted into law across the country. As we consider specific proposals for voting law changes, we need to ask some basic questions about any proposal.
Let’s begin by assuming that the goal is a democracy in which people may broadly participate and voting is free, fair, and secure. In any proposal affecting voting, how fairly will standards be applied? If a state will require identification when persons go to vote, how accessible are acceptable forms of identification? If some forms of ID are accepted and others are not, what are the reasons for that difference and what are the practical impacts? Asking about the impact of any change is important.
Because the Council of Bishops has met during November elections, I have needed to vote by absentee ballot. I am not terribly worried about some new requirements. I am able-bodied. I can carve time out of my workday to go to my city office to bring in a ballot. I have a driver’s license. What about those not very mobile, who don’t drive, or who work shifts that make in-person presentation of ballots a challenge? Ask such questions. Ask, as well, if we may be enhancing the partisanship of the process in a polarizing time. I know election volunteers. They work long hours on election day and are committed to doing their work fairly. How might their work change if laws change to encourage partisan poll watchers to congregate at voting sites? How might this impact our ability to secure volunteers at all? In offering such questions for reflection, I am not intending to comment on any particular piece of legislation, but rather asking that we use our best moral thinking when considering how we might keep our democracy healthy and participatory.
Another area for our consideration when thinking about the health and well-being of our country and our democracy is law enforcement. Most of us have been asking ourselves during this past year how we might provide for the safety and protection of people while also holding accountable persons who misuse law enforcement power. At times, the debate has been intense and acrimonious. We continue to be deeply affected by the killing of George Floyd over a year ago, and subsequent killings of persons of color by law enforcement—persons like Daunte Wright. We continue to be affected by the deaths of law enforcement officers in the line of duty. We continue to be concerned about the rise of violent crime in a number of places. A healthy society provides a significant measure of safety for its members. Law enforcement reform and public safety enhancement are both parts of that. I am not offering a simple solution here, but want to share with you one national effort to bring communities and law enforcement together to begin deeper conversations and promote relational reform.
A year ago, a social change organization called Movement Forward approached the Department of Justice with the idea of promoting relationships between law enforcement persons and their communities through communities of faith. A couple of weeks ago, I was on a Zoom call with a remarkably diverse group of religious leaders to hear more about their work, and their hopes for their Faith and Blue Weekend initiative (Oct. 8-11). The initiative encourages communities of faith to work with their broader communities and law enforcement to host an event or conversation. I believe in the importance of bringing people into conversation and building bridges when possible. I wanted to call this to your attention for whatever action you may wish to take.
The Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes in his memorable poem “Let America Be America Again” offers a glimpse of a country to be celebrated and a history to be complexified:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where neither kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)…
O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free…
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!
I celebrate this country and commit to working for its betterment, acknowledging the painful parts of our history and their lasting scars. I want America to be America for all, not only as a citizen of this country, but as a citizen of another realm, a heavenly city, whose principles and values are congruent with the best of our nation’s values—justice, community, freedom, equality. Let America be America again, not for the sake of America only, but for the sake of the work of God in the world—justice, peace, reconciliation, community, freedom, and love.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church