“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 powerful words from the Declaration of Independence, likely familiar to nearly all Christians in the U.S., often bring up very different feelings in hearers from different demographics. For those who would have been considered “men” in the time it was written, reading these words might engender feelings of unity, pride, and inclusion. For those who would not have been considered “men” (women, but also non-white men, children, men who were impoverished, disabled, or gay—the list goes on and on), reading these words might be a different experience entirely. Knowing that the country in which you reside was founded not just on the belief that you are undeserving of basic human rights, but on the belief that God created you to be undeserving, can be incredibly painful. As the July 4th holiday approaches, followed by several national holidays in late summer and fall that focus on honoring U.S. history, it can be challenging for church leaders to plan liturgy and programming that holds these differing experiences in tension and still centers our call to preach the gospel. Here are some ideas on how to do that well:
- Be clear on the difference between the basic tenets of Christianity and how people (no matter how renowned) interpret those tenets. Many of the foundational beliefs of our country are focused around the erroneous ideas of white male supremacy and manifest destiny. These are not biblical ideals and it’s part of our gospel call to say so.
- Don’t put secular holidays at the center of your congregation’s focus, but also don’t pretend like they don’t exist. Services full of nationalistic prayers, music, and preaching are incredibly harmful. But for people who have been taught their entire lives that nationalistic traditions are how you show love to elders and veterans, suddenly erasing those traditions without explanation can likewise be harmful.
- Focus on feelings. While it is incredibly important for congregations to move on from harmful traditions, it’s also important to take time to learn about why those traditions are important to folks. Do the hymns glorifying war make veterans feel seen and honored? Does the Fourth of July parade make people feel connected to past generations? How else might you meet those needs? How do those in your congregation whose voices often aren’t prioritized feel about these days, and how might you make sure those feelings are heard as well? It’s also crucial to give time and space for processing when people learn of painful history. Because of the way that history is taught in the U.S., it’s not uncommon for churches to be the first place that people learn of some of the ugliest parts of U.S. history and contemporary practice. We must use our pastoral care skills to help them grieve and rage through these revelations (Veterans for Peace is an organization that can provide excellent help in working through these processes).
- Prioritize marginalized voices. I often remark that history books tend to tell the “victor’s” version of the story, whereas the Bible tends to tell the victim’s version. When the world outside the church is celebrating victors’ stories, the church is called to lift up the victims’ stories. If we give thanks for the governmental contributions of Presidents Washington and Lincoln on Presidents’ Day, are we also giving voice to their slaves and taking steps to address the contemporary slave trade? If we celebrate the veterans of the congregation on Veterans Day, are we praying and caring for the homeless veterans living on our local streets and honoring the roots of the day as a commitment to world peace?