I woke up this morning to discover that the gun violence in Chicago was severe enough over the holiday weekend to make the national news. Later in the day my good friend and ministry partner Ronnie Matthew Harris sent me this piece he wrote yesterday. His is an important voice to hear in these days of violence and racial conflict. Ronnie is a missional entrepreneur and community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.
On July 5, 1852, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas delivered a dynamic speech entitled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” I am convinced that it is one of the most brilliant examples of oratory ever delivered, especially given the extent to which it unfolds against one of the most volatile sociopolitical backdrops in our nation’s history.
Douglas, quite aware of the historical context, uses his opening remarks to ask his audience to forgive his obstinate forthrightness. But the time had finally come for him to speak truth to power, to both friend and foe. Never have I felt so akin to my lifelong hero!
It is July 5, 2015. And with the sounds of what I pray are just fireworks being set ablaze in the distance, I write this post. Like Douglas, I am left engaging this great national occasion, the Fourth of July, conflicted by both resolve and trepidation. On the one hand, I am confident of the pure motives from which I feel called to write. On the other hand, some will not like what I have to say.
But this year, like no other in my lifetime, I am grieved by the unchecked injustices in our American society. The lives of Black men and women are rapidly receding to what they were during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. Local terrorist walk into Black churches to kill innocent people. Countless other cowards hide behind anonymity, burning Black churches to the ground. Worst of all is the intra-racial strife that precipitates Black on Black crime.
This brings me to my need to write this post: I am sad.
The joyfulness of the season and what it means to be free escapes me this year. Why? Because death is all around me. You see, just a few hours ago I witnessed more news of innocent lives ruined by gunfire. Yet a nation that goes abroad—at all costs—to bring down terrorists contends that there is nothing we can do here at home.
I was in Scotland recently and several of my friends and colleagues were astonished by our lack of resolve to do something about gun laws in America. It’s true that they themselves are citizens of a country afflicted by its own set of quarrels over independence. They have wrestled for months over the trustworthiness of the phrase “better together.” Gun laws, however, are a subject upon which they mostly agree. A mentor-friend of mine, Darnell Starks said it best: “Perhaps as a spotlight is shone on these atrocities [referring to the aforementioned acts of injustice], America will find the collective will to change and take a giant step toward (in the words of President Obama) ‘bridging the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our times.’” Only time will tell.
I will never forget standing amidst the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Scotland. I became cognizant of a very significant point which Douglas himself underscores: America is but a young lad. As Douglas articulates so eloquently:
There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny?
Unfortunately, here we are one hundred and sixty-three years later still struggling toward maturity as a nation. Here we are still longing for the day in which all of our citizens are afforded an equal as well as equitable pursuit of a free and prosperous life.
The dictionary defines equality as, “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.” Douglas’ speech is aimed at pointing out the extent to which there existed no equality among the various groups in our young nation at the time. He boldly asserts:
What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? … The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Less bound, of course, by the same sense of inequality and injustice that existed when Douglas spoke, I am just as deflated by this nation’s inability to “extend the great principles of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence” to communities struggling to survive in environments reminiscent of the Wild West.
Many of our communities in America have conditions that undermine the dignity of the human person, prohibiting one’s capacity to lead a more free and prosperous life. Douglas had been privy to the extent to which the same was the case in his day and therefore asked, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”
[It] reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
If equality is about sameness, then equity is about the basis upon which such sameness is established. Some will undoubtedly say, “But you have the right to move.” And it’s true, I do. But I also have a sense of call to advocate for justice; to lobby the lawful; to care for orphans and widows; and to love without end.
As a young man in the Army, standing on the border between East and West Germany in the late 1980s—sometimes in thirty-below-zero weather—I kept guard and proudly served my country. I will never forget what kept me standing on that wall: protecting the vulnerable back home and the hope of liberating the bound abroad.
I long for the day when I can celebrate the Fourth of July knowing that the United States has done the same for its communities here at home.