Celebrating the Fourth of July as a Black American

by Erin Phillips | Jul 4, 2020 | Articles

This article focuses on celebrating the Fourth of July as a Black American. It is the second in a two-part series addressing cultural holidays and racial reconciliation. Read Part 1

Independence Day in the Age of COVID-19

A birthday is a time for celebration. I’m a big fan of celebrating your birthday every year, whether you are one year old or a hundred and one years old. It’s a day to remember the dawn of your life, give thanks to the Lord, and reflect on who and where you are. Every year I look forward to planning parties for my family, but due to the COVID-19 virus, some birthdays this spring were celebrated in different, creative ways—front porch gift drops, honk-and-wave parades, virtual Zoom parties, or other CDC-approved gatherings in recognition of someone’s birthday. We are happy to celebrate with others, even from a distance; to recall memories of the past, measure growth over the years, show appreciation, offer well wishes, and ask God’s blessing on their future.

Other celebrations, however, particularly some American holidays, are not always anticipated or jubilant.

In my last article, I shared the opportunities for learning, teaching, and mourning that are lost when we overlook Juneteenth—a commemoration of the abolishment of slavery. As the next U.S. national holiday is Independence Day on July 4, I want to continue my discussion on how we, as believers, can be thoughtful as we celebrate this holiday, especially when it shines a light on details of our past some mourn and others would rather forget.

A Hallowed Holiday

To begin, pandemic or not, I expect most will celebrate our nation’s birthday in some form. Notwithstanding the recommended safety precautions amid the outbreak, I am certain that many Americans will adopt a “celebrate or bust ” attitude and proceed as usual. The holiday is a time of pride for the country.

Like today, in 1776, during the midst of a health epidemic (smallpox), frustration and resentment, that had been mounting over the years in response to inequitable and intolerable British colonial rule, was met with protest and resistance. The Sons of Liberty organized the colonies in a unanimous demand for the sacred freedoms of life and liberty granted as a birthright. The ensuing conflict was a refusal to yield such and gave rise to The United States of America. Every fourth day of July, Americans celebrate the pursuit of this glorious cause.

But why, if this holiday is not patterned for us in the Bible, should we celebrate it? Does God call for us to esteem cultural holidays as religious or command us to observe them? Certainly not. I don’t conflate true religion with political platforms and patriotism. However, though our utmost allegiance is to Almighty God, we are believers commissioned to be ambassadors for Christ to our fellow countrymen.

For that reason, I think observing American holidays and recounting their place in history, can broaden the understanding of our shared story as a nation, however complicated it may be. It can also create space for us to jointly reflect on the nation’s past sins, look at our own hearts “to test and examine our ways” and correct course, for posterity’s sake, and the gospel’s sake (Lam. 3:31-40).

This summer, I see a world that is watching and waiting to see how the Church will respond to a cultural crisis. It wants to know how we will respond to the glaring proof of racial disparity and injustice in our nation. We can start by considering how a revered holiday for some is objectionable to others; why the Fourth of July as a Black American is challenging.

A Hollow Holiday: Why?

Independence Day creates discord in my heart. While I am impassioned about birthdays and most holiday celebrations, the Fourth of July has become a hollow ritual of summer rather than a revelry of national loyalty and heroism. At best, it evokes indifference (a day off to enjoy BBQ and fireworks). At worst, the Fourth of July as a Black American incites indignation as I exercise politeness to not disturb the merriment of others.

Cringing, I have witnessed standing ovations at the recitation of the Declaration of Independence, because while colonists were decrying Britain’s tyranny, tens of thousands of African slaves were being sold and traded in the Americas. Just like the signers of the declaration, slaves were suffering their own “long train of abuses…under absolute Despotism.” Still, on either side of revolutionary battles, Blacks fought— even slaves in place of their masters. White Americans were fighting to protect their liberty, the enslaved were fighting to attain it.

Author, Gary Nash, in The Unknown American Revolution seeks to provide an “antidote for the historical amnesia” of our country’s origins. As the fledgling states claimed their victory, African Americans were counted as property, three-fifths of a person as bonds for congressional power. The unalienable rights due to “others” (slaves, Native Americans, women) were denied in action and by law.

I’ve taken my children to the U.S. National Archives, where the Declaration of Independence is encased—one of the three charters instrumental to the founding and philosophy of our country. Massive murals in the rotunda depict the nation’s God-fearing forefathers, slaveholders themselves, adopting America’s foundational principles—ignoring the casualties that resulted from their seizure of occupied territory and the captives that generated its wealth.  Sadly, the Emancipation Proclamation is not on display in that hall.

Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as host of the PBS video series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross tracks the progress slaves and their descendants have made toward achieving the same freedom today that the colonists attained almost 250 years ago. In it, we see how the leaders of a republic struggling for independence did not formally acknowledge or attempt to erase the stain of slavery.

A Heartbreaking Holiday

So, as a Christ-follower who is also a Black woman and citizen of America, the idea of pausing for an exuberant, patriotic observance—especially right now, when unjust treatment and brutality are still being visited upon black and brown bodies, just as during its founding—is not only exasperating but heart-rending. The Fourth of July as a Black American breaks my heart. I stand on the watchtower waiting and echo the prophet, Habakkuk’s complaint:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,

but you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, “Violence!”

but you do not save?

 

Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?

Destruction and violence are before me;

there is strife, and conflict abounds.

 

Therefore the law is paralyzed,

and justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous,

so that justice is perverted (Hab. 1:2-4 NIV).

Like Habakkuk, I am grieved over the evil, human suffering, and the injustice running rampant in our nation; grieved by the stubborn refusal to heed warnings and calls to repentance; grieved over the silence and indifference of God’s people. I see how slavery and racial division—upon which American social institutions (government, economic, education, health) are based—have huge implications for African Americans, other minorities, and American society as a whole. I see how legitimate petitions and lawful protests have been answered with repeated injuries like arrest, lynching, assassination, intimidation, and repudiation.

When viewed through the eyes of those not in positions of power and privilege, the enshrined American Revolution, and the yearly celebration of the country it birthed, loses its spark. The wealth accumulated from the theft of land and the sin of exploitation of free labor has not been confessed nor atoned. On July 5, 1852, abolitionist, Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” in which he famously told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

A Holiday to Heed

When the lens narrows on the Church, one must consider that The American Revolution was preceded by another great movement among the British colonies. The First Great Awakening (the 1730s and 1740s) was a period in our history when believers revived the pursuit of a personal relationship with God and weighed the role of religion in society. This emphasis on an individual approach preached by Jonathan Edwards and the colonies and moved them toward liberalism.

Unfortunately, the failure to renounce slavery was not in agreement with the call to confess sin and seek God’s grace and forgiveness. Economics and rationalism, not God’s commands, led the way throughout that era and through the Second Great Awakening in the years following the Revolutionary War (1800). Thus, it seems the Church was, in part, responsible for tolerating injustice even as America championed for independence.

In a 1941 letter penned to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mrs. Henry Weddington condemned the racist treatment toward her husband and challenged the self-proclaimed Christian president,

“This is suppose[d] to be a free country regardless of color, creed or race, but still we are slaves…Won’t you help us? …If you are a real Christian you [cannot] stand by and let these conditions exist.”

At the time, The Unites States’ aid in the noble fight against fascism in Europe contradicted its own discrimination and cruel treatment of racial minorities. The following year, when Independence Day found American soldiers “along thousands of miles of battle lines”, FDR referred to them as free men “fighting desperately—and dying— to preserve the liberties and decencies of modern civilizations.”

Unable to remain neutral in World War II, the president had cast the country’s involvement as a fight for “essential human freedoms.” He used the holiday to bolster commitment to the war effort even while continuing to limit freedoms to minorities, the equality and justice on which the country was established. 

Hence, Christian Fourth of July observations that don’t acknowledge the hypocrisy in declaring that all men were created equal by God while not honoring all people as image-bearers, harm our gospel witness. So, though the Fourth of July as a Black American does not feel like a holiday meant for me and my family to celebrate, I do. As a believer in this country, I make its observance a time for reflection and discussion with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hope for the Holiday

Over the past couple of years, I have contended with the starkly contrasting comments I hear around me as the cries for justice, screams of retaliation, pious remarks, and haughty rebuttals near a fever pitch in our country.

So, as church bells ring “liberty and justice for all” and festivities celebrating the pledge to a republic, which is, as added in 1954 “under God,” I look at God’s answers to Habakkuk and press into conversations with other believers to ask: Are you grieved over the sins of our nation, past and present? Do your views of justice stem from yourself or God’s word? Is your conduct in step with the gospel? What are you teaching your children about our country’s past and church history? What does how you celebrate this holiday, say about what and who you value?

How will the Church respond to these questions? How will it engage in the dialogue about the hard truths of our American history? On the Fourth of July as a Black American (and all year long, for that matter), I long to hear the Church, in unison, add striking, remorseful notes that float above the media clamor and help move much-needed conversations about racism, repentance, reparations, and reconciliation forward with the hope of the gospel.

What if, unlike the founding fathers, the people of God united to birth an American culture that honors God in both word (law) and deed (action)?

Holding Fast to God

After his Q&A with God, Habakkuk is found still waiting, but the vision of the justice God promised gives him hope. He concludes that even in the face of the worst circumstances and consequences, God could be trusted and is worthy of praise (3:18). I cling to that truth as well. And though God’s providence in this present age can be painful and bewildering, I seek to righteously live by faith before a sin-laden, grief-stricken nation.

I hope Independence Day celebrations of the people of God recognize the woes of a land founded with injustice (2:12), demonstrate that God is still on the throne as the Lord of history and ruler of the nations (3:12), and petition him to mercifully revive his awesome deeds in our day (3:2).