Somewhere around this time of the year, on a hot summer day like those we’ve enjoyed this past week, on a Sunday in July, the pastor of our church, the Rev. Joseph Swain, stood up, and read the Declaration of Independence from the pulpit; that was 243 Julys ago, and the document was hot off the press. All of the ministers of all of the churches in Massachusetts were directed by the General Court of the Legislature to read the Declaration to their congregations.
There was no such thing as separation of church and state. That didn’t happen in Massachusetts until 1833. Swain read it from the same pulpit where church members later hid the gunpowder during the war. Of course, just like today there were different political points of view; some thought it was heresy to break away from the Motherland. We often look back at historical events with lenses tinted by time and culture. Last week buildings were draped in red, white and blue, and the speeches and parades made it seem like everyone must have supported the Declaration that was read that Sunday in July.
We might wonder why we have such division and discord today, but a closer look without those red-white-and-blue-tinted classes can reveal a much more realistic and conflicted situation. In my hometown of Rockport, a historical group read the text of the Declaration, which includes a glaring reference to “Indian savages” and the role of the British in inciting violence among the only true Americans. Words like that would not have raised an eyebrow 243 years ago, but they sure do now.
And then there is the shameful legacy of our nation. Last week on July 3, this paper published a column by David Stowe referencing the speech by Frederick Douglass titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglas gave that speech on July 5,1852, less than a century after that document declared that all men are “created equal” and endowed with “the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It was about that time that some people of conscience were beginning to question why such rights only applied to men — white men.
It wasn’t long thereafter that the noble words of the Declaration were reframed in a pledge that every American was expected to recite and to follow as one would a religious creed. The Pledge of Allegiance was penned in 1892 by Rev. Francis Bellamy – yes, an ordained minister. It was President Eisenhower who had Congress add the “under God” phrase in response to the Red Scare in 1954. It’s ironic and perplexing that there has been more controversy over the words “one nation under God” than the reality that neither liberty nor justice have been available to all. Every group that has been excluded has had to fight its own war of independence to be able to enjoy the liberty and justice promised not only in that pledge and the Declaration of Independence but also our Constitution.
Over the centuries many have considered our country a “Christian Nation,” and if not specifically “Christian,” a “nation under God.” Anthems like “America, the Beautiful,” sing of “shedding God’s grace on thee”. But sadly, it has been a selective shedding of grace.
The declaration we read from the pulpit this past Sunday was from the 66th Chapter of Isaiah; it is the closing chapter of perhaps the greatest of the Hebrew Prophets. Isaiah concludes with a vision of the perfect government, a theocracy, the New Jerusalem, the City of God. The image is not one of power. It is not the equivalent of tanks rolling down public streets or warplanes flying overhead or armies marching in formation. It is the image of a mother nursing her young with “consoling breasts.” Isaiah also describes wealth flowing from the City of God; not the obscene wealth of extravagant homes, gaudy yachts and NBA teams, but once again the richness of a nursing mother with a babe on her arm or a child bouncing on her knees (Isaiah 66:12).
So where is the comfort in our Jerusalem? Where is the liberty and justice that is promised for all? There is a Lady standing in New York Harbor, and she is the image of the mother Isaiah so aptly described saying: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
In a nation that is truly under God children would be nursing at their mothers’ breasts, not snatched away and locked up. That’s not Isaiah’s vision, that’s not God’s way, and it’s not the American way. If we truly want to make America great; if we really want liberty and justice for all, then we must pursue a different path. It’s not beating our chest at how great we are, but rather offering a consoling breast that ultimately brings greatness to any nation.
The Rev. Michael J. Duda is a resident of Rockport and pastor of First Church in Wenham. The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.