Last week we celebrated our independence. Helen, Daniel and I were in Washington DC visiting Joseph who has an internship there. We visited the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Museum of the Bible and drove to visit Gettysburg. Each of these sites have strong connections to Independence Day.
Lesson One: The Paradox of Liberty
A prominent display in the Museum of African American History is titled ‘The Paradox of Liberty’. Emblazoned on the wall are words found in the Declaration of Independence.
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 words are etched not only on the granite wall but in the hearts of Americans. The tragedy is that behind Jefferson are piled more than 600 bricks with the names of slaves he owned. The document which declared our independence established a powerful foundation. But the foundation was cracked. The museum recognizes both truths.
Lesson Two: What to the Slave is the 4th of July?
On July 4, 1852 Frederick Douglas delivered a provocative message entitled, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” Douglas is featured in the Museum of African American History and the Museum of the Bible. He challenged his listeners to embrace the Declaration of Independence and the profound truth that ALL men are created equal by freeing slaves.
The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history – the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny. Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance…. The principles contained in [the Declaration of Independence] are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.
But he said,
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 4th of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Lesson Three: Gettysburg
Eleven years later the nation would mourn because of the refusal to free slaves. The battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863. That 4th of July more than 23,000 dead littered the fields. The rebels were forced to retreat changing the tide of the war. President Abraham Lincoln visited the graves of fallen Union soldiers in November. There he delivered the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln capsulized his firm belief in a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He led the north in the moral struggle for the abolition of slavery. His firm belief would frame the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution. Lincoln was determined to extend the right to vote to freed slaves. He created plans to provide support for the freed slaves but his assassination changed the course of history.
100 years after Lincoln delivered his famous address on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous address in the shadow of Lincoln’s memorial. Dr. King had a dream that one day our promise of liberty and justice would be realized for all. One day we would judge people not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.
Museum of the Bible
Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. Lincoln was a man of faith. Both drew from the Bible as recounted in the Museum of the Bible. The Museum also has a wonderful exhibit of the Slave Bible. This Bible was created by Christians who removed 90% of its contents in order to justify slavery.
The unifying theme for me in our visits was the danger of turning a deaf ear to liberty’s call. The effects of slavery live on. I recommend watching Bryan Stevenson’s new documentary, True Justice, to see how the roots of slavery have festered in our courts and legal systems into today. Each generation must take up the cause to advance justice.
The difference Christians can make
My other take away was the role of the church and Christians. Many have been complacent or complicit in advancing injustice. At the same time, all the museums and sites showed the rich history of the African American church which pulled people together. The church served as a community for not just the soul but for social change. The Black church understands the gospel and justice are inseparable. The dignity denied an unarmed man anywhere is an assault on people everywhere.
What if the white church believed the same? If we saw the dignity denied a man not paid for work, a girl sold into trafficking, a mom struggling against a complex legal system, or millions of neighbors unable to access legal information and counsel?
What if we stood in the gap? If we actually cared about our neighborhood and dared to engage them with the gospel and practical justice needs? You can. Join a growing movement of churches, individuals and attorneys establishing gospel justice centers. We just added site 91!