Most historians agree that the seeds of revolution which ultimately sprouted and bloomed into U.S. independence were sown at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts during a midnight raid on December 16, 1773. Today we know this uprising as the “Boston Tea Party.” This political protest—which turned violent—emerged in response to the British Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773. This bill crafted by the British government was an attempt to save the faltering British East India Company by greatly reducing its tea tax. The reduction essentially offered the company a monopoly on the American tea trade.
American colonists found this piece of legislation unacceptable. They were outraged because Britain was imposing “taxation without representation,” taxing the colonists without having elected representatives who backed their bill. This protest devolved into a riot, the colonist destroyed British property, and 342 chests of tea (imported by the British East India Company) were dumped into the harbor.
When the initial clashes of the Revolutionary War officially broke out in April 1775, few colonists proclaimed complete independence from Great Britain as their goal. Those who did were considered radicals. However, as the war intensified hostility towards Britain grew, revolutionary sentiments swelled, and freedom manifestos were transcribed and distributed in bestselling pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” Colonial constituents began to question anew why they should remain under British rule.
In the midst of the war, the Continental Congress voted to become an independent nation. On July 4th, delegates from all 13 colonies approved and signed the Declaration of Independence. From 1776 to the present day, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American freedom.
Nowadays our nation celebrates this freedom with cookouts, parades, and fireworks. What commonly gets lost amid these festivities though, is that our independence––our freedom––has not meant the same for all. Fredrick Douglass articulated this truth eloquently in his 1852 keynote speech entitled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In this legendary speech given more than a decade before the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass exposed the division of freedom being celebrated: “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 light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine.”
There is awakening to the reality that our nation “under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” does not mean the same for all. This holiday offers us a unique opportunity to consider anew what true freedom is, and the responsibility we have to steward that freedom well.
As the Church, this opportunity implores us to confess, lament, and repent. In doing so, we are compelled to honor the service of all U.S. veterans who have fought for our nation’s liberty and justice. Let us be intentional about remembering and honoring the service of oppressed people who have borne a unique form of patriotism by faithfully fighting for our nation, even when the U.S. has failed to adequately fight for them. Indigenous soldiers—despite our nation’s genocidal wars, broken treaties, and hostile treatment—continue to serve in the armed forces at a higher rate than any other demographic. Japanese American soldiers––despite unjust internment during World War II––continued to fight for the U.S. military during WWII, and continue to serve today. African Americans—amid being enslaved and subjected to Jim Crow, and despite being denied access to the benefits of the GI Bill upon returning from war—have fought in every war our nation has engaged in. Latinx veterans––some of whom have fought only to be deported, commonly for trivial infractions––continue to faithfully fight for our country. As Douglass declared in his speech about the fourth of July, “They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
Sweet Honey and the Rock prophetically declared through song over a decade ago, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes!” And, while this is true for all Americans, it is particularly true for the Church. In this pivotal moment, let us recast a vision of freedom that is rooted in Isaiah 58––a freedom that seeks the peace and prosperity of our cities, moves towards the reconciliation of all things (including broken systems and structures), and creates space for shalom, racial righteousness, and beloved community.