An Uneasy Holiday
Updated: Aug 2
July 4th has come and gone, and I’m still thinking about our country. This year the holiday was more reflective than festive for me.
I actually read the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. I’m troubled by the conflict between the ideals expressed and the reality of these ideals being held for the benefit of some at the expense of others. I’m not the first to reflect on the contradictions inherent to the document. Frederick Douglas’ 1852 speech, “What to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?,” laid bare the limited intent of the declaration’s statement, “ 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.” This statement also clearly didn’t include Native American men, who are described in the document as “the merciless Indian Savages.” Today, July 4th remains a complex day for many Native Americans. As for women, they aren’t even mentioned in the declaration. And the land? Well, the land (and the wealth generated from it) was the reason war was worth the risk for the people declaring independence.
You may be thinking, “the specific words of the Declaration of Independence are old; the country has changed since then. The idea is what’s important now.” The country has changed, and it hasn’t. The constitution codified the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. To this day, the constitution with its amendments is the ultimate authority of rights granted or not in the US. Amendments extended some rights to some people, but not all rights to everyone, and there is no mention of the environment on which we all rely upon for well-being. However, guns are named, which is why people have a right to own guns but no rights to safe drinking water, clean air to breathe, or a climate suitable for growing food.
The constitution was innovative for its time. It established the first modern day democracy. George Washington referred to it as the “great experiment.” By definition, experiments require creating a hypothesis, testing it, then revising the hypothesis based on the results of the experiment. For being an experiment, our constitution is incredibly difficult to revise after it’s been tested. The charitable side of me says this difficulty provides stability. The cynical side of me says this difficulty is intended to protect the wealth and power of those who wrote the constitution.
Countries that adopted constitutions after the US incorporated lessons learned from our “experiment.” Women have constitutional rights in 85% of the countries that are members of the United Nations. Similarly, more than three quarters of the world’s constitutions specifically address environmental rights and/or responsibilities.
Except for the right to vote, the US constitution grants no rights to women in plain words, nor does it mention the environment. Any rights women enjoy are only due to methods of interpreting the constitution. An argument can be made that the lives of women and environmental protection are better in the US than in some of the other countries, but that’s true only because of US laws and constitutional interpretations, which are subject to change. Only rights explicitly stated in the constitution are guaranteed in the US, and even those are frequently challenged. All other rights are open to the full range of legal interpretations and subject to the interests of the ruling party. Therefore, environmental protections, women’s rights, rights for the LGBTQ+ community, Native Nations’ sovereignty, rights for people who are not citizens, and a host of other rights go back and forth as laws and court rulings change.
One thing surprised me when I read the Declaration of Independence. Half of the document is a list of “injuries and usurpations” (i.e., of rights) imposed on the colonies by the monarchy. A lot of attention is given to the grand opening statement of the declaration, but at its heart, the declaration says:
The system hasn’t treated us justly.
We tried to work within the system to no effect, because the system was built for those who already rule.
Therefore, we revolt against the system.
I see the irony of the constitution’s role reversal. The ones for whom the constitution was written are now in the role of the monarchy, as those whose rights are not guaranteed by the constitution clamor, “the system doesn’t treat us justly.”
I don’t know where to go with all of this. Maybe, I just want to say this July 4th for me was a sobering reminder that the Declaration of Independence and the constitution that came from it are the defining documents of our country. We are who they say we are, and that leaves out a lot of people whom I love and the environment I depend upon for sustenance. Social and ecological justice will require more than electing different people, appointing new judges, and passing new laws. Justice will require a change in who we are as a nation, which means a hard look at ourselves and our foundational documents. When I think of what this will entail, I realize there’s a lot more pain to come for all of us.
So, this July 4th and the days that follow it, when I don’t know what to do about the injustices around me, I turn to my church’s tradition of lament. This tradition is a lament greater than the dictionary definition of expressing sorrow, mourning, or regret. It’s the holy work of lament.
Lament boldly goes to God and declares that things are not right, and people are suffering. Why, O why God?!?! For me, it includes the pain and regret that I as a white person have benefitted from injustices built into our country’s founding documents, while I as a woman also suffer from injustices built into our country’s founding documents. Lament includes a hope that goes beyond hope to an expectation that things can and will be made right, even if I can't see or know how. It includes a thanksgiving for what will be, which calls me beyond my sorrow of today to become part of the joy that will be when the injustices are removed. As with all prayer, lament ultimately changes us. It takes pain and anger, infuses it with the Holy Spirit, transforming it into love and energy to keep going in this uneasy time.