How Frederick Douglass made me a patriot this Fourth of July

picture of Frederick Douglass

The Fourth of July celebrates freedom! That’s a good thing!

I had the great pleasure of reading a portion of What to the Slave is the Fourth of July by Frederick Douglass with a group of other Christians this last weekend, and I was moved to read this prophetic speech and masterpiece in rhetoric. Douglass is a genius, and his eloquent words ring true today.

I’m a proud Anabaptist, so I have enjoyed the day off in the past that the Fourth of July affords me, but I haven’t really “observed” the holiday because my Kingdom isn’t of this world, and I serve another King. I’m committed to that lifestyle and theology. But Douglass’s speech made me realize that I have some privilege to be able to merely remove myself from a holiday that reminds so many immigrants and people of color that they didn’t belong at first, that this freedom that Americans celebrate wasn’t theirs. It reminded me of Rev. Barber saying “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

Douglass’s speech is so powerful because he unites his audience in the common cause of the holiday: freedom over oppressors. He says it’s easy to say it now, but during the American Revolution is took courage to stand up to those who oppress us. He longs for the same courage today. It’s easy to look back on past victories toward justice and be on board (this is why Martin Luther King, Jr. is so often praised, and exploited, by white people). But it takes courage to make a stand now. And that’s what Douglass is brilliantly calling for. What a good way to celebrate Independence Day:

Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.

Use the spirit of the holiday to name where it is broken!

He goes on affirming the merit of the Revolution, saying that we can overcome difficult things, thing that are hard to fathom to overcome, with wisdom and bravery.

Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born!

The Fourth of July isn’t about freedom alone. It’s about defeating oppression. So if freedom is what you are celebrating, then you must advocate for it. It’s not good enough to say you are doing it. You have to live like it. And for my Anabaptist friends who decide to ignore the patriotic holiday, I understand that, but don’t miss the meaning and the spirit of the holiday, which is actually quite Christian! Jesus Christ means freedom from tyranny and freedom from oppression.

I understand the Christian impulse to not celebrate the holiday because so much of American Christianity is deeply connected to American patriotism, and it’s not surprising to even have American “hymns,” sung in worship, with an American flag up front too. I am not suggesting we do something so idolatrous, and we should resist such displays. And in fact, when the church is too united with the nation-state, it is often complicit in that nation’s oppression. The job of the church is to talk back to the powers as we help reveal the Kingdom of God on earth. I love how Douglass put it.

The fact that the church of our country, (with fractional exceptions), does not esteem ‘the Fugitive Slave Law’ as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. The Bible addresses all such persons as “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, who pay tithe of mint, anise, and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith.

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

What a prophecy! The church is complicit in America’s oppression, and Douglass has no issue naming it as a problem in this speech, while also naming Jesus as his Lord. He impugns the church for its complicity, and he does so in the spirit of the freedom that should be advocated for by the church, especially in the face of the evil of slavery! He closes his speech with an indictment of American hypocrisy, on its holy day, for how it loves liberty, but how it demonstrates a deep hypocrisy in the spirit of the nation.

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation — a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty.

Today’s United States has so much to learn on this Fourth of July week. If you celebrate freedom, then advocate for it! These days we have people acting like their oppression is not a thing at all, and that the scars of slavery are far-flung. But people of color and other minorities’ lived experience tells a different story. See where it isn’t in our society and fight for a change. Further, for Christians, who worships the author of freedom, we must celebrate freedom where it is, without mistaking it for the freedom of Christ. But more than not questioning it, we must advocate for a freedom that the country purportedly celebrates.

Why I’m celebrating the Fourth of July

For one thing, I like participating in national holidays because it makes me part of the nation. I want to see the good in the holiday, just like Douglass did, because it is worth naming. Yes, freedom from oppression is good. And if you love it, then extend it. And if you really love it, I’ll introduce you to freedom’s Maker.

I think risk for the “nonparticipants” in the national holiday, besides missing an opportunity for evangelism, especially when they are white Americans, is to too easily brush their shoulders off of the complicity that Douglass names. You can’t not participate, when your body participates in American oppression every day. We have to change! To free ourselves. In the spirit of independence, freedom, revolution. Those aren’t American ideas, they are from God!

It’s not enough not to participate. We have to name why we aren’t—idolatry—but also name the nation’s hypocrisy for saying it celebrates freedom, but meanwhile continues to oppress its citizens, just like King George did. So then, in the spirit of Frederick Douglass, I celebrate the Fourth. I use it as an opportunity,

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