what the liberty bell teaches

 In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly commissioned a large bell to mark the 50th anniversary of the state’s original constitution, written by William Penn in 1701. The bell’s inscription was taken from Leviticus, a Book in the Pentateuch, or the first five Books of the Bible. It reads: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Visit Philadelphia today and you will see—you might even feel—that the Liberty Bell embodies our national pride and spirit. We believe in the message the bell represents, and we love the idea of freedom, ringing loudly throughout the land and reminding us all of who we hope to be.

This week, as we eat soggy pasta salad and slurp crisp slices of watermelon, toasting our nation and celebrating our unique commitment to freedom, we will think fondly of this liberty. We will lift our eyes skyward, searching for every exploding light, and feel pride at the idea that liberty means something to us Americans. We will remember that we one day decided, collectively, that it was worth sacrificing everything in order to be free. We will continue to boast even now about the lengths we will take to protect our freedom. Don’t tread on us.

 It is true that America loves its liberty; it is also true that American notions of liberty have always coincided with American practices of exclusion. American liberty has an asterisk, for it has historically meant freedom for some and definitely not for all.

When early Pennsylvanians decided to make a state house bell whose toll would remind people of liberty, they choose words that captured the expansive concept of liberty: liberty only works if it is for all of us. The irony, of course, is that in 1701, in 1751, and even in 1851 “all the inhabitants” of the land were neither liberated nor proclaiming any such thing. This conflict is the tricky problem with American memory and celebrations of our history. We cling to our stated values, while ignoring—erasing even—those not deemed worthy of inclusion.

30 years after the Pennsylvania bell was commissioned, the New Hampshire state convention named the enemy of liberty, saying, “The love of power is so alluring that few have ever been able to resist its bewitching influence.” New Hampshirites seemed to know that liberty requires ongoing sacrifice because power and greed are equally alluring ideals. What the Pennsylvania delegates failed to recognize is that proclaiming liberty for all inhabitants requires shared sacrifice; otherwise the freedom of the many will be sacrificed for the liberty of the few. Liberty and power must be held in tension, especially in communities where equality is espoused.  

Liberty, first dreamed up by those early signers of the Declaration, and then made real by the brave men who died for the freedom to govern themselves, was costly. When a young United States of America celebrated its 20th Independence Day, many Americans were right to toast our independence from tyrannical Britain. Many other inhabitants of America must have choked on the celebratory cries, knowing those who rejected the tyranny of Europe had no trouble at all using abusive power to limit those around them.

The Liberty Bell, as we now remember it, as a beacon of hope, of equality, of shared sacrifice, did not come to signify these expansive and inclusive ideals until resisting voices took the Bell at its word, and reclaimed it as a symbol for those previously excluded from the idea of American freedom. Abolitionists popularized and made famous the Liberty Bell as an American icon, and they did so simply by calling Americans to be who they claimed to be: Be people willing to pursue liberty for all folks, rejecting abusive power as a means to personal liberty.

Those resisting voices were accused of desecrating the intent of the inscription and the meaning of the bell in American history. However, those abolitionists were deeply loyal to the values celebrated by Americans. History is complicated, and they knew liberty and power were not the same thing. They knew our hypocrisy would destroy us unless we began to realize that liberty for all requires limits be placed on personal power.

Today, these familiar ideals will continue to divide us as a society unless we hear from all those who talk about American liberty, what it means, who its for, and how it works. We cannot reserve liberty for a few while many suffer. As we celebrate Independence Day, perhaps we should think not just about the Liberty Bell, its history and inscription, but also its crack, and the obvious vulnerabilities in our shared history. We need to elevate resisting voices who remind us that we all have a claim to liberty, just as we all have to sacrifice in order to live in community with those around us.

Despite the problematic nature of many of our American symbols and the historical erasure embedded within them, the Liberty Bell holds lessons for all of us who care about our country: The presence of a crack does not diminish the value of the symbol. Resisting voices who help us understand the many implications of liberty do not dilute the power of patriotism. Understanding our deeply rooted hypocrisy does not detract from our striving to form a more perfect union. Acknowledging our mistakes does not destroy our pride as Americans.

Facing a complete history, which welcomes every perspective of who we have been and who we might become, which celebrates our symbols even as we notice their flaws, is perhaps the most American way to celebrate the birth of our nation. After all, we are a country born out of the notion that all men are created equal, and we cherish this idea even as we often fail to act on this core belief. To be American is to know big dreams are realized with small steps and shared sacrifices. This 4th of July, I want to believe our hopes for liberty and equality can coexist, and that they matter enough for us to notice how we fail to live up to our own American dreams. Learning America’s history—the noble, the hypocritical, the celebrated and the erased—issues an invitation to all of us to sacrifice for the stunning American idea that every inhabitant is created equally and for liberty. What a dream.

independence day: what is America, and who gets to decide?

This week Americans celebrate Independence Day, a holiday that cheers freedom and demonstrates patriotism, often with jorts, fireworks and excessive day drinking. Just as often, we mark the holiday with neighborhood bike parades, or BBQ and watermelon. Thinking about the various ways we spend our fourths of July leads me to also wonder what exactly it is that we are celebrating. Put another way, what is America, and who gets to decide?

Are we Lee Greenwood’s version? Proud, certain we are free and blessed, and familiar with the agricultural highlights of each state? Is Charlie Daniel’s vision of a national kumbaya correct? Will we “all stick together, you can take that to the bank. That’s the cowboys and the hippies, the rebels and the yanks?” Does Donald Glover get to decide? In “This is America” he reveals a country alive with movement and soul, but also littered with guns, violence, apathy and fear. Maybe Toby Keith gets it right, describing us as an international bar bouncer: “You’ll be sorry you messed with the U. S. of A; we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Do veterans who think we honor the whole America in the National Anthem by standing or kneeling get to decide what America is? On a national holiday that celebrates our origin story, it is worth thinking about who we think we are.

For many Americans, particularly those who celebrate our 45th President, America does represent freedom and independence. We are the magical land where people prove their worth through their work, where everyone gets a fair shot. God loves to bless us because we are His favorites (outside of Israel, of course). Real Americans have no need to protest anything, because we are great and protesters are just violent whiners. I like this idea of America, and sometimes wish I could believe it. I have learned, however, that in order to believe this is THE version of America, I have to erase more history than I remember. In order to believe, I have to ignore the fact that our country was founded to guarantee the freedom and equality of white men, and white men alone. I have to ignore that fact that we legally and intentionally oppressed, killed and stole from Native and Black peoples. I have to ignore the single mom in Appalachia who works incredibly hard but can’t establish her worth or sustainability to the world around her. 

I recognize these ideas can seem inflammatory, but I don’t write them to provoke. Instead, I am suggesting that we might best celebrate Independence Day by recognizing our entire history. We are both a country that loves our work ethic and a country that refuses to reward the hard work of some parts of our population. We are both a country that believes in equality and justice for all while sometimes legislating injustice and inequality. We are the home of the brave and yet we have punished displays of bravery in brown or female bodies. We cherish our religious freedom but we ban people on the basis of their religion. 

People who study American culture talk about our longstanding tradition of imagining American spaces really as white spaces. In our dominant cultural imagination, hard workers look like white workers. The American heartland looks like quilts sewn and fields plowed and pies baked by white hands. I know the mention of race is off-putting for some, but this is because many Americans have the privilege of not thinking about the cultural and historical racism that links color with suspicion. If we could recognize our passive linking of “real Americans” with “white Americans” then we might embrace our country’s entire story on this historical holiday.

This Independence Day, could we honor our nation’s legacy by thinking independently? Could we reject the narrative that the only way to be patriotic is to love Lee Greenwood and ignore Donald Glover? Could we listen to those who honor our flag by kneeling or standing? On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. A group of brave white men in tights and wigs wrote an epic letter protesting the oppressive injustice of a group of powerful privileged men who refused to consider their perspective or value. The origin story of America is one of protest. Knowing this, it is hard to now accept the idea that those who protest are unpatriotic. Un-American.

I write this with a heavy heart, because I know the dangers of living in the middle space, where American failures and triumphs are remembered. I know the mention of white supremacy feels like an attack on America. While this gives me pause, I am even more afraid for all us if we continue to act as if America only belongs to a certain type of person. The thing that we celebrate on July 4th is the taking of power from a few and the sharing of power with the many. While we have yet to get this right, we come closer to living up to the American democratic ideal when we make room for all kinds of voices to share their experiences of America. This begins by remembering our whole history.

My three year old daughter has a funny speech pattern of addressing people with a possessive pronoun.  She calls her favorite neighbor “my Isabelle.” She says, “I want to go swim with my Emmett” or “I go play with my Marion.” Hearing her talk makes me think about what it means to claim a person. She is not trying to own them with her “my,” she is asserting her devotion to them. She is relationally bound by love and delight to these people. In an age where I hear angry voices claim, “He’s not my President,” or “They aren’t welcome in my America,” I want to celebrate the 4th of July by claiming my America. Our America, which has been exclusive and inclusive, brave and cowardly, bullying and welcoming, oppressing and dignifying...I love it enough to remember all of it. Let’s celebrate the whole America, and every person who helped build, cultivate and shape it. If we look closely, we’ll see that we lose very little, while we gain the ability to recognize that fear and greed reduce us as a people. We must see America as we really are in order to become the country we celebrate.

the state of us: on Memorial Day

For Memorial Day weekend, a lot of my family gathers at my parents’ home, where cousins swim, yard games are played, and huge meals are prepared by many hands.  This morning, around a table littered with breakfast remnants, the adults sat, forks in hand, unceremoniously sharing a large bowl of watermelon.  It was delicious, so firm as to be almost crunchy, with a depth of sweetness so refreshing I felt my body acknowledge that summer had, in fact, arrived. 

My husband expresses his delight in food with what I call aggressive affirmation.  It is not uncommon for him to throw a napkin, slam his hands on a table, or curse loudly when he tastes something he likes. “Are you kidding me? D#mn!” “Holy Sh?t! Does it get any better than this??” This morning, slapping his napkin, he asked, “How do you always have the best watermelon?”

My parents plant, cultivate and harvest a huge garden with their neighbors (#lifegoals), and they know a thing or two about growth.  “I pick the best because I check the bottom to make sure it’s yellow.  It means it sat in the dirt for a while to ripen. They didn’t pick it too early.  If you find one with a little dried mud on it, even better.”

A national holiday set aside to the idea of remembering seems kind of fabulous to me, and I’d like to explore how our collective discolored bottom can shape American memory.  Memory is a tricky thing. It is not fixed, not remembered in a vacuum, not fair.  A friend of mine cracks me up when her kids come home venting about a teacher in school.  She listens, waits a beat, then says, “I wonder how your teacher would tell this story?”  You see what she did there!  She reminds them their version is not the only, and might even be the least trustworthy one. 

Memories best reflect the past when they are contextualized with other memories.  Postmodern literature gets a bad rap among many Christians and conservatives for “playing with the truth.”  From my perspectives, postmodern thinking is incredibly helpful in getting at the nature of memory.  Single stories do not accurately describe people, just as single storytellers cannot capture the all of an experience.  We need multiple narrators in order to capture all the facets of light.

My sister and her husband arrived this weekend directly from our nation’s capitol.  Having visited the American museum, they were thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be an American.  Should a few generous white folks who helped free slaves and fund their independent businesses be used to contextualize the terrible cruelty of the government and church sanctioned system of white supremacy and slavery? Yes, I think so.  Should it be given equal weight in a way that diminishes the evil grip slavery had and has on our American psyche? Not a chance. 

Should the fact that Andrew Jackson adopted a Native American child be used to contextualize our understanding of the man who slaughtered natives and forced the Trail of Tears? Yes, I think so.  Should that fact erase or minimize the devastating impact his leadership had on the lives of indigenous Americans? Not a chance.

Many of us are struggling this weekend with the new AG Sessions’ policy that ICE criminally charge any adult who crosses our border illegally, separating their kids from them in the process, sometimes permanently.  I have seen many pleas from heartbroken people who cry, “This cannot be happening in America! This is not who we are.”  These pleas evoke American ideals of compassion and generosity, and try to remind us that we are a people of justice, a beacon of humane morality for the world.  This notion exists because of the tricky nature of memory.  A robust telling of our history would remind us that American land was established, American wealth was created and American power has grown precisely through the forced removal of kids from their parents through the systemic dehumanization of slaves, native peoples, and immigrants. 

I say this as a proud American.  I recognize that acknowledging our history of evil practices is considered unpatriotic; however, I work very hard to seek our entire history, and I feel most patriotic when I acknowledge the good with the bad.  The American ideals of bravery and sacrifice are worth celebrating on Memorial Day.  It is incredible that we could create a government by, for and of the people, established on the principal that we are all equal and worthy of sharing the dream together.  I propose that it is does not diminish that idea in the least for us to admit that we were lying about the implementation then, have struggled to make it true for over 200 years, and probably aren’t getting it right now.  We set the bar really high! This Memorial Day, can we stop pretending we have consistently gotten it right? Can we instead celebrate by remembering and sharing all of our stories, even the tough ones?

It is easy to slice into a fabulous watermelon, slurping the juices down like a kid perched on a picnic table.  It is harder to remember that the sweetest watermelons are formed in the dirt.  This Memorial Day, I remember the good and the bad. I celebrate the fact that so many men in my family were honorable soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines.  But I also need to remember that many of them developed terrible addictions, didn’t get to meet their own kids until they were toddlers, or had wives who sacrificed their parenting partner, going it alone the majority of the time.  When I think about honoring my ancestors, my country, our legacy as Americans, I hope and pray I model their bravery enough to remember all of it.  If the only American History we memorialize is of good guys with guns in their hands, courage in their steps and stars in their eyes, then we forget how easily we can betray the sacrifices they made.  As Bono, of U2 sings, “It’s not a place / This country is to me a thought / That offers grace / For every welcome that is sought…It’s not a place / This is a dream the whole world owns / The pilgrim’s face / It had your heart to call her home...There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream / It’s a call to action, not to fantasy / The end of a dream, the start of what’s real / Let it be unity, let it be community / For refugees like you and me / A country to receive us.” 

Let’s celebrate the real America, ripening in the dirt, not the fantasy that blinds us to the work we need to do to honor the legacies of the best who came before us. Happy Memorial Day.