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.