America the Beautiful

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Probably the best 4th of July I can remember was spent in Washington D.C. beneath the Washington Monument. Earlier in the day I had parked on the Virginia side of the Potomac and biked down to the Mall in DC where my church had a booth. I thought it was fun to be down in the city for the fireworks, but my heart was with my friends from Career Fellowship on the other side of the Potomac where I had parked.

So I made a mad dash to be with them just before the fireworks started. I biked furiously, then biked quickly, then biked slowly, and finally walked. I was a little past the Washington monument when darkness fell and it was clear I could go no further. At that point, there were so many people everywhere that I could barely have walked without the bike. With the bike I was a danger to the many couples strewn across the landscape.

I was very sad, but resigned myself to the fact that I would spend that 4th of July not with dear friends as had been my hearts desire, but with complete strangers. I found my own piece of turf and sat as a man condemned.

Then the music started, patriotic song followed patriotic song in a parade of treasured and shared memories.

Then the fireworks started, brilliant flashes of colors on the faces of nearby strangers who’s shared awed bridged the distance we thought separated us.

I had heard all those songs before. I had seen fireworks before, but never like this. I sat fixed to that spot.

Leading up to this Fourth of July 2016 I took my son in my lap and introduced him to my favorite patriotic songs. We listened to a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by a woman with a majestic voice. Then I found my favorite, “America the beautiful,” as sung by Ray Charles. At the insistence of my son, I played it several times and it nearly brought me to tears.

It nearly brought me to tears, but not just for the obvious sentimental reasons.

I was not born in America; I came here when I was 8 years old. But I love America and perhaps appreciate it more than those for whom citizenship is a birthright. I can look as though just from the outside at the shining jewel called the United States of America. It is an awesome sight.

In the minds of those who long to set foot on the shores of America it is a mythical place. It is a place where wealth is available to all and where opportunity frequently knocks. It is a place of fantasy where dreams really do come true. It is a place like no other where brotherhood and freedom embrace in lyrical poetry.

It is truly larger and more real than the founders could have imagine—it is mythical in this sense—it is larger than even the realities we attach to it. America is greater than our simple adulations can conceive. It is more than just a people called Americans or a land called America; it is a grand hope for many who look to her for that which is good.

“O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

America is indeed beautiful, both its people and its myth—that larger story. America is larger than life and in many ways greater than its people. America, whatever the ideals upon which it was founded has become the ideal for many people—in this way it is mythical. America has moved past a being a nation to become an icon symbolized by that towering statue in the New York Harbor—the Statue of Liberty.

To here shores are drawn people from every nation on earth, people filled with dreams and hopes. People little deterred by the parallel truths that form the myth of America, the good and the bad, the lovely and macabre.

America is like many of, when she is good, she is very good, but when she is bad, she is very bad. Today, on this 4th of July, I pray that American and Americans rejoice and consider deeper truths. I pray that America and Americans will take a moment to reflect not just on the euphoric myth that is America has been, but also the desired truth of who America should be.

When I think of America, I don’t want America to be just what she has been, or to be just what we paint for her; I want America to exceed all this.

And yet, as I listened to Ray Charles sing I couldn’t help but remember another great American, Frederick Douglas, who, when asked to give an address on the 4th of July struggle to elucidate what the 4th of July meant to the Negro. He was speaking in 1852 while slavery was still recognized as legal in the United States of America. He was addressing his audience months after the passing of the “Fugitive Slave Act,” and he pulled no punches.

I believe that part of America’s greatness is the freedom of Americans to criticize America, to press her and call her to “rise up and live out the true meaning of [her] creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”[1] If we do not call America to be America we have no patriotism in us, we are merely sycophants bleeding the reputation of a limping giant, consciousless people who care only that America is “wealthy” or “great” regardless of whether she is good.

This is not a new way to think. It has been the foundation of empires in the past. It is the bedrock of many nations and empires now. But America, America professes more.

We sing and call God to “crown our good with brotherhood.” If there is no good there can be no brotherhood. Or, again, to take Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[2] I remember reading a comment on the Ferguson protestors that read, “Pull up you pants! Get a job!” Insensitive. Callous. Historically blind to the realities that lay just beneath the surface of most American cities.

Take a look at the documentary series “Eyes on the Prize” and you will see, black communities were not always like this. Black culture has not always been characterized by illiteracy and the “thug life.” And not every protest or protester can be characterized as lazy or ungrateful to America.

Wickedness is a pervading disease for which there is no containment. It will spread and destroy every corner in which righteousness lingers. It is either confronted and vanquished, or it will so pollute the good that the good will be unrecognizable.

Frederick Douglas struggle to explain what the 4th of July meant to enslaved blacks and what it meant even to freedmen. After all, in 1852 a black man could be stolen and carried to the South as a slave. What do songs of liberty mean to people living in such conditions?

Even America’s 3rd president recognized the incongruences between the noble spirit vested in America and the realities of oppressive enslavement in her midst. Jefferson wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.[3]

We are, thankfully, far removed from the days of legalized American slavery. We have indeed “come a long way.” American can more boldly sing that it is the “land of the free.” It has surely been the land of the brave, not it is more assuredly the land of the free.

Still, I nearly wept because, while we are far removed from the days of slavery, America has suffered growing pains. Christians have sometimes confused the wealth and prosperity of America for the blessings of God. Now, wealth and prosperity might be blessings, but they might equally be God’s curse, his punishment on those for whom wealth defines goodness and blessing.

Greed can bring wealth just as easily as righteousness. Who can tell the difference?

This is why I love America the Beautiful. It is a song that celebrates the beauty and majesty of America while calling for sober judgment of America’s flaws.

We often pass over it, or sing an older version, but the second verse reads,

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

How wonderful!! America! America! God mend your every flaw. May He confirm your soul in self-control. May He make your liberty in law!

May God forgive American for the wrongs she has done and keep her from conceit. Indeed, God bless America! Bless her with true self-reflection and integrity.

Inspiring words! Great words! Great words for a great country! Great words for a great country if that great country remains teachable and accepts rebuke. God forbid American’s should lose the right or ability to call America to be America. This is not merely a right, not merely a duty, but a great honor bestowed on the truly patriotic.

This is what has made America great and it is what will keep America great.

We look back at some of the great achievement, the great moral achievements of America with pride, and yet many of us would have faltered if it were up to us endure the pain of birthing so great a nation. We would rather enjoy its comforts than fight for its soul. We might have remained quite rather than disturb commerce, rather than trouble the stock market, rather than devalue the dollar.

It is the soul of America of which matters, that intangible, invisible, grand spirit called America. Not the word spoken, but the pause, the deep breath, the wet eyes that whisper—America.

The casual dweller in her midst concerned only with feasting on her bounty cares nothing of such things.

That person simply says America!

That person waves the flag at rallies and chants “AMERICA!”

That person is content with mediocrity and disdains trials.

That person cares nothing for America. That person’s selfishness causes them to do whatever will preserve their comfort. This is not loyalty, but self-serving egotism.

It is clear that the author of the America the Beautiful, Katharine Lee Bates, was struggling with some of these issues. It is apparent, though often overlooked, in here lyrics. Here initial version of that 3rd verse read:

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!

Subsequent versions of the 3rd verse read:

May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

It is the same theme in both versions; America’s wealth and prosperity cannot be measured at the exclusion of her moral responsibility. America’s soul is as important as her stately dress. “Selfish gain” stains “the banner of the free.”

A people marred injustice or hate is a disgrace to a nation.

Do we still pray that God should refine America? Is the noblessness of America’s cause still important to us? I hope so. I sincerely hope so.

I will not let the foolishness of the few define America. Movies and TV cannot define but often distort the soul of America.

I remember the words of Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote, “America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

I listen to talk radio, with its uncharitable language and attitudes and I wonder, “Has American ceased to be good?” I hear the hatred still hurled at ethnic groups, religious groups, or at those who differ from us, and I wonder, “Has American ceased to be good?”

No. Perhaps some were never indeed—Americans—in the awe-filled sense of that word. Perhaps they were simply born and raised in America, given citizenship, and left to wallow in hatred and self-conceit—the antithesis to the American myth as I see it.

Too often the church, as guardian of the good, as minister of God’s great good news to America and the world, well, the church sleeps, concerned more with its comfort than with its call. On the Church’s role in slavery Frederick Douglas’ wrote:

“The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth, when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”

Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday School, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery, and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds.[4]

If you understand what he is saying it is a stunning but true statement. Pick your pet sin of the day. Pick your political hot potato that you consider counter to the righteousness of God. I would apply Barnes’ comment to that cause; that sin could not be sustained outside of the church in America if it were not first sustained in the Church.

This is hard to take, but I believe it is true. Judgment must begin with the Church. That these sins exist is not a political responsibility.

It is first and primarily and evangelistic responsibility—we must see people changed from within by God’s Spirit before their thinking will changed and their hearts moved.

I love America and this Fourth of July I will eat hot-dogs and hamburgers and proudly wave the flags while I sing patriotic songs with friends. And I pray that God will shine his light on America. I pray that he will crown what good exists in her and bless her people with unity in faith.

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood

I end with Frederick Douglas’ words, “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.”[5] I do not despair for this country. I hope for this country.

I see both the failings and the tremendous possibilities for the greatest nation on earth. I will shed a tear for the beauty of the nation, for the greatness she has achieved, and for the myth that still draws masses of people to her shore.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

[1] Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream”

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/martinluth122559.html

[3] Thomas Jefferson
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/thomasjeff157225.html

[4] Frederick Douglas, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro”

[5] Frederick Douglas, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro”

© 2016, Hudson Russell Davis. All rights reserved.

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