Many of us celebrating the Fourth of July this past weekend were wrestling with the tension that exists between the idealized and reality. On July 4, 1776, our country’s founding document declared freedom from Britain, but not a freedom for all. White, land-owning men could revel in this day, but the rest of us would spend the next 245 years fighting for those words to apply to us, as well: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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.” Like God’s creational design that intended for all of created life to flourish under the caring, protecting, nourishing dominion of God, equality and equity are woven into our founding document. However, like the Genesis text, selfishness, greed, short-sightedness, and a scarcity mindset stain the declaration.
I wrestle with the blatant hypocrisy that is all over this text. How could slaveowners, racists, classists, and misogynists pen words about the oppression of the King of Great Britain, and yet be so blind to their own perpetration of injustice? These words regarding Great Britain sting with their arrogant myopia: “They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.” Seriously? Should we talk about injustice? Should we talk about a common ancestry? A common Creator? Our founders complained about paying unfair taxes while they stole, raped, tortured, and dehumanized other people. This land that was declared as “ours,” was stolen. Perhaps non-indigenous Americans would more aptly sing Woody Guthrie’s song as such:
This land‘s not your land; this land’s not my land. /From the Yuman land to the Oneida land, from the Quechan land to Seminole land/ This land was not made me and you.
This is just the history up to 1776. Then we move into more years of chattel slavery, years of corrupt imprisonment, lynching, Jim and Jane Crow laws, internment camps, child labor, women seen as property, along with inequitable housing, education, employment, pay, voting, and access to power- all sanctioned by the government and, with deep sadness I write, the Church.
It is heartbreaking to see people in our current cultural climate so unwilling to look objectively at our history, to be so afraid of the truth, for it is this very truth that could actually set us free. Real freedom. Instead of celebrating a mirage, we could taste something authentic. Instead of hiding behind grandiose fireworks displays, lighting off and burning up unused ammunition, pretending that the war for freedom is done, we could know the true light of life and justice for all. I don’t want to raise a glass to my freedom, while my neighbor lives in fear and despair. Talk about injustice. I would be no better than our founders, living in blindness and self-deception. Yes, I can celebrate the ideal of freedom, but I can’t pretend it is present when it is not.
This is where we turn our attention to July 3, the Feast of St. Thomas. “Ah, the doubter.” Yes, unfortunately, I think of Thomas as this label, too, as if to attempt to distance myself from him. Actually, “doubter” brings him quite close to me. Once again, a dualistic mindset of “us” and “them” distorts our view of reality, just like the writers of the Declaration of Independence. How many times does the word “we” occur in the document? All Americans need to look at the word “we,” and ask to whom is that referring? And then we would be wise to look at the one who said “unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” as if gazing into a mirror (John 20:25). “We” have a lot in common.
I have always looked at Thomas with a condescending shake of the head, but I love Jesus’ response to Thomas. This passage shows me who Jesus is, and it makes me love him more. Jesus did not condemn Thomas, but indulged his doubt with evidence: “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands” (John 20:27). More than a conversation about Thomas’ doubt, Jesus invites Thomas into the truth.
Thomas’ life and encounter with Jesus informs how we handle our history in its entirety. As Jesus graces Thomas’ reality, his doubt and insecurity, I believe he has graced our fear, and he will grace our truth-telling. Jesus was unafraid of the evidence of injustice that tore open his flesh, the marks of violent oppression that covered his body. He showed them to Thomas, and Thomas beheld the scars. Thomas looked. He came close to it. He probably touched it. And he was changed.
May we be so bold to ask God to reveal the truth of our country’s injustice, of our complicit and explicit injustice. May we survey and touch the scars of our history, drawing close to those afflicted by oppression, and may we too have our eyes opened and hearts changed.