Celebrating Interdependence | Sojourners

Celebrating Interdependence

Why I don't celebrate the false notion of independence
Image via STILLFX/Shutterstock
Image via /Shutterstock

I did not celebrate Independence Day this past weekend.

The truth is the United States has never been an independent nation. Built on stolen land by stolen labor, sacrificing Natives and Africans and their descendants to the mythology of “manifest destiny,” greed, oppression, and white supremacy, this has never been a nation of liberty and justice for all.

The ignoble myth of white supremacy that permeates the foundation of this country and underlies the policies and institutions that form the context of our lives has been rearing its ugly head so much lately that it cannot be as easily ignored or denied as it has been in the past. The recent massacre in Charleston and the burning of African-American churches add even more reasons to the hundreds of thousands to awaken to the reality of racism that undermines best ideals of this nation. Our country has failed to atone for, or even critically examine, its history of racial oppression.

While the Confederate flag comes down throughout the South, despite protests from some who insist on clinging to the euphemism of “heritage, not hate,” we have yet to deal with the heritage of hate that permeates our entire nation. I could not cheer the removal of the Confederate flag one day and wave the stars and stripes the next. Our star spangled banner first waved o’re the land of the slaughtered and the home of the slave, and 150 years after abolition, slavery is still the condition of those incarcerated in a merciless prison industrial complex that disproportionately targets African-Americans. Marginalization and exploitation have been the hallmark of black lives in the United States since before it was founded. While the forms of oppression may have changed, the essence remains. Celebratory flags felt inappropriate for a nation that is being called — by the near-daily spilling of black blood — to repentance.

This doesn’t mean there are not good things to say about the democracy that has expanded upon this soil through generations of struggle for African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and more. But the struggles for equal opportunity, recognition, and dignity are far from over, and much regression is occurring in an age of hyper-corporatism and militarism.

I have long been critical of the Fourth of July as a holiday, wary as I am to celebrate a nation born in blood — mostly blood of others — and continually spilling blood overseas. We are a nation of drones and extra-judicial assassinations, a nation of black sites and torture and dirty, dark, classified (but open) secrets. As Robert Koehler says, “The darkest, most highly classified secret of all is that we’re always at war and we always will be.”

I have also long known that the violence we export overseas is taking its toll here at home, too. In spending trillions blowing apart land and people overseas, we are diminishing our resources here at home. A slower and less direct violence than the instantaneous death administered by bullets and bombs is the diminution of education, health care, housing, and job opportunities, all sacrificed as budgets are slashed while military spending increases year after year. I have long been critical of our nation which deprives its citizens, ostensibly for the sake of protecting us, while engaging in military activities that make us less trusted, less respected, and more vulnerable to attack.

But this year, further connections between the violence abroad and the violence at home were brought into stark clarity. And it is the already-marginalized communities — African-Americans as well as Latino, Native, and Muslim (or those mistaken for Muslim) Americans, all in their own different ways — that suffer most from the police state that our nation has become. I knew racism never truly ended in this country. But I had thought it was getting better. I did not know it was still so deadly. I know better now. And so while I have long been critical of the Fourth of July in remembering the blood America has spilled overseas, this year I also recalled the blood spilled right here, not just in the past, but every. Single. Day.

But even if we could trace a line of steady progress toward equality through our history, I would like to caution the celebration of “independence.” “Independence” holds positive connotations like overcoming oppression or unhealthy addiction, to which I have no objection. But in American mythology, the concept of independence is also tied to an ideal of rugged individualism that makes me wary. As a Christian, but also as a human being, I do not believe we were made for independence, but rather for relationship. The emphasis on individualism in our nation undermines our responsibility to live for one another. And in some ways, an emphasis on individualism can be used as a weapon.

American individualism is saturated with the theological hermeneutic of “personal salvation,” whether or not an individual American actually believes in God. The emphasis of the “Great Awakening” — which Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas characterizes as the advent of American Protestantism — on saving “individual souls” provided early American slaveholders with a Christian support of slavery while at the same time absolving them, in their minds, of the responsibility to treat slaves with any respect or compassion — let alone question the morality of slavery altogether. The emphasis on “individualism” erased the notion of collective social responsibility, while the emphasis on “souls” allowed for the harsh treatment of black bodies (for more, see Dr. Douglas’s superb book, What’s Faith Got To Do With It?: Black Bodies, Christian Souls).

Today, the notion of individualism aids in white denial and the perpetuation of marginalization. It divorces people from their understanding of history and social context. It aids in the mythology that racism is a thing of the past simply because attitudes have changed, while deep institutional structures of racial prejudice remain.

No one in the world has ever pulled himself or herself up by the bootstraps. No one in the world is completely self-reliant. We need each other.

I did not shut myself away from the joyful atmosphere of the weekend. But neither did I celebrate the false notion of independence.

Instead, then and now, I celebrate our interdependence, our need and responsibility for each other. I honor the good in our nation that is not exceptional, for what is beautiful in our nation is beautiful in humanity everywhere: kindness, compassion, generosity, mercy. I challenge myself to an ever-expanding love that reaches beyond the boarders of this nation to everyone all over the world, whose lives are deeply connected to mine.

And even as I celebrate how far humanity can go with mutual love and respect and self-giving to one-another, I repent of the damage that individualism and American exceptionalism are causing at home and all over the world. I hope you will join me, for I cannot do it alone.

Happy Interdependence Day.

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