Brief Reflection on 4th of July: on enjoying complicated legacies

It’s difficult for me to identify and sort through the various contradictory feelings I have towards this holiday. A simple anti-patriotism is much easier to navigate, yet my work with international refugees resettling here in the U.S. and my reading of African-American literature makes such a simple condemnation impossible.

J. Kameron Carter recently drew on Langston Hughes to distinguish the love of freedom from the legacy of American imperialism under the name of liberty. Neither Carter nor Hughes, however, operate under the illusion that these two realities can easily be separated within the American experience. Instead, what is exposed is how the love of freedom as an ideal–liberty–destroys the actual freedom in and of human intimacy.

Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics, “human liberation as an absolute ideal leads to the self-destruction of human beings.” He ends this essay by saying,

The church leaves to God’s rule of the world whether God will allow the custodians of power to succeed, and whether the church–preserving its difference and yet joining in sincere alliance with those powers–may pass on to the future the historical heritage, laden with the blessing and the guilt of the forebears.

Instead of attempting to separate “the blessing” from “the guilt of the forebears” or fruitlessly disavowing the influence of this “historical heritage,” we can surrender control of the future–of the world, and of the church in the world–to God and enjoy the spaces of freedom that are always open and always possible even within histories of domination. After all, Langston Hughes also writes that “I, too, sing America.”

So this 4th I’m going to enjoy the freedom of familial love, with my wife and kid and in-laws that just moved in down the street. And I’ll keep reading Richard Wright and maybe some more Langston Hughes, thankful for the light they shed on the complicated legacy of being American and hopeful since, as Carter points out in his blog post, the last word on the triumph of freedom over the domination of liberty has already been spoken for us by Christ.

Happy 4th. And here is the full text of Hughes’ poem:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides, 
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.
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