July 4th: Can We Celebrate and Atone at the Same Time?

By Peggy Ray

When I was a child growing up, my Dad set off some (probably illegal) rockets in our back yard on July 4th. We children burned sparklers. The rocket bursts were just an exciting entertainment, and I never made any connection between these explosions and the patriotic anthem we sang at school where “the rockets red glare gave proof thru the night that our flag was still there.”

Nowadays I do. On July 4th I think about the fact that our nation was born in war (like most, I suppose) and has been a pretty violent place from the beginning. I feel ashamed to remember, as I help cook a holiday meal on a friend’s backyard grill, that a program to cut down forests and exterminate “the red man” began almost immediately. Not long afterward, black people were imported from Africa and brutally enslaved. These are the origins of our country’s fabled wealth, now so inequitably distributed.

So I was grateful to read a call by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center to atone as a nation as we celebrate on July 4th. He writes:            “What would it mean for all American society to repent in prayer, tears, fasting, and also action — for our historic lethal arrogance in slavery, racism, & genocide; in aggressive & oppressive wars in Central America, Vietnam, & Iraq;  and in our destruction of the Earth?

“The truth that the USA is ALSO an experiment in growing freedom, community, and democracy calls on us precisely not to ignore but to embrace the need for repentance of these our society’s sins.

“Could we as a nation bear? – could we dare? – to pause, fast, pray, meditate on July 3 to reflect on and atone for our history of lethal arrogance – and then turn on July 4 to celebrate our efforts to grow into compassion and community, and act to sow the seeds of change?”

Rabbi Waskow suggests poems, songs and prayers congregations could use in places of worship and in other groups. For the whole message, go to https://theshalomcenter.org/content/charleston-murders-vs-pope-francis-rabbis-ramadan.

As inspiring as this message is, I find it impossible to make a commitment to the whole thing, even to the fasting on July 3 part. I’ve never had any luck sticking to a fast by myself, and I do not belong to any congregation where I might find companions to take this on with me. But at least on July 4th I can meditate for a while on the crimes of my people from which I surely benefit and hope that my intention to help create a better world counts with the Universe.

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One Response to July 4th: Can We Celebrate and Atone at the Same Time?

  1. John Backman says:

    Three of the rabbi’s words struck a chord with me: “and also action.” They make me wonder–in light of your observation that injustice comprises the very “origins of our country’s fabled wealth”–what action could possibly be big enough to begin to address that injustice. I know many people have studied the notion of reparations, and therefore I am ridiculously behind the times in raising this. I also know that part of the “and also action” involves each of us doing our one-person’s part toward restoring justice. And yet the question haunts me still.

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