Our country celebrates our independence again this weekend. The original independence was our separation from England at the beginning of our country. Since then our citizens have been proud of our independence and we have sung of the “land of the free.” And over the decades and centuries, Americans have at times been freer than the citizens of some other countries. We have elected leaders and not kings or dictators. We have had a freedom to speak and write our opinions. We practice whatever religion we want. We move among the states without passing through checkpoints. And so the independence from England has flowed over into the expression of personal freedom and independence.
But anyone who reads history with any open-mindedness knows very well that some people who have lived within our boundaries have not always enjoyed the same kinds of freedoms as the majority of the population. Our country accepted the scourge of slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, for a long time. And after slavery was officially abolished after a terrible civil war, there remained strong feelings of racism and prejudice among much of the population. Recently, those attitudes raised their ugly heads again. Issues of race and prejudice have been widely discussed. African American people are again telling the rest of us that we have not been listening to them for several hundred years. Are we listening now?
And there is the story of the native peoples who were living here when the visitors from Europe began to arrive. When these peoples became inconvenient and stood in the way of material progress, the majority immigrant population chose to move the native peoples onto reservations amid much violence and killing.
It is important to note, when we talk of immigrant peoples nowadays, that we can easily see them as needy and perhaps “inconvenient” to the rest of us. But across our history it has been immigrant people from elsewhere, mostly Europe, who became the powerful majority which pushed aside the native peoples. That can easily be forgotten as we call ourselves “Americans.”
It is good to celebrate our freedoms, to be grateful for them. But it is also important to be honest enough to admit that freedom for all who are “created equal” has been a work in progress all through our history. We have never completely lived up to the words of our founding documents.
In this strange year, we as a country have faced new and often scary challenges, brought on by an invisible enemy called a novel coronavirus. In the discussions about what to do in response to this pandemic, there have been strong disagreements. Some people, when asked to do some things for the common good, chose to stand on their “freedom” not to be told what to do. This can easily be an exaggerated sense of freedom.
Freedom ought to include not only freedom from some things, but also freedom for some things, such as being concerned for the common good of my fellow citizens. It seems to me that there has been too much shouting about personal freedoms, to the detriment of our concern for others. In facing the pandemic, there was a lot of cooperation from most citizens in terms of staying in place and keeping separation. But it seems to me that some people, in defying the requests of government, were putting their fellow citizens, and maybe their own families, in danger of contagion.
These are complicated issues. Perhaps mistakes were made on all sides. We were dealing with new and uncharted territory. But as we once again celebrate freedom and independence in our country, we may want to see that we are a better people when we cooperate and reach out to our neighbors for the sake of the common good, rather than simply standing on “my rights.” For Christians, there is always the command to love my neighbor as myself. It seems to me that ought to be considered whenever we reflect on what it means to be a citizen of this country.
– Fr. Tom Zelinski OFM Cap.