The Declaration of Independence: A Call to Citizenship

On July 4th, I will have been the fourth of forty-one readers of the Declaration of Independence, a public event held every year in the Jaffrey NH meeting house, the frame of which was erected in 1775.  The reading will be followed by an ice cream social, and the singing of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

A traditional New England patriotic event.  Across the country, there will be barbecues and fireworks, parades, proclamations and a recognition of the roots of American democracy, which have launched generations of pride, prosperity — and hope.

The fact of the Declaration is a cause for celebration.  The tone of the document, however, and the content of its words — are grim and ominous.  Thomas Jefferson’s presents a litany of “injuries and usurpations”.  Several times he identifies the British King as a tyrant, whose tyranny has caused hardship and injustice to the degree that these “United Colonies are, and by Right ought to be Free and Independent States”.

It took more than a decade for the aspirations contained in the Declaration  of Independence to become a formal reality.  A war was fought, a Constitution was drafted, and a government was established.  An enormous amount of work was done in a relatively short period of time.

The work continues.  America has been a beacon of hope for the world,  and a catalyst for freedom, both home and abroad

And yet, the injuries and usurpations continue — not from Great Britain, but from each other.  Justice is not equally applied; and privilege often takes precedence over freedom.  Polarization has become the paralyzing norm.  There is a growing temptation for people to declare independence from one another — and to hunker down in a political, ideological or religious silo — and to declare the “other side” to be tyrants or demons.

We can do better.  We need to do better.

A good friend and classmate of mine recently sent me a passage from John William Ward’s biography, who was President of Amherst College when I was a student there in the early 1970s.  Ward served at a time as Amherst was caught in the vise of remaining all-male or going coeducational; and when the turmoil of the anti-war and civil rights movements consumed the campus and his role as leader.  It was a strenuous time.   He posed a way forward:  “In a democratic society,”  Ward wrote, “the greatest title of them all is ‘citizen’.  And the essential responsibility of the citizen,, whatever one’s calling, wherever life one takes one, is to have the moral imagination to see, and the will to act on the age old dream that, yes, we are a community, members of the same body, bound together in a common enterprise, the creation of a decent and humane society.”

I don’t know what, if any, religious affiliation President Ward had, but his words have echoes of Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community, and Jesus’ desire to usher in the Kingdom of God.  From different platforms and at different times, they each express a hope — indeed an expectation, that we will work to make room for everyone —everyone, and that, in the Declaration’s concluding words, “with the firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

As people who live within America’s shores, we are in this together.  There is a lot of work to do.

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