It’s the time of year when we celebrate the independence of our nation. The music, the activities, the mood of the nation kind of shifts away from the division and partisanship of the everyday and we celebrate the creation of a country that allows its citizens to become whatever they choose – or at least that’s the idea anyway. The past five years specifically have shown that independence is a fragile ideal, and that it depends on all of the citizenry to maintain it.
In church this Sunday, we sang the hymns, not only of our God, but of our nation. “America, the Beautiful” is a great hymn for an Independence Day service because it reminds us of the many wonderful things about our country, while reminding us that we have a long way to go.
The chorus of the second verse says:
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
It was the line about mending every flaw that caught my attention today. We are conditioned to believe that the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth, yet there is so much bickering, arguing, inequality, division, and strife that if we truly are the greatest nation, I weep for the rest of the world. We don’t have to look far: the rich look down on the poor; those with longstanding colonial ancestry look down on more recent immigrants; language barriers abound; the class system separates people – the wealthy seem to hoard their gold while others starve. The education system seems to be more about being able to pass tests instead of actually learning applicable skills, and the racial divides are deeper and sharper than ever. Various talking heads spout theories of why this and how that, and offer solutions to the slightest problems without digging out the roots of the greater problems. It’s very much a “let’s spray the dandelions without pulling out the crabgrass.” People are scared – what will fill in that space if we pull the crabgrass? Better just spray the dandelions… those we can control.
I’d like to take a minute and look at the flaws, how I think they can be addressed, and why flaws are in fact an essential part of anything. I will also say that while I’d like to think I’m offering any answers or hope here, I recognize that anything I say has already been said, and ignored, by smarter, louder, and more influential people, and still the problems persist.
There are always flaws. We live in a mortal, fallen world, run by mortal, fallen people, with resources that we don’t use to their best effect. This is kind of the point of this world. I believe in a greater plan, set forth by a loving God made up of Heavenly Parents, and They are trusting us to be the best we can be through following Their commandments and principles. In the book “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the Plan is referred to as Ineffable – beyond comprehension. (I will mention, as an aside, that “Good Omens” helped me understand what I believe better than nearly any non-fiction book I’ve read. If you haven’t read it, or watched the series, I highly recommend it.) Because we and the world we inhabit are fallen, we have the right, duty, and privilege of making choices that either bring us closer to refinement, enlightenment, knowledge, and wisdom, or take us further away from those things. It’s often said that we make the choice and act, but we do not get to choose the consequences of our choices and actions, and therefore, every choice and action has significance because of the consequences. If you’re anything like me, every time a major choice needs to be made, it’s done with so much handwringing and worry that the wrong path will be taken that eventually the choice just gets made for me and I have to live with it. This has happened far too often in my life. Recognizing that and following through on making actual choices has been the major project of my adult life. Practice will eventually lead to improvement, right?
So what are these flaws that we ask God to mend?
The first is obvious: Inequality. It rises up and slaps away at anyone who doesn’t fit the “ideal”. Anyone different enough to notice. Anyone deemed inferior or inconvenient. Heaven forbid we have to find an interpreter, make entrances accessible, provide services specific to a need. Heaven forbid we pay attention to or listen to the words of someone with different experiences, backgrounds, interests. It’s just too much to bear. “That doesn’t affect me” seems to be the mantra of inequality as conflict leaves chaos in its wake. In this place, where we value the right of the individual and say that all are created equal, we certainly don’t act like it. Whole nations driven off their lands so it could be used by someone “better”, families torn apart by slavery, war, and other brutalities. These are not the acts of a nation or a people who believes in equality. Certainly we can stand around arguing about what the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution meant by “all men” and how it relates to the definitions we use today, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. Slavery has been abolished and the freed slaves declared citizens, no longer 3/5 of a person but a whole person, for over 150 years now, and yet we are having the same argument: does a Black person have the same rights as a white person? What about someone of Asian descent? And what about the people of the First Nations, who were displaced so brutally for so long, and whose wounds are still so deep and raw? If we value freedom so highly, why are we not valuing it for everyone? Why subject so many people to so many systemic and intentionally constructed obstacles?
Here’s where we get a lot of the same old answers – because this is how it’s always been, oh they’re just whining, they just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, it’s the choices they’ve made, it’s the fulfillment of a prophecy, blah blah blah. And the inequality keeps going and we are all shocked when something happens, but it fades as fast as morning dew, and nothing changes. There seemed to be some real hope about a year ago when the outrage bubbled over- peaceful marches, real conversations, what felt like sincere listening… and yet again it all faded. We all displayed proudly our “solidarity posts” on social media and then tuned back out. Of course real life has to continue. Bills to pay and so on. The world doesn’t stop turning. But maybe, just maybe, there was enough notice taken that we all became just a little more sensitive to those around us.
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the shift to more working remotely, suddenly another group started to be seen a little more clearly, and that was the disabled community, especially those with mobility issues. Delivery services, jobs, video conferencing, all these options became so much more available and desirable all at once, and now that the need for them is ebbing, they are going away little by little too. Doctor’s appointments that didn’t require physical exams or bloodwork suddenly are going back to in person when they don’t need to be. Curbside and to the door delivery are slowly backing off and getting more expensive. I heard cries of “Finally! Finally we are being understood and the world is seeing how easy it is to be somewhere virtually instead of navigating a wheelchair through narrow doorways, over high thresholds, on a crowded street. Being looked at instead of over. Being treated like a person instead of an inconvenience.”
There is an old argument against abortion that says something to the effect of “The baby you killed could have been the person who cured cancer.” I daresay the person who is going to cure cancer or some other horrible disease, or who solves some of the world’s greatest problems, is already alive but is being overlooked because they don’t fit the mental image of a contributing member of society. Maybe that person is locked in a body with muscular dystrophy, or is living well below the poverty line, or is juggling three jobs just to make ends meet. How have we decided as a nation that someone’s value is based on their ability to walk a flight of stairs, or the color of their skin, or the way they talk? There are reasons – so many reasons – why there is no official national language or religion. The United States was not meant to be a homogenous nation. It was meant to be a place where anyone can thrive, but it is up to us, the individual and collective citizenry, to make it be so. We must – MUST – put aside any notion of ‘not in my backyard’ and change it to ‘who is my neighbor and how can I help them?’ Even one person at a time can make a difference. In a nation of over 300 million individuals, I know that we can individually and collectively mend the flaws, becoming truly America the Beautiful. We don’t need to wait for God to do it. We can do it, with Their blessing and approval. They expect us to do it.