America is a place but it is just as importantly an idea. A really noble idea. Freedom.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
When I was a kid, we said the pledge to the flag before school every day. I still remember it:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
As a child in the early 70’s, America meant but one thing; freedom. We were free. Communist countries were not free. Communists wanted to take our freedom. We were not going to let them. Things were really simple in the early 70’s.
Freedom was not an abstraction for me. In fact, I wore it on my wrist. Until it snapped in two in 1977 or so, I wore an aluminum arm band with the name of a man named “Georgi Vins” on it. Had no idea who Georgi Vinns was other than he was in a Russian concentration camp because of his faith. Come to find out, Vins was a Baptist Pastor who organized underground churches and protested government control of churches in Russia in the 60’s and 70’s. Arrested and convicted for the second time in 1974, an international group formed to protest his arrest and call attention to the plight of persecuted Christians (i.e. my wrist band).
Vins was eventually exchanged under the Carter Administration in 1979 with a small group of other Russian Christian leaders for two convicted Soviet Spies. He moved to the US, wrote some books, went on the speaking tour and advocated for Christians in Russia until he died in 1988 in Elkhart, Indiana. But when I put that aluminum bracelet on my wrist in my Jr. High days, it was certainly more about an idea I knew well than a man I didn’t know at all!
It was about freedom.
That America does not perfectly put the noble idea of freedom for all into practice is not even debatable but that does not tarnish the idea itself, nor its grandness. It is perhaps that very grandness that hurts so badly when we fall woefully short of it. We should be better. We should have made more progress. We are constantly reminded that we are not and we have not.
Racism runs deeply in this country. Slavery is the crack in the foundation this nation was built upon that we can’t seem to repair. Some people were never free. It is our original sin.
I think the American challenge circa 2021 is to turn the “idea” of freedom (abstract and without context) into a shared “ideal” of freedom (rooted and contextualized). The American Ideal reminds us that none of us are free until all of us are free and until there is justice for all; there is no justice at all.
What do we have in common in this divided nation? The ideal of freedom.
Who should be free? Everyone. Especially those for which freedom has historically been more an abstraction than a reality.
And even on the days when America breaks my heart, a flag flies outside my Midwestern cabin, “God Bless America, land that I love…”.
May we all be more free tomorrow than we were today.
I do believe. Still.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.