In light of the racial unrest in America, is the 4th of July a cause for celebration or further protest for justice? To answer this question, historical reflection during difficult times can be helpful.

Through his powerful address on July 5th, 1852, in Rochester, New York, the great orator and statesman (and former slave) Frederick Douglass proposed a similar question:

“Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?…Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned!

Appealing to the biblical ideal in the Declaration that all men (and women) are created equal, Douglass made clear that until this truth became reality—especially for millions of black men, women and children then in bondage—he would not celebrate this day:

“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn… Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery…the great sin and shame of America!”

Douglass acknowledged the hypocrisy of the United States’ proclamation of liberty in light of the gross reality of slavery—especially those who tried to justify slavery through the misuse of Scripture. As an aside, the attempt to defend slavery biblically led to a split not only among individual believers but the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations as well—a divide from which some historians believe the U.S. Church has never fully recovered.

In spite of these painful divisions, amazingly, Douglass did not reject either his Christian faith or his country, but hearkened prophetically to the coming judgment of God—realized through the Civil War—a divine justice future President Lincoln would refer to in his Second Inaugural address as “true and righteous altogether” for the 250 years of “unrequited toil” of slaves in America.

As Douglass boldly declared, “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

With the coming Civil War and the resulting emancipation, African Americans would experience a brief respite of liberty and a glimmer of a hopeful future through the Reconstruction years. Tragically, the short-lived freedom many experienced would quickly give way to Jim Crow laws, lynching, convict leasing, red-lining, police brutality, racial profiling and discrimination—no doubt discouraging the celebration of July 4th for decades to come.

Nevertheless, this did not deter Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from calling upon the ideals of the Declaration of Independence once again in his inspiring 1965 Fourth of July sermon entitled, “The American Dream.”

The sermon came almost one year to the day after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law (prohibiting discrimination in employment, public places and facilities and providing for public school integration) and one month before the Voting Rights Act was enacted on August 6th (outlawing the discriminatory voting practices against African Americans).

Dr. King defined the American Dream in what he deemed to be the “majestic words” of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Reminiscent of his 1963 speech from The March on Washington, Dr. King made clear that this dream included everybody—white and black, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, humanist and agnostic.

But where did these rights come from?

Although it would be centuries before these ideals would be realized in America, Dr. King made it clear where they came from and what made them unique in world history: “They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.”

The intrinsic worth described in the Declaration was ultimately not given by government but by God, who created humanity in His image. And being equal before God, all men and women deserved the justice of being treated with fairness and dignity.

Dr. King continued with the following. “The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected…And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God…One day we will learn that.”

Speaking at Independence Hall on his way to Washington, D.C. in February 1861, Abraham Lincoln recognized this “sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence”—the “promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men.”

Perhaps at this moment in our nation’s history, we can celebrate advancing closer to that promise by recognizing the unity in diversity brought about by the imago Dei in all humanity.

A true cause for justice and a reason worth commemorating this Fourth of July.

John A. Murray is the President of Imago Dei Leadership Forum

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