July 4, 2012 (Independence Day)

ON THE FOURTH OF JULY

                                                      Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                              at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 4 July 2012

 

“In God we trust.”        “We, the people …”           “One nation under God.”          “Out of many, one people.”         “[G]overnment of the people, by the people, and for the people …”  “The United States of America.” These are words and declarations with which we are all very familiar, words and phrases that bring a lump in the throat for many people.  Americans, in their hearts of hearts know what they mean, even if they might find it difficult to put the feelings that they give rise to in so many words. 

When I was working for the United Nations in Bangkok I had a French translator colleague who asked me on one occasion what these words meant – or some of them.  Perhaps he thought that as I had been recruited by the United Nations while I was living in New York that I must be an American citizen.  But he came to me and, as only a Frenchman can, he asked me, “Monsieur Smith, will you explain, please, the difference between these words – people, nation, state and government.”  Now that is not the easiest question to answer in terms to someone whose native language is not English, and certainly not American English, so that he would understand. 

“Government” was fairly simple.  It is the body that determines the laws and implements them.  “State” was a little more difficult.  Normally one might say that the State was that entity governed by the Government, and that definition works well enough when talking about a state such as France or Italy.  But then you get countries that describe themselves as “the United States”, and there are at least three of those on the American continent that do that.  In popular English we might call them Brazil, Mexico and America, but each of them in their official titles recognize that it is a union of states. 

“And what is the difference between a state and a country?” my colleague then enquired.  When I thought about that I decided that a country is a geographical entity whereas a state is a governmental entity.  That might not be the best I could have done, but it made sense to me and I think it made sense to him.

At least it helped me to understand what we might mean by people.  The French are a people who regard themselves as culturally linked to an entity called France, the geographical boundaries of which have varied over the centuries, but whose statehood has remained largely intact under a system of government that is distinctly French. 

But that still leaves the question of what is a nation and my colleague and I struggled to the conclusion that a nation is made up of people who regard themselves as legally obliged to a state, and to whom the state has reciprocal obligations. 

All this might sound very dry and academic, but it is important to translators to have an understanding of words so that they can use the correct terminology in their own language and so that everyone can be on the same page when drawing up international treaties and agreements. 

It was Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg who linked the idea of a single nation under God governed by the people for the people and representing the people.  It was a noble idea, even if elements of it did not originate with Lincoln.  But they are words that, nearly one hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, resonate with the thinking of the Founding Fathers.

Lincoln himself made that link when he began the Gettysburg Address, with the words concerning “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  But two words should stand out in this quotation, and we need to understand them in the way that Lincoln used them a century and a half ago, which may not be the same as we understand them today.

He spoke of “a new nation, conceived in liberty”.  Clearly the Founding Fathers, when they conceived of this new nation, while yearning for liberty, were looking to some future possibility, not the reality of their own day.  This was the “conception of an idea” rather than of a material entity.  Women conceive material entities – we call them children.  Men can only conceive ideas, which by definition are future possibilities, which may come to fruition, but equally may well not. 

Lincoln also spoke of a proposition, the proposition that all men were created equal.  Again this use of words indicates that this is merely an idea that has not yet been adopted.  A proposition remains a proposition until it is adopted, when it becomes a resolution.  (Incidentally it is a nice point as to whether the Founding Fathers were thinking of “men” as a generic term describing all human beings, or as an exclusive term describing particular human beings, male human beings, and, if they were thinking in this way, just how particular were they.  Were they thinking of all male human beings, adult that is, or of some particular adult males?)

The challenge for us today as we celebrate the Declaration of Independence is to look at society in this country as it exists today and to ask ourselves whether those concepts and propositions of the Founding Fathers as spoken of by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg have indeed become the reality or if there is still some way to go before they become a reality.

In other words, is this state, to use the international term to describe a sovereign entity, truly United?  Do we yet see a country, a recognized geographical entity, in which all people, regardless of who they may be, have equality across the entire spectrum of human affairs?  Do we see one nation in which all people can sense total acceptance of themselves as they are, or is this simply a political entity under one government where some, a few, make the decisions and everyone else is expected to conform?  Is that really government of the people, by the people and for the people?  Or are a few powerful persons taking advantage of the rest of the population?  Is there truly respect for all within the geographical borders of this country?  To pose these questions is probably to answer them! 

We are fooling ourselves if we think that the concept of the Founding Fathers has somehow become the reality, that the proposition of the Founding Fathers has been adopted by all not only as the way people should live in this country, but as the way everybody has the opportunity to live, and that government in this land is truly in the hands of all the people for the benefit of all the people.

Perhaps the Epistle reading for last Sunday should give us pause.  In writing to the Corinthians, Paul suggested that it is important to bring to fulfillment what has been put under way and to do so with the same eagerness and enthusiasm as those who initiated the actions to implement those dreams and visions.  He was writing out of the need, the necessity that those who are currently prosperous, in whatever way, should reach out to those who are not, so that at some other time when his readers had a need that need might be met by the prosperity of those who had by then become prosperous. 

Paul was not suggesting that anyone should impoverish himself, but that all should work with others to see that no one is impoverished.  That surely would lead to the equality about which Lincoln spoke when he claimed that all men are created equal.  If being a man (or a woman) means being equal with others, then any action taken that removes such equality or prevents it makes us less than human, whether we have less or more than anyone else. 

So, even as we rejoice on this anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, let us remember that none of us is truly free until we all are, and we can only know that liberty together, for did you notice that the quotations with which this address began use the first pronoun plural – we – and it is only when we think in such terms that we see what this country has been called into being to be – one nation under God, regardless of who we are or from where we and our forebears came.

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