This Sunday's worship is on 4th July, Independence Day in the USA. It is usually forgotten that the declaration on 4th July was followed by several years of war between the new United States and Great Britain, only ended when the UK government removed the much-bruised British army, believing that its forces were better focused on Canada and Europe. At that time, France and Spain both retained huge colonial lands in North America and it took many more years before the USA managed to fight or buy them out of the continent. In fact, with the British left firmly in position in Canada, the North American landmass was eventually split almost 50:50 between the USA and Canada and remains so to this day.
Our cousins in the USA, based around English colonies and growing in a wonderful mix of immigrants from all over the world, will be celebrating their breakaway from a distant, exploitative and small group of people living in a small country where very few people were allowed to vote. Of course, far from being a rallying point for free people, the USA had to share in the shame of the transatlantic slave trade, driven by the demand for cheap labour in the USA, the growth in transatlantic trade in raw materials and manufactured goods and the willingness of British businessmen to make money from both.
As we think of our common Christian heritage, we need to remind ourselves that those very same people in the UK and the USA that dutifully went to church and said their prayers also willingly participated in the enslavement of millions and built the foundations of racial prejudice that are the scourge of the USA and Europe today.
We cannot 'beat ourselves up' over this; it is what happened and it cannot be undone. What we can do is acknowledge these past sins, look within ourselves for how we have been shaped by this history, listen to those who are still suffering and resolve to change our ways. The USA Declaration of Independence contains these words: '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.' These are fine words but they were not acted upon for all people when they were written and they have not been since.
Our Lord said 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. He did not say, 'Love a person you like as yourself.' In the 1970s, ITV ran a comedy series called 'Love thy neighbour'; in essence, it mocked Jesus's basic commandment and featured a racist white man and a black man who reacted as a racial stereotype. It ran for eight series, so it certainly wasn't unpopular and every episode featured racial slurs being shouted between the men. That much-watched series was only possible because of the currents of hate and fear running through a society that had made historical fortunes for many people through slavery.
Nowadays, we are facing a barrage of press editorials that accuse people of being something called 'woke'; in earlier years they were called 'PC' (for 'politically correct'). Before that the names used were a lot worse and spoke a lot more of the prejudice of those using them. Whatever the words, they are used to accuse those who wish to 'love their neighbours' of being wrong; instead, you have the right to hate your neighbours and to act on that if you wish. That is the 'freedom' that it is claimed you should enjoy and anyone who seeks to fight against that is wrong.
This is the opposite of what Jesus and his apostle Paul said. Paul in particular emphasised that the freedom that people had as a Christian had to be tempered by self-control, by reflection on Jesus's teaching and by acting out his call to love one another above all else. Jesus himself also called for the oppressed, the poor, the old, the 'lowly' to be cared for above all others. He mixed with everyone and made a point of doing so, to the fury of those in power and sometimes of his own disciples. He lived out his own commandment and died for all, not for one race or clique.
On this Independence Day, may we live out Jesus's commandment as we reflect on that Declaration of Independence, loving all our neighbours as ourselves, wherever and whoever they might be. Amen.