I’ve been thinking about the name we give our Fourth of July Holiday. Independence Day. Of course it comes from the Declaration of Independence when we decide we could not longer tolerate being a colony of Great Britain. At that point, we weren’t even sure we wanted to be a nation so much as a collection of states who had united for the purpose of fighting against what we perceived as British tyranny. It took a good deal of further argument, and some economic necessities, for us to decide that the thirteen states would indeed unite to form a nation under a federal constitution. All that is history but it suggests to me how deeply this idea of independence runs in our nation’s sense of identity.
Never mind that independence depended on our seizure of land occupied by the First Nations peoples who were here long before us. Never mind that much of our early economy depended on an unholy acceptance of slavery by both South and North. Never mind that when slavery was threatened and the compromises no longer worked, the fight over the decision of the South to pursue an independent existence and break its union with the North cost the lives of 620,000 men. It seems to me that the “independence” that is etched so deeply in the American character has often taken such an absolute value that we have been willing to kill and commit numerous injustices when they may have been more peaceful and just alternatives. Even in the case of our revolution, the reality is that it was British incompetence and the challenges of communication over distances that contributed our problems as much as any tyranny. It might be argued that we could have achieved nationhood without war (and not had to fight a follow-up war in 1812).
My problem is not with the idea of “independence” in and of itself. It is rather when we make this an absolute value–when we fail to realize the ways we are dependent and interdependent. Independence of thought can be a good thing that leads to creativity, innovation, works of original beauty and insight. Nevertheless, even these things build on knowledge and skill acquired from the generations. And what happens when independence just becomes the stubborn refusal to take counsel and heed the sense of others? What happens when we so harden in our positions that being right matters more than finding some concord?
The truth is, none of us, neither individuals nor nations leads an entirely independent existence. We depend on family, community organizations, the labors of others for so much in our lives. Our very sustenance depends on an environment that is incredibly beautiful, fruitful and yet not invulnerable to our depredations. We likewise as a nation depend on an economic and trade system that is global. The truer reality is that we are “interdependent”, part of a web of relationships where we mutually sustain each other in families, communities, nationally and internationally. The hubris that denies this reality and glorifies our “independence” as an absolute, an ultimate value, seems to lead to rape of the land, plunder of the weak, and a violent way of life. And despite our use of “under God” language in our Pledge of Allegiance and the trust in God we express on our currency, I fear that this statement of dependence is often mere verbiage when the truth is we conceive ourselves answerable to no one.
So while I want to celebrate the birth of a country I truly love as both beautiful and remarkable in many of its achievements and whose Constitution seems to me a near work of genius, I have to admit that I am ever more uncomfortable with our language of “independence”. I think far more compelling is our expressed passion for “liberty and justice for all.” If today can be a day of renewed dedication to this ideal for ALL of our own people as well as the other peoples of the world, then that is truly cause for celebration!