It is July, which means this month we celebrate the founding of our great nation and the freedoms we enjoy as American citizens. One of the patriotic songs that we will most certainly hear in our celebrations is the hymn Samuel Francis Smith wrote in 1831 while a student at Andover Theological Seminary. The words of the first verse are probably familiar to you:
My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing; Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrims’ pride, From ev’ry mountainside, Let freedom ring!
Today in our country, we speak most often about freedom in terms of “my rights.” As an American, we treasure the fact that in our Declaration of Independence, we state this self-evident truth: “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.”
The source of our rights is God, who gives every person life. We ought to enjoy our liberty and be free to pursue the path of our lives that God has chosen for us. Finding one’s calling in life is the only way to truly discover happiness.
In all of this celebration, however, I am afraid that an important foundational truth will be overlooked. With rights also comes responsibilities. Our freedom and liberty demand a proper response from us, and how we use our rights is critically important. When we misuse our freedoms for purely selfish gain, we do both harm to ourselves and to our neighbor. This might rightly be criticized as a “gluttony of freedom”.
Those who demand their rights and take no responsibility for their actions are like a petulant child whose only concern is “Me! Me! Me!” When they have to share, or do not always get their way, they complain, “That’s not fair!” Such a self-serving frame of mind is not liberty but licentiousness. Neither God (the Author of our liberties) nor our Founding Fathers (the authors of our Independence) would advocate for such a mercenary democracy.
We live in a land “where our fathers died,” and that means that our freedom is not free. It costs a great deal. According to some estimates, our liberty has been purchased by the blood shed from over 1.1 million military men and women. This is an astronomical price. Did the Founding Fathers have any idea that our freedom would be so costly? And if they did, what would be their critique of the sort of self-serving freedom that is sometimes touted today?
With rights also comes responsibilities. What then should our response be for the precious freedom that has been purchased for us? Perhaps the motto that appears on our National Seal can show us the way. “E Pluribus unum” – “Out of many, One!” Such a motto reminds us that we are one nation, under God. Our rights are not meant to be used solely for selfish gain, but rather employed to serve our neighbor.
As Christians, we should be at the front of the line when it comes to a proper response to freedom. Our eternal freedom was purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and for the sins of the world. We enjoy all the blessings granted to us by our Heavenly Father, including the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection from the dead, and life everlasting. We celebrate the astronomical cost Christ paid for our salvation, and rightly so! We’ve been declared righteous, and have been made citizens of His eternal kingdom.
Yet God’s grace also harkens us to a godly, faith-filled response. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Jesus summarizes the Law this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
As we celebrate the 243rdyear of our independence, we thank God for our nation and for our freedom. We also pray that our lives would reflect this great gift bestowed upon us. We make it our aim to love and serve our neighbor and community, even if that means some sacrifice on our own part. Finally, perhaps this year we might not only sing the first verse of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” but it’s last verse as well:
Our fathers’ God to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King.