July 1, 2017

Three Spiritual Lessons I Learned from US Independence

July 4th is Independence Day in the US, which in 2017, marks the 241st anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. On that day, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress declared that the thirteen American colonies regarded themselves as a new nation. Now commonly associated with fireworks, parades, fairs, concerts, and family gatherings, the event that triggered the celebration became a model—political overtones aside—to later emancipation and freedom movements around the globe.

The events surrounding the writing and the signing of the US Declaration of Independence have resulted in endless reflections and discussions by scholars and ordinary citizens alike. In the form of advice, allow me to share three lessons I learned from US independence. While I am certain they are not original, I have found them particularly useful for personal and corporate spiritual reflection. It is my hope they may also prove useful to whoever happens to read these lines.

1. Choose Your Fights. Historians agree that one of the first significant events that led to American Independence was the Boston Tea Party incident in December 1773. A few months before, trying to save the “official” tea company, the British Parliament had passed the Tea Act, effectively taxing tea exports to America. In defiance, a group of demonstrators boarded a ship in Boston Harbor and destroyed an entire shipment of tea by throwing it into the water.

King George III and the British Parliament responded harshly by ending local self-government in Massachusetts and closing Boston’s commerce. Colonists responded with additional acts of protest. The crisis escalated, and the rest—as it is commonly said—is history. The American Revolutionary War began near Boston in 1775.

“All that has perplexed us…will in the world to come be made plain.”

Being a spiritual leader—as we all are in our expanded or limited sphere of influence—means “reading the times and the signs.” In our interaction with others, we might often find ourselves disagreeing with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is then that God’s guidance can bestow heavenly enlightenment on us so that we know when to push our convictions forward, and when to retreat to avoid grieving but instead saving “the one for whom Christ died” (see Rom. 14:15).

Rehoboam’s leadership dilemma (see 1 Kings 12:1-16) still applies. Or as a German proverb puts it, “Better a lean agreement than a fat lawsuit.”

2. Be Aware of Your Blind Spots. Thomas Jefferson, considered one of the “Founding Fathers” of the United States of America, was also the principal author of its Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, who as part of his previous law practice had defended slaves seeking freedom, included in the document adopted the now famous second sentence. “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.”

Despite the document’s lofty ideals, George Washington, Jefferson, and others were rich owners of plantations where hundreds of slaves kept working for decades after US independence. Moreover, based on some of Jefferson’s writings, some historians point out that one of his rationalizations for owning slaves was that he believed they were inferior and that if freed, they would cause nothing but trouble.

Jefferson’s case is not unique. We all have blind spots, dark alleys where our Christian practice often negates what we proclaim to believe.

“Individual members of the church should be jealous for their own souls, critically watching their own actions,” wrote church co-founder Ellen G. White, “lest they should move from selfish motives” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 488). And Jeremiah the prophet unveils the core issue behind it. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9), he wrote. Because of sin, all of us are in fact “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked,” (see Rev. 3:17, 18) Only God’s “eye salve” can enable us to see as God sees us.

3. Look at the Big Picture. The revolution leading to US independence provoked a social crisis that affected thousands. Not everyone stood with the revolutionaries. Historians believe that as many as 500,000 US residents—a sizable chunk of the population at the time—sided with the British. Families were divided along loyalty lines. The most dramatic example was when Benjamin Franklin’s own son William opted to remain loyal to the Crown. Father and son hardly ever spoke again.

After the war, those called “Loyalists” were in a bind. Families, neighbors, and church members were divided. The ones on the losing side either moved to Canada or stayed, sometimes to suffer abuse and dishonor.

A few years later, however, money proved to be a better glue than politics, as the British Empire and the United States re-established business relations. On the other hand, Canada and the United States—but for an occasional glitch—have always enjoyed what has been described as one of the most fruitful relationships between bordering nations. What at the time seemed to many the end of the world as they knew it, proved to be just one more event in the ebb and flow of human endeavors.

Also in our spiritual and church walk, we need to learn to step back and look at the big picture. In perspective, some of the so-called “watershed events” often lose part—if not all—their sting. What sometimes appears as a big—personal, family, church, you name it—crisis is just an earthly bump in our road to heaven. Which reminds me of another of White’s statements, which helps me to put all things in perspective.

“All that has perplexed us…will in the world to come be made plain,” White wrote. “The things hard to be understood will then find explanation…. Where our finite minds discovered only confusion and broken promises, we shall see the most perfect and beautiful harmony” (Our Father Cares, p. 67).

I don’t know about you, but that’s the ultimate Independence Day I am definitely looking forward to!