Unfinished Work

My father usually reads the Declaration of Independence out loud when we get together on the Fourth of July.  I suppose we'll do it again this year, if only to savor the beauty of the cadence of those words.  When I was young and listened to the Declaration, I used to feel pride and gratitude for our country, flaws and all.  But I've been struggling hard to find anything exceptional about our country right now.  The "long train of abuses" that stirred the founding fathers into revolution are nothing, nothing at all ,compared to the abuses we suffer from our elected government now, and we do it without a murmur. 

Would I rather have a bloody coup?  Of course not.  I suppose it's something to be proud of, that our nation manages to transfer power peacefully every election.  Nobody dies when we throw out one bum and bring in the next.  But good grief, I'd like to see more than that.  I'd like to see that it's still possible to bring about change using the system the founders designed, but the gears have become so clogged with money and cronyism, it barely functions (and if you think I'm speaking about any one particular party, you're blind).  When something good happens -- when a decent, moderately virtuous candidate does appear, or a sensible bill gets passed, or a monstrous one is defeated, it's almost like a fluke.  We're the land of ten thousand monkeys, and the democratic process is a typewriter. 

So I don't know if I can stand to hear the Declaration of Independence this year.  It will be a happy day for the kids, full of sparklers and hot dogs and marshmallows.  I don't want to muck that up with heavy irony. 

We just passed the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. In this astonishingly compact apeech, Lincoln looks back at our founding, and then he looks around at the rubble and the blood-soaked ground.  And then he does something extraordinary:  he looks forward.  He says,

It  is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us --  that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for  which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve  that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall  have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people,  for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That's where we are now.  We're standing on a battlefield.  We've been engaged in the most horrible thing a country can do:  fighting itself.  At least in the Civil War, it was obvious that that's what we were doing.  Now we hear the words like "liberty" and "unity" coming out of the mouths of people who despise freedom, who put all of their effort into subverting unity, who see citizens as subjects who must be tamed and gagged and spied on and, if it seems expedient, murdered.

So I can't hear the Declaration of Independence and feel pride in our country -- not today.  But I can hear the Gettysburg Address and take courage.  I can see the struggle and grief of the nation, suffering now as it is, and I can look forward.  If they could recover from that, then we can recover from this.  Those of us who still love the Constitution are the living.  We're the ones who understand that the country is not great, but it's not over yet.  It is still, as Lincoln said, "unfinished work."   

To the pro-lifers who refuse to be overcome by an obscene and hysterical mob:  you are the living.  To the volunteers who knock on doors and mail flyers and work the phone banks to rally support for a candidate who isn't thoroughly cynical:  you are the living.  To young law students who take on enormous debt because you want to make better laws, or defend people against the bad laws that exist:  you are the living.  To people whose cars are keyed because their bumper stickers aren't tolerent enough; to students who fight their way back into the classroom after teachers throw them out for speaking their minds; to citizen scholars who patiently call into radio shows and wade into battle on Facebook and Twitter; to demonstrators who are spat on and legislators whose families are threatened with rape and death:  you are the living. And to ordinary citizens who pray for our country every day -- not because we're on the side of God, but because God will come to our side if we beg -- you are the living.

This country is unfinished work.  The battle isn't over yet.