I love Arnold Friberg’s classic painting “The Prayer at Valley Forge.” This painting depicts George Washington taking a knee in the snow, falling down before God to pray for strength and guidance at perhaps the darkest hour of the Revolution.
It is a painting oft-portrayed on patriotic occasions, and I think it is very fitting for today. But, the reason for my love of this painting has shifted in recent years. I’ve long had an affinity for the deeper symbolism of “The Prayer” because it beautifully portrays a moment of humility, in which a great man surrendered to the need for Heavenly guidance. It is a powerful image of our heritage.
But, the reason I am drawn to the painting this Fourth of July is not because of its place in our history, but rather the message it holds for our continued path to independence. “But,” you may say, “we are independent.” Well, sort of.
We have, in some measure, preserved the physical liberty bequeathed to us – whether by the Founding Fathers, the suffragettes, the Civil Rights movement, feminism or any of those still working today for social justice and equality. But, the far greater import of our spiritual independence seems to have fallen by the wayside somewhere along the course.
No, this post is not about one religion being independent of, or elevated over, any other. It is about the independence of our individual and collective spirit.
Somewhere in the course of our history we have become a country enslaved by our own creation. I’m not talking about the bloated size and reach of our federal government. I am talking about the idolatry with which we worship the things and base desires in our lives.
There’s nothing wrong with possessions or money. They are inanimate objects, and can bear no moral value. But, there is something to be said about the manner in which we worship things, and the way we have elevated affluence to a perverted virtue in our society.
We have become slaves to our possessions, idolaters at the altar of wealth. We bear great pride – in the worst possible sense of the word – for our place in the world, and in society, presumably greater than others in some way, in spite of our affirmations that “All men are created equal.”
That pride comes with a tremendous amount of fear – fear that we will lose something if someone else gains anything. We fear losing our status, our wealth, our place of pride. We fear anyone who does not look, act, believe, pray, speak, love, and live like us. We fear any change, anything different, as if freedom has come to mean everyone conforming to one mold. We have become a nation guided, motivated, and enslaved by fear. And that fear constrains our hearts in ways no foreign power could ever achieve.
We have returned, then, to place at which we must pray for the strength to win our independence. But our greatest foe today, that from which we must win liberty, is not some imperial power. It is us – our collective fear, pride, idolatry, and the baseless nationalism these vices beget.
If we truly desire independence, then, it must begin within. We must seek the strength to lay down our fear, to surrender our pride, and to embrace a freedom in which the elevation of our neighbor is cause for celebration, not anxiety. That is a tall mountain to climb. And it is a journey best begun by taking a knee, to pray for the strength and guidance for the task ahead.
So, enjoy the Fourth of July. Enjoy family, food, fun and fireworks. But, somewhere in the midst of all that, I hope we find the strength to surrender our human pride, to rise above our fear, and to begin the path to a true independence that will elevate all humanity.