In 1776, on the 4th of July, the founding fathers of the United States signed the Declaration of Independence. No longer would they tolerate British rule. The land they had taken for themselves and their families would belong to them alone, not to a foreign power. Today, with hot dogs and fireworks, we celebrate that declaration of freedom.
It’s ironic. There these men were, up in arms about taxation, about not having a say in laws that affected them, about \trade restrictions that hobbled them, yet they never considered the indigenous people who’d maintained this land for 10,000 years, nor did they think of the slaves that many of them claimed to own. I say “claimed” because it is only a human conceit that makes us think we can have dominion over another person. Though we can force our will upon another, that does not make them ours.
So on that day long ago, freedom for some did not equal freedom for all. Given that legacy, it’s not surprising that we in the United States continue to argue about rights for people who do not look like our founders, who is not a landowning, white male. The difference between castes is not as stark now as it was then, perhaps, but we have ways to ensure that some people are more equal than others.
An Idol of Independence
Perhaps that has something to do with how we view independence. To judge by how we behave, we appear to believe that independence is the right to take what we want regardless of how that affects others. Our desire to control, dominate, and own affects more than just humans. It also affects the land, the sea, and the non-human creatures who dwell among us. In only a few hundred years, we have cut down most of the forests, polluted rivers and plains, driven animals to extinction, and drastically changed the climate.
Are we so short-sighted that we care for nothing except our right to do whatever we want, regardless of the consequences? In America, we have made an idol of independence. We’ve used that rallying cry of individual freedom to justify the destruction of anything that gets in the way of our lust for power and our greed for riches.
It’s like an addiction. We never have enough. Eventually, our entire being becomes focused on getting more, regardless of how much it hurts us. Everything in our lives can fall apart, yet we will continue to go for the gold.
And why not? If we’re rich enough, we can avoid the consequences of our actions. Or so we assume.
Our Interdependent Reality
In reality, we all breathe the same air. True, in India, where air pollution is sometimes fatal, the rich can afford the air purifiers that make their homes more livable, and they can afford cars to whisk them through the city smog, though nothing can protect them from all toxins. In the United States, if the EPA cannot control how much businesses pollute, we, too, may one day live with the same kind of dirty air. Then, even the wealthy will die younger and feel sicker than they would otherwise. Money doesn’t shield us from everything.
Nor can it save us from the trauma of a tsunami or an earthquake. Smart homeowners might build above the ocean’s roar, and the wealthy may retrofit buildings to withstand the worst of the Earth’s trembling, yet even with natural disasters, we are not equal. None of us is immune.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we are more interdependent than independent. Like any other creature that moves and breathes and flaps its wings, we are of the Earth. The heat, fires, toxins, and storms that threaten the natural world besiege us all.
Our tendency to pretend otherwise may be a common human trait, yet it may also come from our Puritan heritage, a Christian piety that embraced the idea of righteous wrath and Westward expansion. According to the scholar, Perry Miller, John Winthrop named the founding vision of our nation in his sermon from 1630 in which he talked about a great “city upon a hill” that would be seen by everyone. The preacher meant for the colonies to be a vision of righteousness and right living. 
The phrase Winthrop used, “a city upon a hill,” has come to represent American exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan used it to celebrate “individual freedom, material prosperity, and American power.” According to the National Endowment of the Arts, it has been part of the platform of the Republican party since 2012. 
In reality, though, Winthrop wasn’t speaking of rugged individualism when he spoke of that fine city, but of how we should live in loving community with one another.
His was a story of interdependence, in which “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more neatly together in the bonds of brotherly affection,” adding that “we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.” 
The City on the Hill
Building that “city upon a hill” was about building a community based on love and mutual support. If this new nation was to be a beacon, it should be one that fulfilled the mercy, love, and charity of their God.
As we have seen, though, that mercy, love, and charity he spoke of were meted out imperfectly. Winthrop’s sense of his own religious infallibility, his belief that the white settlers were called by God to dominate the natural world, led to excesses and injustice. For instance, he willingly took land from the Native Americans because, since the original settlers hadn’t “subdued” the land, they had no “civil right” to it. 
What a compelling myth it is, this story that we have the power to subdue and control, especially when we can claim that power comes from no other than God himself. Indeed, in Winthrop’s mind, we had not just the power, but also the mandate. It is natural and reasonable to claim everything for ourselves.
Limits on Independence
It’s appealing, this Declaration of Independence. We like the talk of unalienable rights and the idea of independence. But what does that mean?
Is true independence the right to do whatever we want no matter what? Or does it mean we must erect safeguards to protect the vulnerable? If everyone should be rugged and individualistic, who is liable for the damage that causes? What does it mean for women, blacks, or children to be free? Who gets to enjoy free speech, religious freedom, the right to bear arms? Should these rights truly be unlimited? How would that work?
Humans are not independent. We live in families and communities. Together, we build something greater—or sometimes worse—than we could do on our own. Rugged individualism is a fantasy. We do not make our own luck. We owe a debt to our mothers, to our gods, and also to our planet, our neighbors, and those who came before. All of us are interdependent, not just some of us. To pretend otherwise is a threat to everything we know and love, because it makes us selfish, impatient, and cold.
He Spoke of Love
When the Puritan, John Winthrop, gave his “city upon a hill” speech, he was talking not about how great we are, but how vital it was that we not “deal falsely with our God.” The values Winthrop espoused are not our values today. He believed that God created the “rich and mighty” and the “poor” so we might learn to take care of one another, but he still believed there should be both classes, and that while the wealthy should be generous and merciful, the poor should be faithful and obedient.
It’s like noblesse oblige, where the privileged are expected to be generous to the less privileged. Life will always be unfair, but we have the power and the obligation to minimize that inequity as much as possible.
Yet that sentiment holds within it a paternalism many of us dislike, perhaps because it also restricts our freedom. The wealthy are restricted because they are expected to give of what they have, and the poor are restricted because they are expected to stay in their place, to take what they’re given and be grateful.
Even if we would call some of his beliefs misguided, including his preference for a government of kings,  he did speak of love. “We must love brotherly,” he said, “without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.” 
Mercy and Charity
It’s a lovely sentiment. Who can argue with love?
Yet how we understand love is as complicated as how we understand freedom. When is it love, and when is it possessiveness? Is it love if we restrict that feeling to our own kind? Is love a feeling at all, or only an action? How do we show love? To whom? Why?
This holiday of independence we’re about to recognize is also complicated. These days, it’s obvious that the founding of our nation was not a perfect good. If God is looking down on us as a “city upon a hill,” meant to be a beacon of righteousness, I can only conclude God is disappointed. We have so affirmed the cult of individualism, that we have forgotten about mercy and charity.
Individualism versus Collectivism
The other day, I was talking with a chaplain colleague from Russia. Unlike the United States, which is one of the most individualist countries in the world, Russia is collectivist. There, the family and the community are more important than the individual, and the individual has no reality except as part of the whole.
Even so, now that his Russia-born son is a teenager, he has learned to appreciate the freedom of the individual. After all, independence is enticing. How inviting to do anything, be anyone. The pressures of the family, the demands of the sacred, cannot compete with the heady rush of making one’s own way in a limitless world.
True, the family also brings comfort, and the sacred can be uplifting, but no matter what we get, there is a cost. Some people would rather give up comfort and serenity for the lure of the open road and the freedom of having no attachments.
Living that way has its own costs, though. In America, we are lonely. Our hearts are empty. Our unbridled freedoms have morphed into oppression. At some point, my freedom must interfere with your rights, for we can’t all have everything. Think of all the school children and their teachers who feel oppressed by the limitless access to weapons. Who is free here, and who is caged? The state of our planet is more evidence of what our rapaciousness has destroyed.
Too Perfect a Love
I’m an American. While there are many different Americas, even in the United States alone, I, like most of my compatriots, am more comfortable with independence and personal choice than with collectivism. I believe our individual rights must be curbed, sometimes, for the good of the whole, but I still appreciate owning my own home and choosing my own career.
I don’t pretend to understand the collectivist mind, because it isn’t mine, but I still value the lessons of those who understand how to sacrifice something of themselves for the good of the community. If we worshiped our individualistic values a little less and honored the collective a little more, maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to dominate others, to “subdue” the land, to own so much. Maybe, then, we’d actually be more free.
So it’s important to honor our interdependence. We do belong to one another, and we are one with nature. There is no “them,” only a broader and more diverse “us.” Can we not see ourselves as human first? Can we not recognize our duty to care? Would it be so terrible to temper our independence with responsibility for the vulnerable? Or would that be too perfect a love to sustain?
If that sounds like an impossible aspiration, that’s nothing new for our nation. The United States was founded by white Europeans with all kinds of grand ideas. Yet, over and over, we fell short.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to try. We should. If we don’t get it completely right, we can still do better. Of course, deciding whose definition of “better” we should strive for is part of the challenge, yet just because it is a challenge is no excuse to give up.
Similarly, just because freedom is not freedom unless it has limits, that doesn’t mean we must allow totalitarianism to take hold. That doesn’t mean we can’t find a balance between rights and responsibilities, between independence and interdependence. We can, if we choose to.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God gave us a choice between life and death. Because of the way we are treating one another and the way we are treating our planet, we are coming perilously close to choosing death. May we wake up soon and choose life instead.
In faith and fondness,
- Van Engen, Abram, “How American Became ‘A City Upon a Hill,'” HUMANITIES, Winter 2020, Volume 41, Number 1, https://www.neh.gov/article/how-america-became-city-upon-hill, accessed July 2, 2022.
- “City Upon a Hill,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_upon_a_Hill, accessed Jun3 27, 2022.
- “John Winthrop,” New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/John_Winthrop, accessed July 2, 2022.
- “A Model of Christian Charity,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Model_of_Christian_Charity, accessed June 27, 2022.
Photo by Dan Russo from Unsplash
Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.