What to the Never-Enslaved is the 4th of July?

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It is America’s enduring and, to many, unrepentable national fault, one that has been relentlessly and incessantly beaten like the proverbial dead horse every 4th of July for decades: “America is not perfect”—as if it were possible for America, or any other nation that is populated by sinners (and every nation is populated by sinners)1The apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:23 (NASB, 1995), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Conversely, Ecclesiastes 7:20 states, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on … Continue reading to be “perfect” (whatever “perfect” means).

The current socio-cultural milieu in America is such that one need not strive very long before landing precisely on what national fault it is that I am alluding to in the aforementioned paragraph: slavery. Slavery—and particularly America’s (grossly misunderstood) role in it—is the only act for which those who actually never experienced it as a slave can, nonetheless, claim to have been injured by it and, subsequently, demand and receive compensation for their non-injuries primarily in the form of government reparations.

The singling out of the United States, which, by the way, did not officially become a nation until 1776, as being more egregious than other participating nations in facilitating and profiting from the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted more than 400 years, is par-for-the-course for, if I may be so blunt, America-hating slavery reparationists whenever the observance of July 4th rolls around. One example is this July 3, 2019, article by Ms. Arielle Gray, who states,

For us [black Americans], the Fourth of July remains a hollow statement, a shallow symbol of a freedom that is only a mirage for many. It remains a festivity with no substance, a celebration with no soul. And every year, we are reminded that while we are able to participate in the party, the party isn’t for us. We are only visitors who may or may not be asked to leave once the party is over.

Not unlike many young black Americans today, Ms. Gray, predictably, in expressing her contempt for the very nation that affords her the freedom to express such disdain, leverages a speech delivered on July 5, 1852 by the noted abolitionist, orator, educator, and former slave Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), titled “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?

Now, I will grant you that the title of Douglass’s speech poses a legitimate question for what America was as a nation—in 1852. Rightly did Douglass exclaim,

O! had I the ability and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.2Great Speeches by Frederick Douglass, James Daley (ed.), Dover Publications, Garden City, New York (2013), 36.

In hindsight, I concur with Douglass’s impassioned sentiments.

But please note that Douglass’s speech is titled, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” and not “What to the Black Person who is not a Slave and who Never was a Slave is the 4th of July?” My point is that Douglass’s speech doesn’t apply to Ms. Gray—neither chronologically nor categorially—as she wasn’t alive in 1852 nor was she a slave in 2019 when she published the aforementioned article.

The annual misapplication and miscontextualization by black Americans, particularly young black Americans, of Douglass’s “What to the Slave . . . ?” is, in my personal opinion, a very sad and disheartening commentary on how an increasingly anti-American public education system is indoctrinating them to hate the nation that, despite its imperfections, has nevertheless provided them with opportunities they would not otherwise be afforded in other countries.

Notwithstanding his well-founded criticisms of the prejudicial climate and construct of mid-nineteenth century America, Frederick Douglass never viewed America as being unique in that regard. In fact, quite the opposite. In a speech titled, simply, The Race Problem, delivered before the Bethel Literary and Historical Association on October 21, 1890, at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C., Douglass confessed,

I admit that during many years to come the colored man will have to endure prejudice against his race and color, but this constitutes no problem to vex and disturb the course of legislation. The world was never yet without prejudice. There exists prejudice in favor of and against classes among men of the same race and color. There is prejudice between religious sects and denominations; between Catholic and Protestant; between families and individuals. The time may never come this side of the millennium when men will not ask, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”3Great Speeches, 103. Emphasis added.

Douglass understood that ethnic prejudice, what our culture today calls “racism,” was a universal and unavoidable reality in the world. The reason that reality is unavoidable is because it is universal. The Scripture verses I cited earlier explain why—because sin is both a universal and an unavoidable reality. That is what people like Ms. Arielle Gray seem to not understand. We are, in reality, as the seventeenth-century Scottish Puritan Thomas Boston forthrightly described in his book titled Human Nature in its Four-fold State,

It is the corruption of man’s nature which brings forth all the miseries of human life in churches, states, and families, and in men’s souls and bodies. . . . The change wrought upon men by good education or forced upon them by a natural conscience, though it may pass among men for a saving change, yet it is not so. For our nature is corrupt and none but the God of nature can change it. Though a gardener, by ingrafting a pear branch into an apple tree, may make the apple tree bear pears, yet the art of man cannot change the nature of the apple tree. So a man may fix a new life to his old heart, but he can never change the heart.4Human Nature in its Four-fold State, audio book version (Audible), chapter 5.

The universality of sin is why America, and every other nation on planet earth, is not, nor will ever be, perfect—nor is it supposed to be. Why should any citizen expect from its home nation—or any nation—that which that nation is inherently incapable of granting? Though justifiably indignant at America’s failure to live up to its constitutional values, Douglass was not dismayed:

The business of government is to hold its broad shield over all and to see that every American citizen is alike and equally protected in his civil and personal rights. My confidence is strong and high in the nation as a whole. I believe in its justice and in its power. I believe that it means to keep its word with its colored citizens. I believe in its progress, in its moral as well as its material civilization. Its trend is in the right direction. Its fundamental principles are sound. Its conception of humanity and of human rights is clear and comprehensive. . . . It stands out free and clear with nothing to obstruct its view of the lessons of reason and experience. . . . One by one I have seen obstacles removed, errors corrected, prejudices softened, proscriptions relinquished, and my people advancing in all the elements that go to make up the sum of general welfare. And I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty and humanity will ultimately prevail.5Great Speeches. 36, 103–104.

Governments—all of them—are comprised of sinners (Ecc 5:8). And, yes, though America is not perfect, I would challenge those who may happen to be of a similar mind as Ms. Arielle Gray to show me another country or nation that has done more to right the wrongs of its past so that she, and any other black person who has the ambition, character, and strength of will, can make of herself, for better or worse, whatever it is she endeavors to be. For as Frederick Douglass said,

I am certain that there is nothing good, great or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor, either physical, mental, moral or spiritual. A man may at times, get something for nothing, but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing. What is true in the world of matter, is true in the world of mind. Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress and without conflict, no victory. The man who lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will waken wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening.6Great Speeches, 133. From the speech titled “Self-Made Men,” delivered on April 6, 1894, just 10 months before Douglass’s death, at the Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

It’s high time for black people who are angry with America to acknowledge that today’s America is not the America of 1852 of which Frederick Douglass wrote in “What to the Slave . . . ?” It is the America which, in less than twenty years’ time, has seen a black man elected and re-elected President of the United States, a black woman elected Vice President of the United States, and the first-ever black woman confirmed to the United States Supreme Court.

No, my dear reader, America is not perfect. The reason it isn’t perfect is because Americans like you and I aren’t perfect. When you and I become perfect, then so will America. Then again, because of what Scripture declares about the universal sinfulness of mankind, we know that neither of those things will happen until Christ comes again, don’t we?

Happy Independence Day!

Soli Deo Gloria!

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1 The apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:23 (NASB, 1995), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Conversely, Ecclesiastes 7:20 states, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (NASB, 1995). Given these two texts, among others, it stands to reason that every person in every nation on the face of the earth is a sinner.
2 Great Speeches by Frederick Douglass, James Daley (ed.), Dover Publications, Garden City, New York (2013), 36.
3 Great Speeches, 103. Emphasis added.
4 Human Nature in its Four-fold State, audio book version (Audible), chapter 5.
5 Great Speeches. 36, 103–104.
6 Great Speeches, 133. From the speech titled “Self-Made Men,” delivered on April 6, 1894, just 10 months before Douglass’s death, at the Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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Darrell B. Harrison

Lead Host Just Thinking Podcast

Darrell is is a native of Atlanta, Georgia but currently resides in Valencia, California where he serves as Dean of Social Media at Grace To You, the Bible-teaching ministry of Dr. John MacArthur. Darrell is a 2013 Fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a 2015 graduate of the Theology and Ministry program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Darrell studied at the undergraduate level at Liberty University, where he majored in Psychology with a concentration in Christian Counseling. He was the first black man to be ordained as a Deacon in the 200-year history of First Baptist Church of Covington (Georgia) where he attended from 2009 to 2015. He is an ardent student of theology and apologetics, and enjoys reading theologians such as Thomas Watson, Charles Spurgeon, and John Calvin. Darrell is an advocate of expository teaching and preaching and has a particular passion for seeing expository preaching become the standard within the Black Church.