There are certain things we carry with us for life – memories, words, tunes, images that stay long past their time, lingering somewhere in the hidden parts of the heart, living buried beneath the current cares of the day. Sometimes however, they surface unbidden, these forgotten treasures time has left for lost. Such are the words that come so clearly to my mind, words that walk with me through these days now filled with COVID and chaos.
“Oh, beautiful for patriot dream, That sees beyond the years. Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears! America! America! God shed His grace on thee . . .” I remember singing these words in elementary school choir. I remember wondering what “alabaster” was. But even then, I knew what a patriot was. We had studied Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death” and Nathan Hale, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
I had learned about Crispus Attucks, a sailor and rope maker, who became the first martyr for the American cause when he was killed March 5th, 1770, the first to die in the Boston Massacre. He was a former slave, one of what is estimated to be between five and eight thousand Black Americans who fought on the Patriot side against the British crown during the years of the Revolutionary War.
Perhaps I feel a particular connection to this proud patriot because I work at a high school that bears his name and has a legacy of achievement and success. Salem Poor is another American patriot, most remembered for his heroism at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Poor, who had been born a slave, eventually purchased his freedom for twenty-seven pounds and later joined the fight for American independence from Britain.
Perhaps the patriot, the person, I most identify with though, is Phillis Wheatley. She published a book of poetry in 1773, becoming the third woman and the first Black American to do so in our nation. Her writing “carried strong messages against slavery and became a rallying cry for Abolitionists: . . . She also advocated for independence, artfully expressing support for George Washington’s Revolutionary War in her poem . . . ” It was said of Phillis Wheatley that she “was a revolutionary intellectual who waged a war for freedom with her words.” That’s my kind of woman! I want to follow in her footsteps!
Yes, I understood patriotism and sacrifice even then. My grandfather had served in the South Pacific during World War 2. John F. Kennedy’s words “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, inspired a new generation of patriots while Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” spurred us all to press on until the words of the Declaration of Independence should become a reality for every single American.
I am wondering where they are now, the patriots, for such a time as this? Now that we are so close, so much closer than we were, why are they so silent? The words to the song continue in my mind. “Oh beautiful for heroes proved, In liberating strife, Who more than self their country loved, And mercy more than life!” There’s that self sacrifice again, by sacrificing for something greater than themselves, patriots past have left us their legacy.
What are we doing to honor their memory? Is the dream Martin Luther King spoke so eloquently about now dead? Never to be realized as we abandon all that is good and descent in favor of tyranny and rule by terror. Are people now too afraid to stand up and speak out for what is right?
“America the Beautiful” was written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 and first published in 1895. While hiking in the mountains of Colorado, she saw first hand the beauty of the landscape. “Inspired by that, and by her desire for equality, she wrote the poem, ‘America the Beautiful.’ In it, she showcased her love and hopes for her country.”
Even in 1895, the author was talking about “liberating strife.” She knew there were those still striving for their freedom, even after the Emancipation Proclamation had become a reality years earlier. (1863) These words from the song are particularly telling. “Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern, impassioned stress, a thoroughfare of freedom beat across the wilderness! America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.”
Those words from 1893 are meaningful still. Today, the truth that our laws, as written into our constitution and our Bill of Rights, provide us our liberties, our protections, our freedoms – is under attack. The author of this song loved this country while at the same time recognizing that there were things wrong that needed to be righted. Hence the line, “God mend thine every flaw.”
Katharine Bates shows us that we can see what is wrong within our country and love her at the same time. We can do both. We don’t have to be blind to her faults to love her and to stand up for her. (We continue to love our children when they do wrong, but we endeavor to help them to change and to do better. We don’t give up on them) It is precisely because we love our country that we fight for her and we fight to make her a better place for everyone who lives within her borders.
Our past has proven that we can do this, especially if we fight together instead of fighting each other. We want the same things – peace, prosperity, the freedom to work and to worship as we choose without government interference. Where are those “alabaster cities gleaming, undimmed by human tears” that Bates wrote about? What did the author see as she wrote those words in 1893? Did she see what was or what could be? Was her gaze on the present? Or was she looking into the future seeing what America could become?
There have been plenty of human tears over the years since Bates penned those words. And there are more than enough tears being shed on a daily basis currently as our cities burn down before our eyes (Portland -61 days of violence continuing right now) and people continuing to die day after day from gun violence in our city streets. Bates knew the alabaster cities of her song held human tears, but she acknowledged they also held forth the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – a promise so powerful as to be still gleaming, undimmed by human tears.
There is no liberty without law. Right now people are not free to walk the streets of their own cities without fear. It is incomprehensible that we are witnessing protesters and politicians attack and tear down the very country that protects them as they do so, the very country that provides them the education and the opportunity to pursue their own path and to succeed.
If freedom falls here, to where will we flee? Our country was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Today we find ourselves again “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” (Gettysburg Address)
This battle is for the hearts and the minds of every American. Deception is the weapon of choice and truth is the only antidote to the deadly poison of lies and deceit that is being poured out continuously over our nation.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Interesting how truth is a prerequisite for freedom, isn’t it? without truth freedom cannot flourish –
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17)
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,” (Psalm 33:12)
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
justice, mercy and humility – Lord, help me practice these today and everyday –
sincerely, Grace Day