This weekend we celebrate the Fourth of July, high holiday of American civic religion and universal occasion for cookouts, stars-and-stripes bikinis, and raucous displays of unbridled patriotism.
More than 200 years ago, however, there was no such unanimity on the subject of the American Revolution. Though our popular history tends to avoid such off-message details, about 15 percent of white American colonists during the Revolutionary War were loyalists, and perhaps more surprisingly, close to half were effectively neutral.
Prominent among the neutral colonists were pacifist Christians — mostly Quakers and various types of German Anabaptists and Baptists — who declined to fight on theological grounds. Though they were typically not loyal to England, these churches refused to join the Revolution, rejecting violent conflict even when waged in the name of liberty.
"[W]e have dedicated ourselves to Serve all Men in every Thing that can be helpful to the Preservation of Men's lives, but we find no Freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in any Thing by which Men's lives are destroyed or hurt," declared a group of Mennonite elders and teachers in November of 1775, in a letter thanking the Pennsylvania Assembly for exempting them from conscription if they paid a fine or found a willing substitute.
Likely aware of the persecution — including imprisonment, confiscation of property, and rough treatment — that would await some of their number as war fervor swelled in the coming months, the elders added, "We beg the Patience of all those who believe we err in this Point."
Though the colonial governments generally urged tolerance towards the pacifist churches, Tories and Patriots alike were suspicious of those who would neither fight nor swear loyalty to one cause or the other. When incarceration was not forthcoming, mob attack too often arrived instead.
Ironically, given the revolutionaries' numerous tax-focused grievances, the Quakers were a particular target of mistrust because they would not pay taxes to support the war effort. ("No taxation without representation, except you definitely have to pay taxes to fund our militias whether you want this war or not" would have made a less catchy slogan, I guess.)
The pacifist perspective on the Revolution goes all but unheard today, as patriotic hymns are queued up for this Sunday's service. Indeed, for many American Christians, the rightness of the Revolution — a conflict between two majority Christian armies that, in the general way of war, valued wealth and power above love and unity — goes without question. With President John Quincy Adams, much of the modern American church affirms in deed if not in word that, after Christmas, Independence Day is our "most joyous and most venerated festival," a day to celebrate what is perceived as a major accomplishment in God's plan for the world.
The trouble is that the pacifist churches were right. As theologian Greg Boyd has asked, "How can a holiday that celebrates one group of mostly professing Christians violently overthrowing another group of mostly professing Christians be venerated by people who are called to love their enemies and to be peacemakers, even if they happen to find themselves on the side that won?"
That's not to say that I wish we were British or even that I won't watch any fireworks. America is my home. I'm thankful to live in a nation that from the start has placed a historically high value on freedom and individual rights, and I, too, object to taxation without representation. As a libertarian, my views on the appropriate role of government are almost certainly closer than average to the classical liberalism of the Founding Fathers that Independence Day commemorates.
But it is to say that I can't celebrate, even indirectly, the unknown tens of thousands of deaths that were the price of independence. In this I am following in the footsteps — admittedly with far less personal risk — of the Quakers and Anabaptists who refused to cause those same casualties.
It isn't that I dislike America, but that its claims on my allegiance are a very distant second to the claims of a different sort of Kingdom altogether. For the Kingdom which Jesus came to establish is fundamentally not of this world. It is marked by peace among people of all nationalities, and a freedom guaranteed not by declaration and war but by the work of Christ. America has a lot of good points, to be sure, but it is not identical to and cannot compete with the Kingdom of God.
And the Fourth of July, inspired by the soaring (if unequally applied) rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, may rank pretty highly as political holidays go, but there is nothing particularly Christian about it. Certainly Christians can enjoy fireworks with our friends this weekend, but we would do well to view the whole affair through "Kingdom lenses," recalling that these sparklers burn in celebration of a "Thing by which Men's lives [were] destroyed."