If you’ve ever visited a country with an oppressive government, you know how precious the meaning of July 4th is. Even if you haven’t been in a cruel country, but have watched the news of this past week, you can deeply sense the impact of the absence or presence of freedom.
This week in America, we saw the incredibly positive culmination of spirited debate, years of litigation and uncommon compassion from everyday people: racism, homophobia, and economic inequality reflected in overpriced healthcare were big losers. Admittedly imperfect and slow, significant progress was made on these key issues. Many challenges that still lie ahead, but this upcoming American holiday gives us a timely opportunity to celebrate these achievements.
But abroad during this week, in Syria, Somalia, Iraq and France to name only a few places, loathsome terrorists killed hundreds of people by using brute lethal force. These individuals are pretenders. They aren’t brave for they are deathly afraid of powerful ideas about what it means to be human that are contrary to their beliefs.
Events here and there are connected. The same forces in Western democracies that hearten us here frighten fundamentalists of all stripes and in all places. Battling over ideas and values leaves a much less certain and often-ambiguous outcome then battling with weaponry.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain moderate political and religious views for a variety of reasons. The value of moderation is that it can bridge views at opposite ends of the spectrum. But, speaking personally, when I watch the utter ugliness of fundamentalists in action, I begin to wonder if moderation is an unintentional friend to extremists. It is incomprehensible to me, as a religious moderate, how “religious ” individuals can torture, brutalize, torment and persecute anyone in the name of religion in this day and age. Sometimes it feels like the numbers are reversed and that we’re living in the 12th Century and not the 21st.
So while July 4th is not a holiday found on the Jewish calendar, it still feels very Jewish and especially universal this year. Maybe it’s time for moderates to advocate more vigorously for the right to hold different viewpoints and remain in caring conversations with one another. Holding on to dissent and empathy isn’t easy, but that’s what people who are truly free can do. For a week like this suggests that we are not debating just one particular issue or idea. Rather, the essential argument is about human freedom and how to best augment it in the face of legitimate differences. And that is an ecumenical issue that I’ll be thinking about this July 4th.