“I pledge allegiance to the flag …” We recite these words in classrooms, at ballgames and at civic gatherings. During these days of debate and conversation concerning certain words within the pledge, do we listen to all of the words and take them seriously?
The last words of the pledge are perhaps some of the most powerful words of civil and spiritual commitment we can proclaim: “with liberty and justice for all.”
We live in a nation that envisions liberty and justice for all people. For some, “liberty” has become a license for self-centeredness and “justice” has been reduced to sheer vindictiveness or revenge.
The dictionary defines liberty as “the state of being free.” But liberty involves much more. The historical American concept of liberty is not that one is free to do as one pleases without accountability for actions. Rather, our heritage of liberty means that we are not owned or enslaved by another person or power. We enjoy individual and corporate freedom within the boundaries of ethical and moral responsibility. True liberty calls on us to express ourselves with civility and to respect the rights of others who may think differently.
The dictionary defines justice as “the assignment of merited rewards or punishment.” But justice is much more than being affirmed for right behavior or punished for bad behavior. Justice strives to create viable opportunities for all people to succeed economically, vocationally and socially. Real justice seeks to create opportunities for the disadvantaged. The Bible gives us many examples of the disadvantaged: the poor, widows, orphans, the sick, strangers, the hungry, the homeless, and those in prison.
In our Pledge of Allegiance we commit ourselves to work for “liberty and justice for all.” The phrase “for all” means everyone. “For all” is inclusive of gender, race, economic status, political ideology and religious background. To believe in liberty and justice for a select few is to abide by a shallow theology and uninformed patriotism.
Obviously, not everyone has achieved liberty and justice. So on the Fourth of July, we celebrate the achievements of liberty and justice in the past, and we pledge ourselves to continue to work for liberty and justice for all people in the future.
Liberty and justice are not just philosophical ideals. Liberty and justice represent a dimension of moral and spiritual values that are practiced in our daily living. John 8:32 says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” and 2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Isaiah 28:17 says, “For the Lord is a God of justice,” and Amos 5:24 says, “Let justice roll on like a river.”
This week we will celebrate Independence Day. Picnics, recreational games and fireworks will all mark the birthday of our nation’s independence. As you celebrate, recommit your talent, your energy and your influence to making “liberty” and “justice” a reality for all people.
Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.