Growing up in Hong Kong, attending a British school and having just a few American friends, I sadly lacked a broad understanding of American history.
My limited interaction with Americans meant I wasn't aware of this deficit and assumed the world was full of curious people wanting to learn the histories of almost all the countries of the world.
My siblings and I, of course, were taught how Hong Kong came to be, from a very British perspective. I only realized later in my life that all history is taught with bias. We learned some Chinese history; we learned British history, we learned Russian history and a smattering of other histories as they came to be relevant. As far as American history went, we were schooled in only a few things - we heard about slavery and racial tensions, and I emerged from school with a foggy understanding of how America came to be.
My parents embraced the British school system on our behalf, and for that robust education, I am indeed grateful. At the same time, my parents were quite patriotic at heart and sought to pass on this fervor to their children, their American-by-virtue-of-extension, offspring.
Both my parents had been trained as teachers, and both thought of their children as students - our minds were the raw material they had to work with and train. Some parents focus on nurture. My parents focused on instruction. And instructed we were.
When it came to U.S. history, they recognized we had huge deficits. As missionaries, and my Mom a missionary kid herself, they knew the importance of imparting to children a sense of national identity. They also knew that being raised in a third culture would make identity confusion likely. My parents longed for us to know and embrace a sense of 'Americanness.' Let me interject that I recognize the existence of Central and South America as part of the Americas, but as a child, my parents chose to focus on teaching the history of the United States of America because of my citizenship.
Some of these efforts were centered around Thanksgiving - a day that was never a holiday in Hong Kong but was sacrosanct in our household. My Mom was rigid about ever missing school except for Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, we got to stay home while all our classmates went to school. But it was no vacation day. This day morphed into endless hours of onion chopping, and apple peeling and table setting and cream whipping and dishes washing. I suppose we were meant to be so thankful to skip school that working in the kitchen would be a joy. The lesson, sadly, was lost on us - but we did learn to recognize and focus our attention to the why of Thanksgiving. We learned about the pilgrims, their struggles, and how they were fed the first years of their exploration of the new world.
As for the 4th of July, this, too, was not a special holiday in Hong Kong, but it was summer, and we were off school. We did participate in patriotic activities like going on a picnic and singing America, the Beautiful. We were taught that the 4th of July was America's birthday that came about when it declared independence from England's rule.
We were fascinated by all things American, sometimes with awe and admiration, and sometimes with a sense of panic and embarrassment. Whenever America entered some war or when politics made us look villainous to the global community, we would feel sheepish among our friends at school. We had little grasp of what was going on in world news and were only exposed to World Service of the BBC that my dad listened to on the way to and from school.
In honor of July 4th, and the need to instill patriotism in us, my Mom insisted that we learn the Star-Spangled Banner. I'm happy I learned this anthem. Most Americans know the words by heart and sing and honor them regularly at sporting events and patriotic concerts, so I would be an ignoramus not to know it. But, I was surprised upon my entry and (still attempted) integration into U.S. society, to learn that, even though almost everyone knows the first stanza, very few people I have met know the rest of the anthem. There are four verses in all, and the average American only pays homage to the first. Yes, there are three more verses after the last lines of 'the land of the free and the home of the brave'!
As part of our indoctrination in all things American, we learned all four stanzas. And if the goal was to instill a deep love of country, freedom, and patriotism, I believe the last stanza did more to achieve that in my soul than the first.
I'm highlighting it here in case you have missed it along the way somehow - in case your mother didn't take you to a high peak on a mountaintop in Asia with the humid wind rippling through your hair and have you belt out the melodious strains of our country's national anthem. It is a more victorious and passionate poem - this last stanza. And although we understand that America is not a perfect nation and that we long for God's blessings to fall on all the nations, not merely the one we call home, it is also right and proper to reflect on our history (with eyes wide open and remorse for the failings of our past, of course), and to learn to love the land we find ourselves building our lives in.
As I type these words, from memory - perhaps you can hear the melody float through as you sing it.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
The longing penned in these words is palpable - that men would be free - free to stand and establish their homes and leave the desolation of war behind them. The writer recognizes the source of peace as something only a Divine power could provide, and invites the reader to return praise to the Maker of nations and peoples.
Some may cringe on reading the charge to conquer - and the just cause of such. There, of course, have been many unjust actions, wars, aggressions, and movements by our nation. We dare not sugar-coat history and glowingly report only the feel-good stories. But in the context of this song - in throwing off the yoke of the oppressor - those who would tax and rule and dominate while hampering the drive for autonomy and freedom - I believe it was a just cause. And since the very foundation of our nation was in casting off the yoke of oppression - by establishing herself as one who would take as its motto "In God is our Trust," perhaps we now are on the cusp of a movement back to such ambitions. Perhaps we ought to view our patriotism as something of a calling - to continue to throw off yokes of oppression for others - to invite them to the kind of freedoms we enjoy.
By all means, this July 4th, have your parties, sing your anthems, reflect on the gift of freedom you enjoy. But in your celebrations, perhaps include this last stanza, and recognize that there are those both within and outside our borders who long to celebrate freedom from oppression. And maybe, just maybe, you will have a part in ending that - in raising your voice for the oppressed - in casting your lot in with those afflicted and downtrodden. You may even find yourself longing for a kingdom that is perfect, that has the Perfect King who rules by justice, mercy and peace - and realize that the greatness of America pales - exceedingly - in comparison with the kingdom of God, which has no end and which is also entirely about setting captives free.
The Clapham saints worked tirelessly in this vein - to end the oppression of slavery - to unleash their Christian freedoms on nations - to effect change in governments and societies to strive towards justice for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. We rejoice in their successes but lament at the existence, still today, of slavery, oppression, and brutality.
The invitation in this stanza is to trust - to stand as free men and women, to leave behind the desolation of war, and to trust - ruthlessly, boldly, graciously - praising the Power that makes and preserves our nation.
Will you join me in responding to such an invitation? I hope you will.