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July 2, 2022

This weekend Americans will again observe Independence Day. In 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England.

Independence Day celebrations were observed soon after the nation’s birth. In 1793, Moravian settlers chose the name Wachovia for the land they received by grant in what is now North Carolina’s Piedmont region. The Moravians of Salem were among the first to mark Independence Day with a torchlight procession around the village square singing “Now Thank We All Our God.”  The celebration was a reverent expression of gratitude for freedom. When Clare and I lived in Winston-Salem, we took our children to Old Salem every Fourth of July to experience the reenactment of that simple celebration.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first to observe Independence Day west of the Mississippi. On July 4, 1804, traveling along the Missouri River through what is now Kansas, the expedition stopped for the night at the mouth of a stream. They fired a cannon at sunset and distributed an extra ration of whiskey to their men to mark the day. Independence Creek was named in honor of the event.

It was not until after the War of 1812 that the holiday became a nationwide celebration. Parades were part of the festivities. Politicians used the occasions to give rousing speeches. Events like groundbreaking ceremonies for the Erie Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads were scheduled to coincide with July Fourth celebration.

My mother, Louise Hudson Neely, was born July 4, 1922. Had she lived in this world long enough, she would be one hundred years old. Though Mama will not be with us, the family plans to celebrate her birthday and Independence Day with a picnic, a family parade, and a prayer of gratitude.

When I was a young boy, I was impressed that everybody took the day off on Mama’s birthday. The lumberyard was closed, and the entire Neely family gathered at Pappy’s farm near Walnut Grove. We enjoyed a picnic featuring fried chicken, soggy tomato sandwiches, Mammy’s coleslaw, potato salad, deviled eggs, and blackberry cobbler. We went swimming in the pond. Some tried fishing, but the mosquitoes bit more than the fish. After a supper of leftovers, we watched as our uncles put on a fireworks display.

Because it was Mama’s birthday, it took me a while to realize that all of the festivities were not in her honor. Instead, we were celebrating the birth of our nation.   

When I was a student at Cooperative School, now E. P. Todd School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic on July fourth, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. My grandfather led us all in a blessing, not only for the good food and our family but also for our country. Those who had memorized the selection from the Declaration of Independence repeated it by heart.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the State of the Union Address, delivered to the 77th United States Congress on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enumerated four fundamental freedoms that should be the rights of human beings everywhere in the world:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom for every person to worship in their own way
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

“The Four Freedoms” speech inspired a set of four paintings by Norman Rockwell. They were printed in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, accompanied by essays on the Four Freedoms.

Freedom from fear is rare. John Kenneth Galbreath called our time the age of anxiety. We live in a world dominated by fear. We start our day with morning headlines that are alarming. The 11:00 evening news sends us to bed distraught. We live with constant angst. Few of us enjoy freedom from fear.

Since the atrocities of September 11, 2001, America has been on alert. Terrorists took possession of four commercial jet planes, converting them to weapons of mass destruction capable of attacking structures that had stood as symbols of strength. Our anger and fear have been magnified. Rarely in our history have we felt so vulnerable and so violated. The apprehension created by daily life pales in comparison to the distressing events of our world.

Terrorism literally strikes terror in the hearts of victims. Fear is the purpose of terrorist activity. It is not a new thing. For centuries, those who sought to control others have utilized fear as a means of domination. From Attila the Hun to Adolph Hitler, from the Christian Inquisition to Islam’s evangelism by the sword, from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution to the Bolshevik Revolution under Lenin and Stalin, from vigilante groups in the Wild West to the Ku Klux Klan in the postwar South, merchants of fear have attempted to control others by terror. The war in Ukraine is yet another example of the power of oppression.

Fear is rampant in our world and in our country. Mass shootings in schools and places of worship have intensified the horror. On January 6, 2021, American citizens stormed the Capitol building hoping to overturn our democracy.

The COVID pandemic has resulted in more than one million deaths in our country alone. Fear abounds in our world, in our country, in our families, and in our lives.

How can we secure freedom from fear in a world like ours?

I have only two suggestions. You may dismiss these ideas as “preacher talk” and cast them aside. These are what I believe to be the truth. Please pause for a moment to consider these ideas.

First, the ordinary circumstances of life often cause anxiety. Every day holds uncertainties and unexpected situations that are part of living. Watching a child learn to swim or helping a teenager drive can be scary. Sending a young adult into military service or putting an older adult on hospice care can fill us with dread.  

My mother, who had eight children and fifty-four grandchildren, had many reasons for worry. Mama had a favorite scripture verse that she wanted us to memorize. II Timothy 1:7 reads, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.” The One who created us does not intend for us to live in fear. We were created in the image of the Maker who loves us. So even when we face the ordinary crises of life or the greater terrors of famine and disease, war and death, we can be sure that we are not alone. We are surrounded by love. An elderly apostle wrote, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Second, we are often afraid of other people. In his book, The Nature of Prejudice, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport identified fear as the root cause of prejudice. Our fear of people who are different from us leads to bias. Discrimination, in turn, intensifies anxiety and leads to acts of violence. From Allport’s perspective, fear breeds greater fear. In other words, there is a cycle of fear.

Fear is the primary emotion at the root of terrorism and war. The more afraid we are of other people, the more we react with suspicion, prejudice, and violence. No wonder freedom from fear is so rare.

In his call for a declaration of war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He was right!

The master teacher instructed, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Mark Twain’s twist on that was, “Love your enemies. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” It is a difficult concept, but love is the only way toward freedom from fear.

Howard Thurman, born in 1900, was the grandson of slaves. He grew up as a sharecropper’s son. He was a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Sr., and a mentor to his son, Martin Luther King, Jr. He told a story about the time his family moved into a farmhouse that shared a back border with another sharecropper family. Soon after the Thurman family arrived, the neighbor cleaned out his chicken house, dumping all of the manure over the fence into the Thurmans’ backyard. Howard was furious, convinced that the act was racially motivated.

His mother spoke calmly, “I know what to do.”

For weeks, Howard’s mother did nothing. Young Howard seethed. The pile of chicken manure rotted in the hot summer sun. In the fall, Howard’s mother took a potato fork and turned over a plot of ground, working the chicken manure, now fertilizer, into the ground. In the spring, she planted the seed. By the following June, nearly a year after they had moved in, the neighbor had not spoken to the Thurmans, not even once. 

Then, one day Mrs. Thurman took Howard by the hand. They gathered fresh vegetables and flowers from the garden to fill a basket. They walked around the side of the fence and onto the neighbor’s front porch. Mrs. Thurman knocked on the door. The man who had dumped the manure into their yard opened the door. Mrs. Thurman said to the surprised man, “You were so good to share your chicken manure with us last summer. I wanted to share our vegetables and flowers with you.”

The decision to love our enemies is not an easy one. Refusing to return evil for evil, meanness for meanness, and violence for violence takes great courage that is often confused with cowardice. The wisdom of the ages teaches that it is only by love that we can overcome hate. Only by love can we break the cycle of fear. It is the way to secure freedom from fear for ourselves and our world.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu prayed, “Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death; Victory is ours through Him who loves us. Amen”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition 236 Union Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 583-9803.

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