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Which image will prevail?

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THE UNITED STATES is often a source of perplexity to the rest of the world, as others wait to see what we will turn out to be in our still-new role as the only superpower. We aren't too sure, ourselves. Support for the war in Iraq is declining. We waver between wanting to set the world aright, and wanting just to be left alone.

Independence Day offered as good a clue to the national ethos as any. Its imagery and stories create a national ethos that has much to do with both the best and the worst in the US today. The heroes of the story are citizen soldiers and statesmen, supremely personified in George Washington, a leader of remarkable persistence, balance, and restraint.

It is a story of people rising up against oppression, asserting that freedom and self-determination are always and everywhere morally and politically preferable to control imposed from without. But what does that tell us about ourselves, in an era when we are apt to be the external force imposing on others?

Americans have not always been quick to extend the principles of Independence Day to other oppressed groups, even within the US. It took a long time to think of slaves, women, people of colour - now even gay and lesbian people - as included in its mandate. We still haven't figured out how to embrace Native Americans as full participants, in part because their sense of identification with communities of their own means we can't simply reduce them to individuals in the European mode.

When one looks at our place in the larger world, the picture becomes still more unpredictable. Independence left a legacy of armed struggle. The citizen-soldier defended the freedom of his community and family. He was carrying a gun. The gun is always there in the images. As Americans, we don't like to think of ourselves as using the gun aggressively, least of all to oppress others. But, as a people, we can't just turn loose of it, either.

There is always the question which image will prove more powerful at any given time: the armed man, or the fight against oppression. Sometimes, as after 9/11, they get confused with each other.

National legends have a way of sticking around, surviving into new eras, and being put to new uses. The British, in their high imperial era, were still thinking of themselves at least partly in terms of the plucky little nation that routed the Armada. Would Great Britain have been a better or a worse imperial master without it? It's not easy to say. The point is not to get rid of the legends, which may be impossible anyway, but to recognise their ambiguity, and make responsible use of them.

The Church is struggling with similar issues. What founding image will dominate us now: the orthodox defending themselves from heresy, or the apostles proclaiming good news that transforms lives? Athanasius against the world, or Jesus sending out the disciples? The struggle within the Church is as unpredictable as the struggle in the American psyche.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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