I spent most of my elementary school years outside of Boston. Boston is a great place for a kid who loves history and sight-seeing. I remember a field trip to the Freedom Trail, although mostly I remember the look on my Mom's face when she thought one of our group had gotten lost (she hadn't). I also remember one Saturday morning asking if we could go visit the USS Constitution. My sisters groaned, but what parent is going to say no to a kid who wants to learn history? Unless, of course, there is a good reason. We went and I loved it.
When I was in nursing school Dad invited us to sail on the Chesapeake Bay. We all rendezvoused in Philadelphia - I was flying in from Memphis. We had several hours before we could board the boat - the Mariner's Green. What should we do? Of course I suggested visiting Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, since I had never been. There came that groan again, but of course my Dad said, "what a great idea!" My youngest sister was about 11, I think, and I remember pretending I could see George Washington's ghost. She wasn't impressed.
I tell you these things to let you know that I really do love my country. I have always considered myself to be a patriot - I served as an Air Force nurse and while it was during peace time I am still proud of that service. The flag, the Star Spangled Banner, and the 4th of July fireworks always made my spirit soar. September 11 was a Tuesday, and I cried until Sunday. At church that weekend there was red white and blue bunting everywhere, and the service was dedicated to the victims of September 11. I remember watching the flag being brought in - I suppose by a Boy Scout. I thought of the hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, but in my mind the word "head" changed to "flag."
This past Sunday was the Fourth of July. I went to church because Jay was playing the drum for fife and drum duets (he was awesome!). Sunday evening he performed with the local municipal band. The U.S. flag hangs over the band, and the concerts always start with the national anthem and this one, because of course it was the Fourth, ended with Stars and Stripes Forever. The Army Band, Pershing's Own, always ended their summer concerts with that march. I love that flag, and I love my country, and I love that march.
What do I love about my country? I love the mountains, and the beaches. I love bald eagles and bluebirds. I love the turkey with her poult that I saw in my driveway the other day, and the groundhog that is nosing around outside as I write. I love sunflowers and mountain laurel, sequoias and saguaro cactus. I love tall tales like Paul Bunyan and John Henry. I love the story of Clara Barton tending to the wounded of both sides during the Civil War. I love the ideals of freedom and liberty. I love the stories of George Washington's ragtag army defeating the greatest military power in the world. I love the image of America as the good guys. I love American ingenuity - George Washington Carver improving farming practices, NASA sending men to the moon, the people who designed and built the Golden Gate Bridge. I love the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, The New Colossus: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. I love the symbolism that poem evokes. I love the ideas that the Founding Fathers gleaned from reading their books that helped them develop a government unlike any other - one that has lasted for 245 years. I love the privileges that I have as an American.
The Fourth of July, America's birthday, used to be one of my favorite holidays, but it isn't anymore. This year I just didn't feel celebratory. We watched A Capitol Fourth on PBS after we got home from Jay's concert - I really didn't feel like watching the fireworks in person. All those people waving flags and dancing and the entertainers shouting, "Happy Independence Day!" Humbug. What happened?
Well - look back at that last sentence in the paragraph before the last one. I love the privileges that I have as an American. The sad truth is that I am realizing that I enjoy privileges because I am a white American. I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free (Lee Greenwood), but just because I am free doesn't mean others are free.
Like any country, any people, any community or neighborhood or family, we have our dirty laundry. We have things we do really well, and things we don't do so well, and things that we really need to stop doing. But somewhere along the line we refused to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with US - it must be THEM. They don't work hard enough. They don't love their kids enough. They don't worship right. And now - they don't love America enough. Who are THEY? They are us.
I've been thinking about this a lot. There is so much in the news that asks us to confront who we really are, not who we think we are. From black athletes protesting around the flag and national anthem - and isn't that a tried and true American right? - to the Olympic Committee insisting on only one kind of swim cap (REALLY? Maybe they should all just go without). From the Loudon County, VA School Board fighting - with fists - over teaching Critical Race Theory to the University of North Carolina controversy over whether or not Nikole Hannah-Jones should get tenure -she solved that one by choosing to go to Howard University. Good for her and too bad for UNC, but I do wish the white kids there would have had the opportunity to learn about her 1619 project. There is the battle between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez. Apparently Ms. Greene has announced that, "All voters are over COVID." Not this one.
I'll tell you one of the reasons I think we have ended up here. We have been told lie after lie after lie, starting with the one about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. We have built the Founding Fathers up in our minds to the point that we recoil to learn they were human. We don't pay all that much attention to our Founding Mothers, either. We want our heroes to be paragons of virtue - honest, strong, athletic, smart, Christian, kind but firm, courageous, hard workers ... basically we want them all to be Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but without the British part.
We believe in the myth of the American Cowboy - industrious, hard working, brave, hard drinking, hard loving, and suntanned, sitting around the campfire eating their beans and telling stories.
The sad truth is that I am afraid we have conflated patriotism and faith. And you know what? We are getting both wrong.
Somewhere along the line, people decided that Jesus needed to be a little more cowboy-like, too. He couldn't be wimpy, effeminate, and girlish, He had to be a man's man - strong, muscular, and authoritarian - in a kind sort of way.
I've been reading the book, Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. 5 stars - you should read it. But I can't read it before bed because it makes me too angry. The basic premise is that evangelical preachers way back around the beginning of the 20th century decided that men weren't coming to church because Christianity was too feminine. Jesus was too effeminate, so they set about bulking him up and making a man out of him. Basically, they remade Jesus - God - in their own image.
Let me just say here that I haven't finished the book yet - I'm only up to the Moral Majority and the Clinton administration - and I would need to read it four more times to really grasp all that Ms. Du Mez is saying. But suddenly I hear the words my father said to me about the "male ego" as not something he learned in childhood. I recognize some of my own understandings of church and God and I have to wonder: how much is just propaganda? Because that is what evangelical leaders, from Billy Graham to Paula White have been promoting. And the big idea is that God expects white men to be the leaders of the country and their families. Men of color are the leaders of their families. Women are to submit and be ladylike.
According to them, Jesus was only one in a long line of white patriarchs. Never mind that Jesus most certainly wasn't white, and wasn't exactly patriarchal either - he never married as far as we know, respected women and hung out with people who weren't exactly upper crust. For Jesus to fit their narrative, he has to be white, the head of the church, has to love women over whom he has total dominion , believes in capitalism, isn't communist or socialist (have you read the Gospels?). And most probably American as apple pie, too.
These conservative evangelical leaders believe that the United States was founded on Christian principles. Well, not really - George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and probably most of the founders were deists. They believed in a Supreme Being who created heaven and earth but did not interact with human kind. Many were slave holders - the self-evident truth that all men are created equal apparently didn't apply to people of color or women. Or maybe it did but was too thorny an issue to bring to fruition so they skipped over that part.
The Pilgrims came to the New World so they could worship as they chose - they wanted to be separate from the Church of England, which was an idea that Queen Elizabeth and King James 1 didn't find particularly palatable. That is why the separation of church and state is so important to us. As written in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Somewhere along the line, people like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson and many others began to convince us that the problems in America - crime, drug abuse, poverty, and homosexuality - were because we were no longer putting Jesus first. We took prayer out of school. We needed a national religion - of course these people also believe they are the ones upholding the Constitution (see above). We have allowed them and their loud, bully pulpit speeches - sorry, sermons - to convince us that the patriarchy is of God, that God has a special relationship with the United States, and anyone who questions or argues is flat out wrong and probably a communist. And they have convinced us that if we don't believe what they tell us we are sinful and condemned to hell.
Let's look at that special relationship that God has with America. Where, exactly, is that in the Bible? Can you give me the book, chapter and verse? Because I can't find it. God establishes his covenant with Israel - and I don't think the covenant is with the current nation-state of Israel. I think it is with the people of Israel. Jesus came and ministered to the Jews and to the Gentiles, and brought the message that God loves us all, but there is no covenant. 1,492 years later, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in a place no Europeans knew existed, because they were too busy calling people who said the world was round heretics.
In AD 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter Caetara, authorizing Spain and Portugal to colonize the New World, convert its inhabitants to Christianity, and enslave its people. Many natives were resistant to giving up their culture - wouldn't you be? Also, the natives didn't speak Spanish, so when they failed to convert on command, bad things happened to them. Really bad things. Is this how we believe God would establish a covenant with a country not yet established?
Of course mistreatment continued - native peoples were slaughtered over and over again. Lands were stolen. Children were taken away - and have you seen the news about the mass graves at assimilation schools in Canada? We are kidding ourselves if we don't think there are similar mass graves at schools in the US. One of these schools, the Holy Childhood Boarding School in Harbor Springs, Michigan, only closed as recently as 1983.
I've said before that I am descended from slaveholders. I used to be proud of what they accomplished, but now I realize that it was their slaves that accomplished it. It was slaves that built many of our patriotic symbols - and as slaves they remain nameless. More recently we have seen black men and women murdered by police. White elected officials are revising the history of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol. Former president Donald Trump seems to have unleased the closeted racism, homophobia, and xenophobia that is more rampant than we realized - or maybe a better word is hoped.
I've come to believe that the American flag - as much as I love that flag - has no place in the sanctuary of a church. Nor does the Pledge of Allegiance belong in a service of worship and I don't care if it is Scout Sunday. We have confused patriotism and religion and they are not the same.
We have created idols out of our patriotic symbols. When Gwen Berry won a bronze medal for the hammer throw a few weeks ago, she refused to face the flag and put her t-shirt over her head during the national anthem. She said she felt blindsided and that it wasn't appropriate so she protested. Now people are calling for her to be disqualified from the Olympics. Colin Kaepernick wanted to call attention to the issue of police brutality against African Americans, so he respectfully took a knee during the national anthem - a posture that veterans he spoke with told him was acceptable. He was forced out of the NFL. But isn't peaceful protest as American as apple pie? The freedom of speech is a freedom we hold dear - as long, apparently, as it is white people exercising it.
Did you see the flags people were wearing on the 4th of July? That is a violation of the U.S. Flag code. Displaying the flag horizontally across a football field before a football game is also a violation. But for an athlete to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem? Heresy! Treason! He is [insert any number of derogatory words here].
Brett Kavanaugh is nominated to the Supreme Court and credible reports of sexual assault come out, but he is confirmed anyway. For that matter, the former president was caught on tape boasting about sexual assault but was elected anyway.
I'm getting a little off-topic because the list goes on and on, and I am so disgusted and not a little frightened.
I am reading with dismay all the rhetoric around Critical Race Theory and "cancel culture." Critical Race Theory is a theory that says that there is systemic racism within the United States. Well, yeah! But white people need to "man up," (a term I actually find incredibly sexist but if we think American men are at risk of becoming overly feminine then I guess it fits here) and have the backbone and confidence to look at what we have done and are doing that treats people of color and white people differently. Only then can we repent as Jesus calls us to do. And who is being cancelled? Not me and probably not you, except that as a woman I have definitely felt invisible and if you are a person of color I imagine that you have, too. Here is a news flash: people were cancelled when Christopher Columbus and his ilk "discovered" the Americas. People were cancelled when they were brought here in chains. People were cancelled when their children were sent away to assimilation schools - and the people in charge didn't even try to pretend they weren't cancelling the native cultures.
Until we can look at ourselves and our United States of America honestly and critically, with an eye to improving our society so that all Americans - new ones, old ones, black ones, white ones, brown ones, people that speak other languages, people who claim their right to worship as they choose, people who bear arms and people who don't (I do think bearing arms needs to be restricted somewhat), rich ones and poor ones can call themselves at home here. We need to look at our right to bear arms - do we really need that many guns? We need to look at our criminal justice system. We need to stop arguing about whether climate change exists and apply American ingenuity to stopping it. We need to stop worshipping at the altars of the flag, guns, and capitalism - all have their place and their benefits, but all have their drawbacks, too. We need to think critically about what we really believe is true about people of other races, question why we think that and get to the truth. We need to question everything - good teachers and good leaders know that the ability to think critically begins with asking lots and lots of questions, and they encourage that. We need to ask ourselves about the differences between the America we think we are, the America we really are, and the America we want to be.
And we need to read. We need to read history books and books by people of color. We need to read those tall tales I love, but we also need to read poetry and novels and history. And lets start with the Bible. How many people have actually read it? Jesus was no American cowboy, but just because he wasn't a hard drinking womanizing authoritarian didn't mean he wasn't a man.
We need to read to develop our sacred imaginations, because I think that is what we lack. We lack the ability to imagine that someone who looks like us might not live like we do - just because one guy is a kind, loving authoritarian doesn't mean his neighbor isn't beating the crap out of his wife because she looked at him wrong. We also need to imagine that people we deem very different from us actually do live like we do - people of color love their kids, homosexuals love their partners, and transgender people just want to be loved for who they know themselves to be - just like we all do.
Yes, the 4th of July was hard this year. I wanted to wear red white and blue, wave sparklers, and eat hot dogs followed by cake made with white icing with blueberries and strawberries on it. I wanted to sing patriotic songs at the top of my lungs, and ooh and aah at the fireworks. I wanted to be moved by the singing of The Star Spangled Banner at Jay's concert. But I couldn't. I just couldn't. I won't be able to again until the song is true and this really is the land of the free for everyone, and the home of the brave who can face their sins, repent and do better.
Happy summer everyone.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York: Liveright Publishing Co. 2020.
Greenwood, Lee. "God Bless the USA." Album, You've Got a Good Love Comin'. 1984.
Image. Fireworks in Washington DC. https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=yB7KNH5c&id=C68FDAE91EB8105C04F4391DA59FD438D069DB79&thid=OIF.yfn4WwAmN7A%2fffpy12njhA&mediaurl=https%3a%2f%2fi.dailymail.co.uk%2f1s%2f2021%2f07%2f05%2f02%2f45038475-9755777-image-a-94_1625450267223.jpg&cdnurl=https%3a%2f%2fth.bing.com%2fth%2fid%2fR.c81eca347e5ccfe3177ca45a904f928c%3frik%3d%26pid%3dImgRaw&exph=1446&expw=962&q=New+Year+Fireworks+Washington+DC&simid=229343049958&ck=C9F9F85B002637B03F7DFA72D769E384&selectedIndex=10&FORM=IRPRST . Accessed July 6, 2021
Hemenway, Eric, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. "Indian Children Forced to Assimilate at White Boarding Schools." National Park Service. Indian children forced to assimilate at white boarding schools (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov). Accessed July 6, 2021.
Native Voices. The Pope asserts rights to colonize, convert, and enslave - Timeline - Native Voices (nih.gov). Accessed July 6, 2021.
Silva, Daniella. Gwen Berry, who turned from flag, says she felt 'set up' by anthem playing at Olympic trials (nbcnews.com). Accessed July 6, 2021.
United States Flag Code. United States Flag Code | The American Legion. Accessed July 6, 2021.
Wikipedia. First Amendment to the United States Constitution - Wikipedia. Accessed July 6, 2021.