The Fourth and Flags

The Fourth of July has a shady heritage in the South. It wasn’t until World War I that most people below the Mason-Dixon Line approved of Independence Day celebrations. The poverty and animosity caused by Reconstruction caused many Southerners to avoid our nation’s birthday. Reconstruction was a tumultuous time. South Carolina was under harsh military rule until 1877, twelve long years after the end of the Confederacy. It was a long military occupation that resulted in exacerbated resentment and retribution against people of color.

Perhaps this explains why Southerners remember “The War” so well. But there is a difference between history and heritage. History is something to learn from so that its evil may not be repeated and so its good might be perpetuated. Heritage is what we pass on to our descendants. I don’t want to pass on a history fraught with prejudice and poverty. I do want to pass on a heritage of front porches and smiling faces, family reunions and neighborliness. In these days of reflection since the Charleston Massacre, I want to make sure that my legacy, our legacy, reflects Christ more than country. Sometimes they are not synonymous.

Our flags should represent our values, our heritage. What happens, however, when flags, whether they be swastikas or rising suns, stars and bars, or even Old Glory, fail to represent our Christian heritage? What if there’s a difference between what we profess as Christians and what we profess as a nation? If history, by definition, is something to be learned from, and heritage is something to be passed on, we, therefore, need to be very careful about the flags to which we offer our allegiance.

I would be highly offended if swastikas still flew over Germany. That symbol invokes hatred and genocide. With that being said, I wonder what people think when they see an American flag? Surely to many it represents freedom and the sacrifice of America’s millions that gave of themselves so that democracy might defeat fascism in World War II. We are grateful for those whom Tom Brokaw called, “The Greatest Generation,” plus previous and subsequent generations who have protected our freedoms and honored our flag.

However, people who live in so-called “Banana Republics” think of Americans in a whole different light. To them our flag represents people who will sacrifice democracy and fairness if it will provide us with cheaper gas, clothing, or produce. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) was passed to help us more than it was to help poor Third World residents. We want to pay 1950’s prices for things no matter how it affects people in poorer countries, and we have the gall to gripe about jobs being sent overseas as if it wasn’t our fault. No wonder poverty-stricken countries are more than eager to let our greed for pleasure consume their illegitimate drugs. In their minds it serves us right! Our flag, to them, stands for oppression. To them, we seem very hypocritical, especially in the way that we define “our vital national interests.”

To combat this perception I propose that we do two things. First, we need to be vigilant that our nation’s values be steadfast in fulfilling the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Second, we need to beware of ever confusing our faith with our flag. As a matter of historical fact, nations and their banners hardly ever represent Christianity. America perhaps has come closest. But that’s our opinion. Ask a Nicaraguan or Panamanian and the answer might be different. Let us make sure that our flag is a consistent international symbol of peace and hope. Then it will remain a worthy national one. God bless America, for we surely need it.

Truth, Justice, and the American Way?

I like the band Five for Fighting and especially their song “Superman.” Superman is one of those superheroes that is very patriotic. Superman’s mission, in his words, is to fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American way,” but what exactly is the American way? Is it one way or many ways? Are we a melting pot of peoples, ideas, and values or are we a salad bowl that seeks to promote the separation of the tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and lettuce? In other words, do we value commonality over individuality, or what?

Sure there are some things that will likely be common fare this coming Fourth of July weekend: vacationing, bar-b-ques, and fireworks. I, for one, don’t feel like I’ve had a proper Fourth unless we watch the Boston Pops on the Esplanade beside the Charles River via PBS. What do you do for the Fourth? Are you into group stuff or doing your own thing? That is a metaphor for my assessment of our society right now.

I am worried that we have taken the “pursuit of happiness” and expanded it to a selfishness that appalls the rest of the world and our own common sense. But that is actually the problem, isn’t it? Do we have COMMON sense in our ultra-personalized country? I remember when all the Moms and Dads had a set curfew for all their kids and everybody just “knew” what the rules and boundaries were. Now it’s anything goes.

Sure everybody is unique and different, but aren’t there some best practices that would benefit everyone? Everyone wants freedom, but freedom without a higher purpose than personal or national gain is enslavement to our own agendas. Just look at our national debates about recent court decisions, or the lack of bi-partisan cooperation for evidence of misused freedom. Freedom without regard for the common good is terrible for everyone.

No matter how one stands on the issues, should we promote individual rights over what is best for all? Should personal standards of right and wrong trump what has been decided is best for society as a whole? I am concerned that courts have overturned state legislatures’ actions and voter referendums on definitions and laws on many subjects. These decisions have largely been based upon the “equal protection clause” of the US Constitution. The “equal protection clause” is part of the Fourteenth Amendment which took effect in 1868. It provided that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws.”

This amendment has been very helpful in our common desire to protect persons from racial or gender discrimination, but it has been a lightning rod for other court cases. Those cases have thrilled very disparate groups. Many on the Left celebrate the “equal protection clause’s” use in same-sex marriage cases, and many on the Right are happy with its use in the Hobby Lobby ruling. However, regardless of your political, theological, or personal notions about such issues, the question in my mind is the logical conclusion of the enforcement of the “equal protection clause.” If we all get to decide what’s negotiable or non-negotiable then anarchy prevails and no one is protected. In other words if we’re not careful equal protection means no protection.

Therefore, this Fourth of July my prayer is that we stridently avoid the promotion of individual freedom over and above our shared liberty. I don’t have as many answers as I do questions about the courts and the issues, but I’m hoping that whatever we do we will work for what’s best for everyone! I don’t want to see our freedom devolve into a free-for-all individualism.

We are better than that if we truly believe in our motto of E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One.” I’m wondering how to we get back to the idea of one over many? How do we value diversity while promoting a democratically decided unity? I feel the need to safeguard our society’s boundaries of decorum, morality, and civility rather than let anybody and everybody decide what floats their boat. A baseball diamond without foul lines isn’t baseball. What’s fair and what’s foul, and who decides? These are questions that we must answer in order to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. God bless America and save us from our freedom!

“Fanfare for the Common Man”

Going to seminary in Boston was wonderful. Living on the North Shore was exhilarating with its historic towns of Salem, Rockport, Gloucester, Ipswich, Marblehead and Swampscott. The sea air wisped throughout the campus. The ocean froze in the winter with floes left behind as the tide went up and down. The seafood was superb!

Boston proper was utopia. Cambridge and Harvard Square were Mecca’s for free thought and expression. The place exuded intelligence in an unobtrusive air. Boston’s sites were so historic and more than quaint: Old North Church, Bunker Hill, the U.S.S. Constitution; Fenway Park; Copley Square; Paul Revere’s home; Park Street Church, Filene’s Bargain Basement, “Cheers,” and Quincy Market located next to Faneuil Hall: the cradle of liberty and the Boston Tea Party.

Cindy and I will never forget staying in the home of members of the Boston Pops. Part of what makes the Fourth of July so special to us is listening to the Pops play Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” “Pops Goes the Fourth” on PBS isn’t to be missed!

However, with all of New England’s patriotic fervor and sites I am reminded that the bulk of the Revolution’s cost was borne by Southerners. New England gave the American Revolution its philosophical underpinnings and treatises while Southerners fought most of its battles with South Carolina having had more Revolutionary battles than any other state. Think about the movie “The Patriot” to catch glimpses of King’s Mountain, Cowpens, Charleston, Camden, and Buford’s Massacre. Thank God for backwoodsmen and Over-the-Mountain Boys in addition to the Swamp Foxes of the Lowcountry.

July Fourth is a holiday that should rouse the weakest spirit. It is the triumph of the farmers and shopkeepers, the little people, over the high and mighty ranks of Redcoats. It is indeed “Fanfare for the Common Man” including women the likes of Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher, African-Americans like Crispus Attucks the first martyr of the Revolution, and American Indian tribes doing their part, too. What makes America so special is our common humanity. We don’t relish elitism. We are all here because we escaped somewhere else, except for the Native Americans, and African-Americans brought here against their will. If we will but remember our shared pain, travails, and triumphs, America will yet be a beacon of hope to humanity.

All this makes me think of the little church that I’ve been passing on a regular basis. It’s located on I-77 near Winnsboro, SC. The church’s sign is a bit out of the ordinary. The name of the church is “New Independent Methodist Church.” The logo, however, is the Southern Baptist symbol which is pretty appropriate, actually. Southern Baptist churches have by-laws each unto themselves in their congregational polity. This is much too independent for my liking. As I think about Independence Day 2012 and ponder our life together as United Methodists, there’s no such thing as an independent Methodist church. We’re all connected and I’m glad! We’re a dependent denomination. We depend on God and each other!

That’s a good reminder for America, too. Indeed, as I think about who we are as Americans and United Methodists, I’m drawn to the fact that our history is a multi-colored and multi-cultured tapestry. We’re meant to be a melting pot of diversity not a salad bowl with lettuce, then cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. topped by whatever dressing in a top-down hierarchy. Our political system shouldn’t be about who’s in office or has the majority. We’re in this thing together and better not forget it!

American democracy and United Methodist connectionalism work best when they’re horizontal not vertical. What we hold in common trumps special interests any day. As for me this Fourth of July, I’m going to celebrate it as American Dependence Day. We need each other. Together we can do more! Happy Fourth! Think dependence more than indepedence!