My American flag waves proudly on my front porch; albeit occasionally getting twisted by the wind or by the jumping grubby hands of my nearly-feral children. I love this country, the national ideals we work to espouse, and the dreams we hold for our posterity. I give thanks for the men and women who have served protecting our sovereignty. And as we feast on hot dogs and hamburgers and take in the bursting lights and sounds of fireworks, it seems a fitting weekend to do just that.
It’s also worth pausing in this moment of exposed strife over issues of race, class and socio-economic inequity, to reflect on the tension of chords that interweave within our national fabric.
Since our founding, we have been a nation of deep paradox, vacillating between reaching for our highest aspirations and laboring to deny our worst impulses. When Jefferson waxed poetically in The Declaration of Independence (1776) that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” his understanding of who was included by “all” left much to be desired.
Washington later asked in his Farewell Address (1796), “Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?” The question is certainly a haunting one. What is our role, as Christians in America, to advance the ideals of a nation so deeply entrenched in systems that conflict with those ideals? The same sentiment was echoed nearly 150 years later in the nation’s capital.
Dr. Peter Marshall, Presbyterian minister and U.S. Senate Chaplain, noted in a sermon delivered at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (1940), “Singing ‘God Bless America’ is not enough. Waving our flag is not enough. A maudlin, sticky, sentimental, pseudo-patriotism is not enough. God is not going to bless America just because a nation sings a song… We can sing ‘God bless America’ until we are blue in the face… but unless we do what God has indicated, his blessings will be withheld.”
Do the hopes and dreams of citizens become singularly possible when we live lives of integrity and righteousness? Can we only then be the recipients of blessings?
Regarding the Bible’s response to these queries, the answer is mixed. While there are plenty of scriptures that point to God blessing the faithful, it also seems to rain on the just and unjust alike. So while the benefits of God’s grace are hopefully recognized by believers, one’s faith status doesn’t necessarily preclude one from getting their fair share of rain.
In Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963) he writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” That may be a better way of getting to Washington’s 200-year-old question. Our inescapable network of mutuality means that what happens to citizens on the lowest rung of the social ladder has an impact on those at the highest rung. Jesus says it like this in Mark 12: The two greatest commandments for God’s people are to love God and to love your neighbor. How we treat our neighbors matters. I suspect Jesus means that beyond just a personal level.
As we continue to wrestle with our present and our future “in order to form a more perfect union,” (1787) I hope our capacity for conversation among Americans of differing backgrounds and opinions can be expanded. But may we hold that corded dialogue in tension with the voices interwoven from our past, and with the prophetic witness of Scripture which calls us to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly together (8th century BC).
I’ll ponder all of that on this holiday when my flag gets twisted, either by little hands, or the wind, or the hands of those who are grasping at the freedoms and ideals it waves before us. Maybe this year the image of a twisted flag is exactly what I need to see.