Monday, June 14, 2010

Holding the Banner High

I've been on a roll lately with posts about the spiritual life and, in particular, the practice of prayer.  But today is "Flag Day," and I want to make a shift and offer a sermon I originally delivered to the folks of the First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine on Flag Day 2002.  I must have struck some kind of chord that resonated -- the owners of the hardware store across the street asked me what I'd said to the congregation because that next week they'd had a run on flags!  The order of service was topped by this quote from President William Jefferson Clinton:
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
Here is my sermon --   "Holding the Banner High."

In Gassho,


I can tell you at the outset that you’re not going to hear the sermon I intended to write. When I learned that we were being given an Earth Flag to join the U.S. and U.N. flags that have long hung in our sanctuary, and when I decided that our receipt of this gift should coincide with Flag Day, I envisioned a vexillogical sermon. Vexillology is the study of flags. The term comes from the Latin vexillius—which means, simply, “flag”—and which is, itself, the diminutive of velum—which means “sail.” (Etymologically, flags are tiny sails.) The use of flags seems to go back as far in human history as our gathering together in groups or clans—the story is told in the Hebrew Scriptures of the people of Israel wandering through the desert, each of the twelve tribes beneath its own banner, and this is by no means the earliest reference to such a practice.

Anyway, as I delved into my research I was about as fascinated as you are now, so I stopped and asked myself why I was taking this particular tack. Why, having decided to do a flag day service, was I so seemingly intent on doing a boring one? That’s when I realized that I was feeling uncomfortable. That’s when I realized that I was ill-at-ease with this whole “flag day” thing and that I was trying to cover up that discomfort with a veneer of pedantic erudition.

Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. When I see something I’m afraid of—I mean, when I genuinely recognize that I’m facing a full-blown fear of something—I generally try to walk toward it. I figure that anything that scares me so much must have something to offer. And, so, I decided that rather than a sermon of facts and figures this morning I’d offer you a sermon of feelings. My feelings. My feelings about the flag, about our country, about the whole idea of patriotism. I offer such a sermon not because I am convinced that I have anything profound to say, not because I feel certain that I have any answers, but, rather, in the hope that in the particularities of my wrestling with this topic there’ll be something to help you with your own. And I think it’s something we should be wrestling with.

I began with a question: why am I uncomfortable? What makes me ill-at-ease? And I realized that I’m embarrassed, that I don’t want to get too close to the flag. I realized that I’m afraid you’ll think of me as “a flag waver,” the connotations of which to me are overwhelmingly negative. Those right wing, red necked, flag waving . . . well you can see why I’d want to keep my distance.

George Bernard Shaw said that “patriotism is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy. . . . the conviction that [your] country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” Well, I know that I don’t want to be associated with that. I know that I don’t want to be associated with the kind of provincial, xenophobic, jingoism that is so often associated with . . . flag wavers. I am, after all, a citizen of the world. I am not so much an American as a member of the Human Family. Erich Fromm said, “Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. ‘Patriotism’ is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say that, by ‘patriotism,’ I mean that attitude which puts one’s own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice . . .” “My country right or wrong,” in other words. “America, love it or leave it.”

But when did this happen? When did all these negatives come to be associated with pride in our country and its symbols? When did the flag become a blindfold rather than a banner—requiring us to be “blindly” patriotic in order to be patriotic? In some ways it’s analogous to what’s happened with religion—people who take their religion seriously have become “Bible thumpers” and “Holy Rollers,” and people who love and are proud of the United States have become “flag wavers.” In both instances there’s a whole mental picture that’s conjured up with those words, a picture I in no way want to be associated with.

Yet the older I get the more I find that I want to wave the flag. Last month I discovered that one of the great pleasures of living on the Snow Road in Freeport is that it’s where the High School marching band practices. Coming up on Memorial Day I’d hear the cacophonous warm up of the drummers and take Theo onto the front porch to watch. “See, Theo,” I’d say, pointing to the kids trying—and not trying—to walk in step while playing. “Your mommy and daddy did that when we were kids.” I remember so clearly my own days of marching in the Memorial Day Parade, and for a couple of weeks I had sounding in my head the words of that quintessential Memorial Day song, George M. Cohan’s, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

“You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of, the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true 'neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.”
That song—and the memories that go with it—touches me at a very deep level. It conjures up images of little league baseball, and home-town parades, and “John John” Kennedy saluting as his father’s casket passes, and communities gathering for cookouts or to help raise a barn. It calls to mind wheat fields, and Times Square; Charles Ives and Charles Mingus. It calls to mind “America” and all that is good and right in her.

And when, at the opening of the Olympics in Salt Lake, they marched in with the flag that had flown at the World Trade Center and I heard Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” I’ll readily admit that tears rolled down my cheeks. 9-11 gave new meaning to those well known words:

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And this is the part that got me:
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
It did. It does. How can I not feel proud?

To be sure, there has been much said and done in the name of patriotism of which I am not proud. There is much this country has done, is doing, and no doubt will do with which I disagree and, at times, of which I am deeply ashamed. But that does not mean that I don’t love this country, as well. That doesn’t negate all that is good—all that is great and might be great—about it. Our flag is the symbol of those ideals, and the fact that we have not always lived up to them is not the fault of the symbol.

So this Friday I intend to do something I’ve never done in my adult life. Fly the flag outside of my house. And I intend to fly the flag again on July 4th. Yet I’ll do so not because I think that my country is better than anyone else’s but simply because it is my country. I’ll do so not because I think that everything we do is right and just but precisely because I don’t think so—I will hold the banner high as a reminder of the ideals for which we should strive and my responsibility in that striving.

Earlier this year, when I preached following the attacks of September 11th that we should hold onto the hope of peace and the vision of our common humanity, that we should not allow evil to win by dividing us into “us” and “them,” I was told by some that I was being “un-patriotic.” (“Aiding and abetting the enemy” was one of the phrases used.) Yet the writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us that “Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots,” and Edward Abbey once wrote, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” We should never forget that our flag is the symbol of a people who challenged the actions of their government to the point of revolution.

I want to fly the flag to help reclaim it from those who would use it to bully and blind, to stifle and stagnate. As a Citizen of the World, I want to fly the flag of my country with pride and hope and commitment; not as a comparison to others but as a grounding for myself. The members of the tribe of Dan or Benjamin marched beneath their banners without ever forgetting their membership in the larger community of the people of Israel; the one does not preclude the other. In fact, I believe the one makes the other truly possible.

The quote I read earlier from Erich Fromm—the one that began, “Nationalism is . . . our insanity [and] ‘patriotism’ is its cult . . .”—continues with a positive description of patriotism as: “. . . the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare—never with it power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love [he concludes], love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

There is a wonderful passage in Robert Frost’s poem “Choose Something Like A Star.”

“So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.”
The same can be done with a flag. Rather than tear it down, or burn it up, we can hoist it higher as a reminder of who we are and who we want to be. That’s why I’m glad we have these flags here, these banners beneath which we gather week after week and which, as I said to our kids earlier, remind us of the expanding circles of our community.

In closing, I want to tell you that I had a hard time finding hymns for this service—at first glance there are no patriotic songs in our hymnal. In order to get us to sing “America the Beautiful” I had to have Pat make an insert from our old hymnal. But as I thought about how to conclude this service, I realized that we have what I think of as the most truly patriotic song I’ve ever heard, and so I ask you now to stand as you are able and join me in singing hymn #159 in our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, “This Is My Song.”

Holding the Banner High, © June 9, 2002, Erik Walker Wikstrom
Print this post

No comments: