Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What Is America?

Here are the two "sermonic explorations" from this past Sunday at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.

If you want to listen to the podcast it will be available here.

Pam Phillips’ Explorations
“Can we feel pride in America? Should we feel pride in America?”
The timing of these questions is perfect for me. Yes, we just celebrated the birth of our nation on the Fourth of July, but perhaps more to the point is that we are getting ready for the Olympics. When I think of pride and America, some of my most visceral experiences of pride go back to the Olympics.
I have strong emotional memories of crying joyful tears as I heard the Star Spangled Banner play and watched American athletes receive gold medals. I was a swimmer, so Mark Spitz gave me lots of opportunities to cry. Back then, our biggest competition was the USSR and other Soviet bloc countries, and I remember the East German women swimmers who looked more like men. When US swimmers won, they did it fairly—no steroids. US athletes were not taken from their families as children and indoctrinated to become symbols of the superiority of communism. To me, the Olympics were a symbol of what was right with America and what was wrong with the communists. My pride in the athletes who represented our country equaled my pride in my country.
As I got older, my understanding of the world got more complicated. The world changed, too, of course. There’s no longer a Soviet Union and Olympic athletes are no longer amateurs. It’s all gotten complicated.
Now when I watch the Olympic coverage, I admit to a certain amount of irritation at the media. I get tired of the constant references to the medal count—which country has the most medals—as if the prowess of the athletes really does represent the relative worth of their countries.
Just as my attitude towards the Olympics has changed, so too has my relationship with my country, and it has more to do with politics than with sports. I still have moments of intense pride in America. I think of the night Barack Obama won the presidential election. That was like a gold medal ceremony on steroids for me. (And yes, I cried.) But I have also had moments of extreme disappointment in my country.
I think back to the months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The initial response, both in this country and around the world, was one of disbelief and unity against terrorism. We were all in this together, and I was proud to be an American. As time went on, though, and politicians’ statements became more stridently us versus them, and any questioning of our country’s policies or actions was met with “Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Well, then it became more difficult to be proud to be an American. I felt like the flag and other symbols of patriotism had been hijacked by people who were afraid of the rest of the world, who suspected anyone who was “different.” I didn’t want to put a flag sticker on my car, because I didn’t want to be associated with “that” kind of patriotism—with jingoism.
This reminds me of the way the language of reverence, of religion, seems to have been hijacked by the religious right. When I tell people how involved I am in my church, they often get a very skewed idea of who I am because they assume “church” means conservative and orthodox. That’s why I think it is so important for Unitarian Universalists to take back the language of reverence and to do public witness. I want people to know that religion doesn’t necessarily mean “right” and that church can look like us. Just because I don’t want to be orthodox doesn’t mean I can’t be religious.
Likewise, just because I don’t want to be jingoistic doesn’t mean I can’t be patriotic, which is why my favorite July 4th tradition is to go up to Monticello for the Naturalization Ceremony. I first went years ago to watch a friend from South Africa become a US citizen, and I discovered then that it is the best antidote to jaded cynicism. The Charlottesville Municipal Band plays patriotic music and people make speeches (and this year it was Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci). The best part, though, is when the new citizens get the microphone and I’m reminded why I am so lucky and proud to be an American.
This year, I heard a woman from Zimbabwe explain why she had been so confused at American’s interest in politics. In her home country they had elections, but the results were a foregone conclusion. She urged us to vote. A woman from Brazil explained that if you don’t vote, they take away your passport! A man from South Sudan proclaimed that he had been born again in his new country. He said that Americans were very good people but encouraged us to follow the law. He explained that here the police are good; they are here to protect us. There is no 911 in Khartoum.
Listening to these newest citizens puts my own criticisms of America into perspective. Yes, I am sick of the political climate in this country, but I do get to vote. Yes, I am angered by stories of racial profiling, but our police are princes compared to those in many other parts of the world.
The newest Americans on the Fourth of July remind me of what I cannot know as keenly as they do, that this is a wonderful country, and if I hadn’t been born to it, I might want to go through the hardships they went through to become a citizen as well.
And yet . . . I just got back from General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona—the Justice GA--where I was confronted with more sources of disappointment in our country. I stood witness with thousands to protest the Tent City detention center, where people are living in canvass tents in the desert. I learned more about how our immigration policies are broken and need fixing, but more especially how those policies are affecting the lives of people. I’ve just started learning about the Doctrine of Discovery—a doctrine established over five hundred years ago that is still used to deny the rights of indigenous people in America.
Can I feel pride and shame at the same time? I do, so I must. So how can I reconcile these conflicting feelings? How do I live with both/and? I find one answer in the words of yet another new citizen. He described choosing a new nationality as a deep and bold act. A deep and bold act. I like that, because it captures how significant it is to choose to become a citizen of a new country. Can you imagine making that choice? I can’t. I didn’t have to. The newest citizens of the US came here from other lands, many at great risk and great cost, but they chose to become Americans. I can take inspiration from our newest fellow citizens, then, and make my own deep and bold act: I can choose to learn what I can about what’s wrong in my country and do what I can to make it right. I can work, with all of you, to fulfill the promise of this country for all Americans, no, for all people. As one new American said, “I feel myself in the brightest and most resilient country.”                                            
May we make it so.

Erik Wikstrom’s Exploration
One of the best reactions I ever got to one of my sermons was also one of the most unexpected.  It’s still surprising to me, over a decade later.  And it still makes me smile a subversive little smile.
I heard about the reaction on the Monday or Tuesday following the service.  I lived in the church’s parsonage in those days – right next to the church! – and across the street there was this hardware store.  Like I said, it was Monday or Tuesday and I had to go into the store for some thing or other.  And the owner, who’d come to know me over the years, greeted me with the question, “What did you say to your church on Sunday?”  I asked him why he was asking, and he said, “Because we had a run on flags!”
That’s right . . . the members and friends of the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine left church that June morning and bought out every American flag in the store.  And I tell you, I want to break out in a mischievous grin every time I think of it.
The sermon was an “auction sermon” – the payment of a debt to someone who’d coughed up some cash at the church auction for the right to choose one of my sermon topics.  The topic chosen was:  “Flag Day.”
Now Flag Day has never exactly been at the top of my list of holiday celebrations.  And, as I noted that June morning, the whole notion of preaching about it kind of creeped me out; made me feel a little queasy.  I wasn’t the only one, either.  There were a lot of folks in the pews that day who were visibly uneasy. 
And I think that Pam just named the reason why – “patriotism,” “flag waving,” is often viewed somewhat suspiciously by people whose politics can be described as “liberal,” or, perhaps even, “left of liberal.”  Like a lot of us.  Not all of us, of course, but a lot of us.  Folks like that tend to see that kind of patriotism – the kind that leads, for instance, to the hoisting of the “stars and bars” in public display – as something that’s been largely co-opted by the folks on the right; the folks who stand for . . . well, let’s face it . . . who seem to stand for just about everything folks like most of us stand against.
George Bernard Shaw once observed 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.”  And we obviously don’t want to be associated with that.  We don’t want to be associated with the kind of provincial, xenophobic, jingoism that is so often associated with . . . flag wavers.  Many of us, after all, think of ourselves as citizens of the world; not so much “Americans” as “members of the Human Family.”  The social psychologist 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 why is this what so many of us think of when we think of being patriotic?  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?  Was it in the years following 9-11?  Has it been happening for longer than that?  I don’t know, but it certainly does seem as though the Right and the Left have split things up, and the Right has gotten “patriotism” while the left has gotten . . . what? . . . maybe “cynicism.”
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.  That doesn’t invalidate the things Pam talked about hearing at Monticello on Wednesday.  Those things are real, too.  And, in fact, President William Jefferson Clinton once declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
What I told those Unitarian Universalists in Yarmouth, Maine over a decade ago is that the flag is one of the symbols of the ideals of this country, that it stands for all that is right and might be right, and the fact that we have not always lived up to the promise is not the fault of the symbol.  I told them that I, for one, was tired of ceding to the religious and political right all of the really good symbols!  I told them that I didn’t want to accept defeat in the rhetorical struggle to determining the future of the United States by allowing someone else to dictate the framework within which the conversation would be had . . . to define all the terms of the debate.  I told them that on that Flag Day I was planning to raise the flag at my house.  And, apparently, more than a few of them decided to join me.
The quote I read earlier from Erich Fromm—the one that began, “Nationalism is . . . our insanity [and] ‘patriotism’ is its cult . . .”—continues by offering a positive description of patriotism: 
“. . . 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 its power over other nations.  Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”
Just because we extend our love to all of humanity doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love our own families, as well.  And we can love our own families, while still recognizing their shortcomings.  We can love this country while still recognizing its failings, while still holding it accountable for its failings. 
In his powerful speech at the March on Washington the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke stirringly about the “promissory note” which the United States had written at its founding and which was then coming due – the promise that here all people are “created equal” and have “certain unalienable rights.”  He said he’d come to cash that check at “the bank of justice.”
Well, some of those funds have been dispersed.  Some of the value of that note has been redeemed.  But not all of it.  Nowhere near all of it.  And in the years since Dr. King’s speech we’ve realized that there are some folks who are covered by that note that we weren’t even thinking of then.  The promise has not yet been kept.
Still, “not yet” is not the same as “not ever.”  And it seems to me that we have only two choices.  One is to burn ourselves out or up in cynical struggle; fighting, perhaps, to reclaim what we see as lost, yet inwardly believing – or, at least, fearing – that the cause is hopeless, that too much has already been destroyed.
The other is to keep believing in the promise and to keep raising it up – like a banner, like a flag – so that it can guide the building of our future.   That’s the path that I choose.  That’s the path I recommend to you.  Maybe, on your way home, you might want to go buy a flag!

Introduction to Final Hymn:  When I preached that Flag Day sermon all those years ago I wanted to end with something really patriotic.  Now I don’t know how well all y’all know our hymnal, but there’s no section of “patriotic” hymns in the index.  There are no entries for “national pride,” and nothing whatsoever for “flag day.”  And then I realized that the most truly patriotic song I’ve ever heard – patriotic in the Frommian sense – is in there.  It’s the song we’re about to sing, #159, “This is my Song.”

Closing Words:  In the liner notes to the CD we’re about to hear a song from as our postlude, Ray Charles is quoted as saying that for years he resisted doing a version of America the Beautiful.  People kept asking him to, but he always declined because he felt that he had to really be able to get behind a song if he was going to do it right, and he just couldn’t do it with that one.  He did finally include the song, however, on his 1972 recording A Message from the People.  Of his decision to record the song he said that what he was trying to communicate is, “Listen, you’ve got to clean up some of this shit, America, but I still love you.”  It reminds me of the Christian maxim, “God loves you exactly as you are, and loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
I wish that more of us liberal and progressive folks could adopt a similar attitude toward—well, towards many things but this weekend following Independence Day I’m thinking about our country:  let’s love America exactly as it is, and love it too much to let it stay this way.  Let us love our promises, and our possibilities, and our ideals, and love them too much to let them go unfulfilled for so many; let us love our freedoms, and love them too much to let them be trampled under foot; let us love our flag, and love it too much to let it become a weapon of intolerance. 
So ‘though we now extinguish our chalice, let the flame of freedom burn ever brighter in our hearts.
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