The Common Good
January-February 2002

A New Old Glory?

by Julie Polter | January-February 2002

Does it stand for nationalistic militarism or grief-humbled unity?

I am proud to be an American the way that I am proud to be a member of my family: With a clear-eyed appraisal of dreams, gifts, failings, sins, and limits. From both country and family I inherited or learned traits, history, language, and perspective, along with at least a few substantial bad habits and susceptibility to some diseases. As a nation and a people, the United States has done both righteous and evil things with its power. But I am not ashamed to be an American. My country’s culture is a significant part of who I am, and I can’t separate myself from that any more than I can make my big feet small. I love much of what our country stands for, including some of those things presumably most offensive to the terrorists who attacked us—our amazing and diverse cultural expression and freedom of speech and religion.

So why won’t I wave, wear, or stick on my bumper the American flag? My answer is not as ready as it would have been before Sept. 11. Then I had ceded the Stars and Stripes to those who might say things like "My country right or wrong." A country, like any other human institution, is always a mix of right and wrong, and I can’t stomach a patriotism that excludes the responsibility to critique, resist, and rebuild. And I had ceded the flag to those who had made it little more than a logo-component. I (dare I say it?) am fond of both fashion and shopping. But I will not pledge allegiance to Old Navy, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiker and the American capitalism for which they stand.

But now I can respect that the flag also stands for grief-humbled unity; as a memorial for those who sacrificed all to save others; as a banner under which we, an immigrant nation, might gather together.

Still, I stand with the people, but not quite under the flag. Before I am an American, I am a Christian, and with that comes a call to prayer without borders, to humility in humanity before pride in nation. I believe some Christians can wave the flag while keeping their allegiances in order, and I respect that choice. But it comes with some difficulties. For me, personally, it’s too difficult.

A Pentecostal woman I know doesn’t question our country’s military strikes against Afghanistan but has grown weary of the patriotic songs that have been in every one of her church’s worship services since Sept. 11. "Sometimes," she says, "I just want to remind the pastors that Jesus wasn’t an American." A few weeks ago, United Methodist Bishop Felton E. May stated his love and respect for the American flag, especially as a former member of the United States Army. But he concluded, "I will not wrap myself in the flag because I have wrapped myself in Jesus Christ."

Julie Polter is associate editor of Sojourners.

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