Monday, September 8, 2014

Be True to Your … Whaat?

When some big braggart tried to put me down
And say his school was the best,
I said, “Hey, wait a minute.
What’s the matter, buddy, ain’t you heard of my school?
It’s number one in the state.”
So be true to your school,
Just like you would to your girl.
– Beach Boys, “Be True to Your School”
One of the first things I noticed when we got to Papua New Guinea in 1982 was how patriotic the people in Port Moresby were, at least if measured by the number of flags and the T-shrts and bumper stickers and signs for the government-run radio network. As an American I thought all this affection for the circuses run by and for the benefit of the ruling class of a banana republic most people had never heard of was kinda cute.
I remembered at the time the pep rallies held before important athletic events by the “public” schools I had attended. As I heard the exhortations to “show some school spirit,” I knew I wasn’t seeing much (at least when the team going out to fight, fight, fight for us was probably going to lose). I also wasn’t sure what it was or why it was important. What made Annandale High better than Jefferson High or JEB Stuart High?
Now I had chosen to go to Annandale, sort of. The house that we were looking to move into was in the district, and I thought Atoms was a neat mascot, but even as a high school junior I knew that wasn’t a good reason to choose one school over another. But I was into (non-mainstream) sports more than academics, we trusted the system, the house was a good fit, and the school wasn’t too far away, so on the first Tuesday of 1969, I became as much an Annandale Atom as I could without taking the field or even really caring if the teams won.
On that first Friday I went to the football game alone. I didn’t see anyone I recognized from my classes, nor did I recognize any names on the roster. But I cheered for the Atoms, who had been Virginia state AAAA champions the year before. Nineteen sixty-nine, however, was a “rebuilding year” and they lost that night and most nights both years I was there. Why did I cheer for them? Because I now lived in the neighborhood.
Why did urban Papua New Guineans wave the flag? Because they were born in the neighborhood. Why did I see Panamanian flags on almost every car in Panama when I was there? Because the folks were born in Panama. Why do Finns fly their flag? Why do Italians fly their flag (even when they’re in the US and have never been to Italy)? It’s because in some sense they were born there. They were placed there by circumstances beyond their control.
Why do Americans fly Old Glory?
If you had asked that question two hundred years ago, I think the answer (from white people, anyway) would have been, “Where this flag flies, no one can claim special privileges. We’re all equal, and people are free to take care of themselves, to succeed or fail on their own merits.” (Abolitionists would have added, “Someday the same will be said for all people here.” Others might have added “peaceful commerce with all, entangling alliances with none.”) Christians would have attributed this justice and the liberty it made possible to the influence of the church on everyday life.
Perhaps the church then had as high adultery, divorce, and bastardy rates as the society as a whole – as it does today – but those rates were low. And though not everyone who went to church was trully living for God, talk of “Christian America” was not too far off.
But today? What does it stand for today?
What sentence runs through your mind when you see the flag flying? “The land of the free and the home of the brave”? How free do people who elect a Barack Obama want to be? Or do they want a system of privileges for themselves and their friends? How do the anti-imports and anti-immigration and anti-gun and anti-drug crowds define “free”? How brave are people who sit in air-conditioned rooms in Arizona and Pennsylvania and drop bombs on women and children across the ocean?
Next time you’re in a group, ask people what they think when they see or fly the flag. Or try to read the minds of the other people in the next crowd you find yourself in. Is what they think what you think? Is what they think what God thinks, or what God wants them to think?
I submit that Americans fly Old Glory today for the same reason I rooted for the Atoms: it’s “the best” because it’s where they are. I submit that there’s no true virtue attached to this flag as opposed to, say, that of Finland. And given that thousands of people who could live anywhere they chose within the borders of the US are choosing to live outside, it would seem that a lot of people who have looked into the matter consider rooting for Uncle Sam like rooting for the Atoms in a “rebuilding year.”
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith – for he was like a foreigner, living in a tent. And so did Isaac and Jacob, to whom God gave the same promise. Abraham did this because he was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God. (Hebrews 11:8-10)
Like Abraham, we are blessed – so far – to live in a country where we can go about our everyday business with relatively minor difficulties. We don’t have the kings of the east abducting our relatives (Gen 14) or an Abimelek commandeering our wells (Gen 21). (Or maybe we do.) But we dare not forget that this is not our home. We cannot look at the injustices in our society and say, “Ah, but it’s good enough for government work.”
We need to judge it by the standard of that “city designed and built by God,” even if doing so in as godly a way as we can manage – and we need to humbly ask God to make our way of communicating that judgment ever more godly – makes us unpopular with those who know of no better home.

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