Category Archives: patriotism

Inauguration Day 2021—A Day of Peace and Hope

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Four years ago today I was substitute teaching in a familiar classroom of fifth graders. After a contentious presidential election campaign, I thought the history lesson of watching the inauguration would be good for my students: they could watch as two very different sides would come together under the banner of unity to celebrate the peaceful transition of power in the world’s oldest democracy. Though personally disappointed in the result of the election, I nonetheless held out a modicum of hope that the new president, through his choices of advisors and cabinet officials, could lead the nation forward. I was wrong on both counts.

As the inauguration preliminaries played out on the big screen, most students quietly did their morning work, largely uninterested in the distant events in our nation’s capital  A few, whose parroted views had been overly enthusiastic (for ten-year-olds) throughout the previous fall, continued their boisterous cheering of their candidate’s victory. Others, more reserved in defeat, sat in silence.

Then I saw her: one normally-bubbly student sitting with head down, unable to focus on the page on her desk, tears streaming down her face. I knelt down beside her and asked what she was thinking.

“I’m afraid my family will be deported,” she replied.

I knew nothing of her background beyond that she was Hispanic. Were her parents illegal immigrants? Had she been born in the U.S. or in Mexico? In that moment, none of that mattered to me. All that mattered was that one of my students, a ten-year-old girl, was not celebrating democracy but fearing for her own security, her family’s security, her future. Far more devastating than an election loss was, for this girl, the prospect of losing her family and likely the only home she had ever known. She was afraid—legitimately, I think—not only because of the words she had heard on the nightly news from the man becoming president, but because those same words were coming from the lips of her fellow students.

As adults, we have learned to distinguish between the bombastic speeches we hear or read and what we can expect in reality. Friends, neighbors, and politicians alike will often speak far more boldly from behind the safe wall of a camera or social media, but never act on their bold speech or thinly-veiled threats. Fifth graders haven’t yet learned to separate that.

As I sought to comfort and give hope to my young student, I was caught in a poignant, agonizing moment that portended what would lay ahead in ways I would never have imagined … or, indeed, feared. Never in my wildest dreams did I consider that just two weeks before the next inauguration, our nation’s capitol building would come under attack not from a foreign enemy, but from within, from Americans fighting for their own distorted view of democracy. Never did I imagine that the president whose inauguration that little girl feared would be accused by long-time allies—members of his own party—of inciting an insurrection against his own capitol. And yet that is precisely what has taken place in the past two weeks.

And so on this Inauguration Day in 2021 I watched with a greater hope as our nation once again celebrated democracy’s greatest tradition: a peaceful transition of power. It was, again, a poignant moment, historic not simply as every inauguration has been historic, but because of the firsts: the first woman, first African-American, first Asian-American vice president (sworn in by the first Latina Supreme Court justice); the oldest first-term president (significant in a myriad of ways!); the first time in more than a century that the outgoing president has been absent from the inauguration. It was a poignant moment because of the pandemic that has gripped our nation and the world for the past ten months. There will be no comparison of crowd sizes this year, but the Capital Mall was resplendent with thousands of flags representing the nation, the states, the territories.

And it was poignant for me because of the hope I feel again: hope that our nation can begin to heal, hope that we can begin to put division and disunity behind us, hope that we can rejoin the nations of the world in working together for peace and prosperity for all. It won’t be easy. Millions still grieve their candidate’s loss; many still mistakenly—or willfully—believe that the election was fraudulent. Many of us—myself included—still have questions about the new administration and its commitment to values we hold. It will take all of us putting aside our differences in order to move forward in unity.

And yet today I am convinced that we can walk through the hard days ahead with hope. And hope is one thing that has been in desperately short supply these past four years.

Teaching Children to Lie

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Have you ever stopped to consider how often and in what ways we may be teaching children to lie? I’m not talking about birthday surprises; you’ll have to work out the ethics of that on your own. I’m also not talking about corporate espionage or political campaigning; those, too, you’ll need to figure out on your own. The lies I’m talking about fall somewhere between those two points of the spectrum; between, “don’t tell your sister what we got her” and “if I’m elected I will….” The lies I’m talking about are subtler, and they actually sound good—morally good, that is. We want them to be true, and they could be true, and maybe they even should be true. But….

Let me start with what I think will be the easier one, both to admit and to do something about: “Say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Go ahead; tell your brother you’re sorry.” You’ve heard that, haven’t you? Chances are you heard it from your parents and maybe you’ve even heard it from your own lips. It sounds so good; we desperately want it to be true, to be a genuine admission of sorrow. And it seems that it should be so easy to say, especially when the offending child hurt her sister entirely on accident! But kids don’t do sorrow and regret well—it is, for some reason, too closely linked to shame and guilt—and so to say “I’m sorry” means to admit guilt, and kids don’t want to do that. All we want as parents is to train our children to feel sorrow at someone else’s pain, and so we ask them to say, “I’m sorry.” And sometimes we compel them to say it…even when it really is a lie. After all, if I don’t feel sorrow, isn’t it a lie to say that I do?

Now, I understand that sometimes words must be said before the truth of them can be known and felt by the speaker. That is, sometimes saying “I’m sorry” will lead to, rather than spring from, genuine sorrow. In my own marriage I have often needed to express forgiveness before I felt forgiving; and in that statement of faith and obedience I begin to experience the freeing power of real forgiveness. But ritual for ritual’s sake seldom accomplishes that. Teaching our children to feel and express genuine sorrow when they have wronged another is far more important than teaching them to utter a lie. It’s also much harder.

The other lie we teach our children came to my mind today and I expect I’m going to get into trouble with some people for saying this, because it’s not in the realm of parenting but politics…and faith. And the intersection of those two is a hazardous one, wherein lies the wreckage of many an ideal of one or the other, each claiming right of way where neither is granted such right. But first, some background:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? At least not for those of us born after World War II. But those twenty-three words comprise the pledge originally penned by Francis Bellamy in August 1892 as part of an effort to stir up patriotism among schoolchildren in a nation whose patriotic fervor had waned since the end of the Civil War. It is a compelling story, which deserves to be read in the words of the Pledge’s own author. [1]

The pledge has been changed three times since its original writing; the first change, two months after writing, belonged to author and was the addition of the word “to” before “the republic.” Thirty years later, over Bellamy’s objections, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution led a campaign to change the Pledge’s words from, “my Flag,” to “the Flag of the United States of America.” Another thirty years later, in 1954, the Knights of Columbus led the charge to add the words, “under God.” [2]

It sounds good, doesn’t it? At least for a Christian, and perhaps for some of other religions who appreciate the reminder that we live under the sovereignty of a divine being. Yet the Pledge of Allegiance to our nation’s flag contains, for many, a lie; and in seeking to compel the ritual recitation of the Pledge, we are teaching those children to lie in the same way as when we compel them to say, “I’m sorry.” Many children—especially immigrants (legal or otherwise)—have not shifted allegiance from their homeland to these United States. Perhaps they have escaped with their parents from a tyranny they do not even understand; all they know is they left in the middle of the night and can no longer see their friends or their relatives, and they are alone and strangers in a land where they do not even speak the language.

Those two simple words, “under God,” were added more than sixty years after the original writing of the Pledge of Allegiance? The Pledge’s author (according to his granddaughter) would have shuddered at the addition, having left the church the year before writing the Pledge. [2] As a Christian I’m fine with the words, in part because I grew up with them and in part because I willingly and knowingly submit to my God and pray that my nation does, as well. Yet the phrase does nothing to unite us as Americans, which was a primary intent of the Pledge when written. Rather, the phrase serves more to divide. After all, though more than three-fourths of Americans identify as Christian, there are also millions of Jews and Muslims, not to mention adherents of other faiths—many of which are polytheistic—as well as an increasing number of people claiming no religious identity.

I felt some of this discrepancy myself in elementary school, when my family moved to Canada. For five years, my school days started not with the pledge, but with the singing of “O Canada.” It always felt a little odd to sing, “O Canada! Our home and native land!” Home was true, but native was certainly not. Nor was I ever sure that I would “stand on guard for thee.”

The last line of the Pledge of Allegiance is perhaps most important of all, for it claims that in this great Republic we hold fast to the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” If we truly believe that, then why do we insist on the divisive words, “under God”? Let us instead live humbly—as did the Lord we proclaim—and in that humility attract others to what it really means to live under God.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Bellamy, Francis, “The Story of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag”, University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Vol. VIII, Winter 1953. 13 July 2014. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=3418>.

[2] Baer, Dr. John W., “The Pledge of Allegiance A Short History”. 13 July 2014.<http://www.oldtimeislands.org/pledge/pledge.htm>.