I Pledge Allegiance
October 1, 2017
In 8th grade, I was elected Vice-President of the Student Council for my school, McClure Junior High. I wasn’t sure what it meant to be Vice-President, but my mom assured me it was a great responsibility and honor, and it meant that if anything were to happen to the president, I would need to fill in. At that time assassination attempts were not much of a threat, but I do believe there was one month when President Lindsey Pann had the stomach flu, and I had to step in then. My dad told me being Vice President meant I would have to go to state funerals and things like that, but that my role was largely symbolic more than anything. I incorporated that into my campaign speech. Which I found this week—you gotta love a mom who scrapbooks! What I said was, “obviously I don’t want anyone to die, but if it happens, the school would need to be represented, and I would be willing to sacrifice class and leave school to attend.”* Turns out, the biggest responsibility I had was leading the elected representatives of my school in the Pledge of Allegiance at our monthly gatherings, and that was about it.
Little did I know there would be a moment of GLORY that year, when (perhaps you will remember this) a little girl in Texas named Jessica McClure had fallen down a well. (That wasn’t the glorious part). For 55 hours our nation watched as rescue workers tirelessly worked to rescue the 18 month old girl, and when she was pulled from the well alive, the nation sighed a collective sign, shed a collective tear and issued forth a collective shout of joy. Jessica McClure had become a symbol of national unity; the face of our collective hope that if we can somehow muster our collective strength and prayers and BE Indivisible, lives can be lifted from the deepest recesses of despair.
(This is where the glory comes in, because) the elected officials of the student body (with some strong goading from our principal) thought it would be a great idea to make a giant “get well” card for her, and to send her collected swag from our beloved Junior High. We sent her pencils and a coffee mug, a t-shirt and a folder all bearing our name mutual name, McClure. We made it into not one but two local newspapers, and I found those in my scrap book as well. Thanks Mom! We proudly added our voices with the chorus of others, triumphant in our pride that we too could add something to this national display of American awesomeness. We too stood united behind baby Jessica.
At times of triumph or tragedy, it’s easy for us to stand together, united in common purpose. Whether that be to stand in mourning after an event like 9/11, or to pull on our work gloves and oil up those chainsaws, or collect necessary items to help after a natural disaster, there is something tribal in our nature that empowers us to forget about that which might divide us and to unite to work towards a common good. We can cast all reason aside, forget about the offensive bumper stickers or whose yard’s had which signs in the last election cycle, and instead stand united in sweat and sawdust, proud of our American awesomeness that likes to believe that when push comes to shove, we will stand united because we are free, and because we are brave.
Until we aren’t. Until we see again how easy it can be to divide us; and then we retreat back to our corners, pondering the sweet spots of vulnerability we might capitalize on to achieve victory in the next round of showmanship.
Social Psychologist Jonathan Haight (whose TED talk on self-transcendence we’ll be discussing tonight) is concerned that our country is going through an existential crisis where we are increasingly unable to see the good in the other; and that the extreme political divide between the left and the right is so contemptuous that the ability to even empathize with each other is almost non-existent.
His advice? Retreat to the mystics, the gurus and the messiah, and consciously work to create a new form of empathy in our communities to drop the fear that makes us see one another as the enemy.
I’ve taken his advice and been doing just that this week.
I’ve been reading the sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark, and Prayers for Ordinary Radicals from the modern mystic, Shane Claiborne. I’ve read the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again” at least four times, and I’ve been reading the Thanksgiving Address from the Onondaga Nation as devotional, because it has helped me to center my heart and soul, and to remind me of what I really Pledge Allegiance too. (and it’s not a flag or a system of government).
The Thanksgiving Address comes from a book that mysteriously appeared in my mailbox at church late last spring, entitled “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer a chapter entitled, “Allegiance to Gratitude.” Coming up in November at our Church on the Prairie I’m going to take you through a few of the beautiful stanzas of the prayer, but for today I’ll just tease you with this much. Similar to how Jesus said, “where two or more are gathered in my name, I will be there,” for the Onondaga Nation, where two or more are gathered they first offer the thanksgiving address before any other business is begun. In the book the author recounts how, in the United States all children gather with hand over heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, often with little or no understanding of what those words mean; while in the Onondaga Nation the school children gather and recite this prayer of thanksgiving. It begins with this,
“Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one…”
And so they begin, by giving thanks to the waters and the winds, the fish and the birds, the Sun and the Moon and the Earth and the Stars, and the Creator, from whom all things come. And at the end of each verse, they say, “Now our minds are one.”
The Thanksgiving Address reminds each participant of the interconnectedness of life, and not just our part in it, but our responsibility for it. The practice of exchanging duties and responsibilities with each other and every living thing is one that I find most appealing. Reciprocity; to care for one another and for God’s creation. Can you imagine how beautiful our world would be if each of us were able to remember and uphold the sanctity of reciprocity? If, any time were going to engage in discussions of any kind, we first offered thanks to all the systems of life that brought us to this spot at this time, and said, “and now our minds are one?”
I don’t pledge my allegiances much anymore. But I appreciate that the pledge of allegiance is said at the beginning of every City and County Commission meeting, before the pressing issues of the day are discussed. And I think it’s important that our educators hear those important words, too, to remind them in their places of power that the common goal of our republic is to be; “liberty, and justice, for all.” But I hope too that we can all be of one mind with people like Langston Hughes, who said, “O let America be America again- the land that never has been, and yet must be the land where every man [and woman] is free. The land that’s mine—the poor mans, Indians, Negros, ME, who made America, whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, must bring back our mighty dream again. ..O yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath—America will be.”
I am grateful for the free republic and form of government for which the United States stands, and I am thankful that there are so many men and women who are willing to serve our country often at the sacrifice of themselves and their loved ones; yet I am also aware that there are many who have sacrificed just as much if not more, who live under repressive systems enacted by the very laws of this land that others are sworn to defend. It’s a delicate balance, this desire to hold up and honor the best that this land of liberty has and has to offer, while also acknowledging that freedom, liberty and justice are still just words in a phrase that have little reality in the lives of so very many.
I am happy to pay unto Caesar that which is Caesars, as Jesus tells us to do, but I am much more interested in paying to God that which is God’s. And to me that means living my life in accordance with my morals, thankful for every day on this earth that I have been given, caring for creation as best as I am able, and being attentive to the needs of my neighbors. Does that make me a bad patriot? if push came to shove and I was asked to declare my loyalties, I would echo the greatest commandment set forth by Jesus, and say that I try to put God first, and other people second (regardless of their homeland, their gender, their sexual orientation or their race). I am more likely to align with individuals over institutions, so I will march with you for peace and with Pride, and I will kneel with you in penitence, prayer and protest, and I will do it as an act of faith, with the simple hope that someday our minds may be one.
These days, the memorized stanzas of allegiance that I know by heart are from two places. Camp Highlands, and UCG. At Highlands, we strive to be Worthwhile men (it’s a boys camp, If you’ll recall. But all our Highlands women are worthwhile, too.) And the prayer that we say every Sunday is, “God, make of me a worthwhile man. Give me the strength to stand for right when other folks have left the fight. Give me the courage of the man who knows that if he will, he can. Teach me to see in every face the good, the kind and not the base. Clean up my thoughts, my speech, my play and Keep me pure from day to day.”
And from UCG, We join, as a spiritual community, in this compact. To worship God, however known. To welcome into our church those of differing understanding and theological opinion. To learn from our religious heritage, yet to grow by seeking new dimensions of truth. To follow, even imperfectly, the way of Jesus in personal involvement with each other, and strengthened by this bond, to act, in Christian concern for the welfare of all people.”
My pledge to you is that I will work with you to make this community one that abides in trust and love; who welcomes all and worships well, and who will journey together through all the cycles of life, doing all we are able to bring balance and harmony to our world. May it be so.