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E ver since sometime in high school — maybe my junior year — I have refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Back then, my oppositional nature tied me to my chair as others stood and recited. These days, when I'm in patriotic company, I go ahead and stand, silent.
Still, folks occasionally wonder, always in the most passionate terms, why I don't pledge my allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, or to the republic for which it stands. Don't I love my country? Don't I appreciate the enormous sacrifices that people have made so that I can have the freedom to sit and not pledge? Don't I wish to honor those brave people who have died for that flag?
Here's my answer.
I don't at all pledge my allegiance to a country or a flag. My allegiance is to truth, and that makes me an enemy of the state wherever I go. Fortunately, less so in this great (and I mean it) country.
Believe me. I've tried to buy bread in Romania. I've been to secret — and illegal — religious meetings in oppressed countries. I know that this land is a blessed one, and, for all our sins, we have something closer to the democratic ideal than has ever existed on this earth. And I also realize that that has come at a price. People (some of them related to me) have fought and died for that democratic ideal.
What were they fighting for, exactly? Something more than a country, I hope: America thrives, after all, only insofar as she is the handmaiden to freedom and justice and liberty. Despite a perilous postwar time of rigid conformity (to which the reaction was, sadly, dire, though, one hopes, permanent), we've also been a refuge for individualists and free thinkers. And that defends us against totalitarian evils more surely than any forced pledge. I'm certain that it would be pretty easy to muster several teachers from my school days, when the Pledge was a daily reality, who'd vouch that any totalitarian regime would have a harder time with the likes of me <blushing shyly> than with my more obedient peers. Dissenting types give dictators much to fear for the same reason that we give innocent Vietnamese peasant women, harvesting rice, nothing to fear.
Truth, Justice, and the American Way. When truth and justice are the American way, I have no problem, for my allegiance is right there. And when truth and justice are not the American way, when the American way leads away from them, then which would you choose? What of your pledge then?
How much happier Rolf and Liesl would have been if Rolf had pledged his allegiance not to his flag or the country for which it stood but to truth and freedom. Poor Liesl. (Poor Rolf.) Poor Jakob. Think of the hassle we could have avoided.
Naturally, all of this is filtered through my faith: I'm an eternal soul, pledged to an eternal God, in the company of other eternal souls, living in a perishable, short-lived republic. Where should my loyalties lie, anyway? St Paul speaks to that, and our right-wing God-and-country leaders are fond of quoting Romans chapter 13, little realizing that their adherence to that bit of scripture was better tested by the last eight years than the next four, and that they bitterly failed it. Nonetheless, it bears pointing out that the same saint who said we should submit ourselves to the authority of our government was the man who cheerfully stood against the Roman Empire — and suffered nasty consequences — when its authority conflicted with his conscience.
And that's just it. America will never stand before God. I will.
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N o doubt you've been forwarded at least one email rhapsodizing about the Grand Old Flag, its easy symbolism, and the lengths to which brave men and women have gone to defend it. (As if the flag were what they were defending.) Allow me to rhapsodize, then, about things I consider infinitely more beautiful.
- Slobber, for instance:
- the kind that issues from your little sister's mouth into her pillow as she sleeps in peace, in a land of safety and wealth hard bought by true patriots.
- a tune — any tune, the tune of your choice — as you walk freely down the street in the afternoon or the late night, breathing clean air.
- Raw meat.
- Ground fresh today, stacked pound by pound by pound in a refrigerated bin in the back of your grocery store. Have you ever been back there and just stopped to think how much meat that is? It's all yours for the buying, and mighty cheap, too. Right near the piles of bananas, oranges, 12 kinds of apples, Pop-Tarts, Chocolate Yoo-Hoo, 12 different flavors and nationalities of coffee by the barrel, dishes, alarm clocks, videos, batteries, light bulbs, and on and on. The pure physical pleasures of a working capitalist economy are overwhelming if you can see them. And, if you pay cash, no government or corporation will even know it's you buying all that stuff.
- Loud whining:
- the kind that accompanies a president's nominations for attorney general, supreme court justice, and all that. Just think: that whining is legal, allowed, and in fact cherished by some of us. It, too, has been hard bought by the blood of martyrs.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. More beautiful than any of the wars that made it all possible, or the flag of any country, be it our own or one that has oppressed us or one that we have oppressed.
To many people around the world, our stars and stripes are a symbol of freedom. Good. Pledge yourself to freedom. It's in danger, right here in our country. Pledge yourself to it, and not the flag or the country. Liberty and justice for all? Bring it on: I'd love to see it happen in our lifetime. Pledge yourself to it.
But please, you flag-waving parade watchers who swoon at the sight of handsome military men with shining medals and shouldered guns, heed the words of the wise man: love not the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. Love only that which they defend.