I was frustrated when I took this picture last night from the fifth row at the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert because I wanted a picture of the eagle that is the symbol of “Free Bird,” one of my favorite songs of all time, but there was a big old Dixie flag underneath it so I couldn’t share it on my facebook page. The reason I decided to share it now is because many people who look like me get offended when they hear other people say that today, in 2013, it still isn’t safe to be black in America.
A number of people in my church have been impacted by the game of chicken known as sequestration that Obama and the Republicans are playing with one another. Almost everyone either works for the civilian sector of the government, a government contractor, or the military. Several people have lost their jobs; many have been furloughed. And that’s why I’m more than a little bit hot about the way that Congress has suddenly bolted in action to exempt the FAA from sequestration rules so that people won’t have to wait in line at airports. It’s an illustration of the uniquely American religious belief in ideology without consequences. Continue reading
This photo has been circulating in response to the Connecticut shooting. I don’t disagree that people should know how to use guns safely and read the Bible. Many American Christians think that the word “Biblical” is just a tribal category which refers to people who own guns, love America, and hate public schools. So it would be great for people like that to actually open their Bibles so they can get to know Jesus. This photo offends me because the Bible is serving as a prop. This exactly what the Third Commandment against using the Lord’s name in vain is referring to. Because it has nothing to do with God’s word. It’s a certain kind of white America using God’s word for ideological cover in order to say if we were still in charge, then our kids wouldn’t get shot in school (the slight hiccup of course being that it’s young white men using legally registered guns to do it). I don’t own a gun. I’ve got a lot of friends that do. They’re good people. But please don’t throw guns and Bibles together, because then you confirm the worst stereotype that people have about Christians: that the Bible is what we hide behind while the gun represents who we really are. Jesus deserves better, especially for Christmas.
What I learned from last night’s final presidential debate (which was the first one I watched) is that the way you “win” mostly has to do with how long you can talk without taking a breath or how willing you are to yell “Liar, liar, pants on fire” while the other guy is in the middle of what he’s saying. The fundamental thing Romney and Obama agreed on is the importance of projecting strength in US foreign policy. “Strength” seems to be defined as not apologizing for anything the US has done in the past and making sure that other nations understand that the US knows what’s best for them. I realize we live in a secular nation-state, but I am really bothered by how thoroughly un-Biblical that way of thinking is. Whether or not it’s effective foreign policy from a realpolitik perspective, the Bible calls us to integrity, not strength.
I’ve been reading a lot of blogs in the Christian blogosphere expressing mixed emotions about the 4th of July. I understand where they’re coming from. Declaring Jesus as Lord and pledging allegiance to a flag are competing claims on our loyalty. One of our most quintessentially American writers, Mark Twain, once wrote: “Patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels.” It’s true that politicians wrap themselves in the flag most tightly when they need to cover up their lack of real ideas. But it’s also true that Mark Twain is part of what Americans celebrate when we’re patriotic about our country. Huckleberry Finn is part of what makes America America. So instead of talking about all of America’s shortcomings, whether people worship the flag too much, whether the Revolutionary War was just about rich people not wanting to pay their taxes, etc, I wanted to write about what I celebrate today when I celebrate America. And I wanted to share one of the most patriotic poems that’s ever been written: “I Too Sing America” by Langston Hughes.
I too sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am,
And be ashamed —
I, too, am America.
It’s true that we killed off most of the Indians who lived here before. It’s also true that we had slavery and segregation for most of our history. It could be argued that we’ve fought wars for bad reasons and treated other countries arrogantly. But something about America made Langston Hughes want to sing. He saw enough beauty in the values that we profess that it was worth fighting to get a place at the American dinner table.
What Langston Hughes did as a poet and civil rights crusader epitomizes to me what’s great about America. As much as I respect the military folks I’ve been getting to know at my church, having a strong military is not what’s unique about America. The Soviet Union had a fierce
military before they collapsed. Hitler had an amazing military. We should definitely celebrate the dedication of those who put themselves in harm’s way to defend America, but we should also celebrate the dedication of those who have fought tooth and nail throughout our nation’s history to create a society worth defending.
What made Langston Hughes want to sing about America is what we say we believe as Americans: “that all men are created equal.” And what has allowed America to fulfill its professed raison d’être are the Americans who have refused to settle for empty lip service and politician’s slogans but have demanded that American society be structured in such a way so that everybody has a fair chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We can debate about the details. Should civilian blue-collar workers be able to support their families on a single income so that one parent can stay home with the kids? Is it right to raise taxes if you want public school classrooms with 15 kids per teacher instead of 30? Regardless of where you come down in these debates, when you celebrate America today, you’re celebrating more than just the men in tights and whigs who wrote our Constitution. You’re celebrating Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Thoreau, Emma Goldman, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr, (even) Malcolm X, Sandra Cisneros, Woody Guthrie, Dorothy Day, Frances Willard, and a whole lot of other people who were widely hated and controversial in their time for fighting to create an America worth defending. America is only as good as the people who force us to live up to our promises. That is the America for which I sing.