Monday is Memorial Day, one of America’s greatest civil religious holidays along with July Fourth and Thanksgiving. Like both of them, it often sacrifices its true spiritual meaning to food and festivities. This Memorial Day, I want you to go deeper than hot dogs.
As many of you know, Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day and began when mothers mourning the more than 600,000 American soldiers who died on both sides of the Civil War went to their graves in the springtime to decorate them with flowers. Over time, those decorations morphed into a national day of memorial not just for the million soldiers who have died in defense of American freedom, but also for those men and women who have chosen to serve our country in the armed forces now. On Memorial Day, all American flags are lowered to half-mast until noon and then raised for the rest of the day. The parades are nice. But to me, Memorial Day is all about the flag. I believe that the flag teaches us not only about America but also about God. I think the flag is a way to faith. I believe that the flag is a sacred symbol.
I do not believe that the American flag is a sacred symbol because America is sacred. No nation is sacred. Only God is sacred. The prophet Isaiah teaches us in no uncertain terms that God is above all nations and all leaders:
“Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity. Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and he shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble.” (Isaiah 40:21-24)
The reason that God must be over all nations is that without God the only foundation for human dignity is our citizenship in a nation. This leads inevitably to national arrogance and national conflicts. However, with God, all people on Earth from every nation and from no nations are made in the image of God and are therefore equally holy and have equal dignity and equal human rights. God keeps us from making an idol out of any flag. However, the flag — properly reverenced and properly understood — keeps us humble and grateful, and these virtues bring us to God, who is the ultimate being beyond us to whom we owe the greatest debt.
The questions raised when the flag is raised are:
“Do you owe any debt to something bigger than yourself?”
“Do you feel that you owe something to those who died for your freedom?”
“Is your citizenship merely a matter of establishing your claims on the state or does the state have the right to make moral claims upon you?”
I am not referring to legal claims on your income through taxes or on your behavior through its laws. I am asking each of us to reflect on what we owe to our homeland as a personal, spiritual debt. Another way of framing this question is, “Are you in any real and personally compelling way patriotic?”
Coming of age in the turbulence of the ’60s, it has taken me most of my adult life to become truly patriotic. I think the opposite of patriotism is selfishness, and I am ashamed at the level of selfishness I once justified in my soul. Now there are things I do alone and with my family for no other reason than to try in some small way to pay back my debt to America.
True patriotism is not the exclusive possession of any one political party or ideology. I know conscientious objectors and soldiers who are both patriotic through their bones. The key to patriotism is basic gratitude. An elderly woman wrote to me, “I would like to say that I am not of the ‘Greatest Generation’ but of the ‘Fortunate Generation;’ a generation that learned not only from parents but from instructors during my education.”
She felt fortunate. She is a true patriot. She understands the meaning of Memorial Day even before the first hot dog is grilled.