Rev. Valerie's Reveries

This blog contains personal reflections from Unitarian Universalist minister Valerie Mapstone Ackerman.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Never once in all of my days as a dissenter from the policies and proclivities of our national government have I ever been tempted to stomp upon, burn or otherwise mutilate an American flag. Lately I've been wondering why I have not considered engaging in this symbolic act. Now that we are one Senatorial vote away from having an amendment conferring sacred status to an icon of American patriotism (virtually every state legislature is already on record of support for such an amendment), I've been reflecting on my emotional relationship with the symbology as well as the republic for which this particular symbol stands.

Sometimes I get a bit queasy when the iconic cloth (usually made from polyester and made in China by VERY poor people) is flying in close proximity and I feel edgy when I see them draped across caskets and dangling from large buildings. Post September 11th flag-flying--an emotional outpouring of angst at the horrifying actions of the terrorists (using terrorist in its ultimate and proper sense, not the new term which carries the meaning "anyone who disagrees with me") seemed appropriate in the short-term. Sensitive people needed a way to identify with the victims and flying American flags provided a substitute for tears.

In the 10th grade I decided to stop engaging in the dutiful ritual of standing and saluting the flag in my public high school. My three older brothers were merely lottery numbers away from being drafted, of becoming cannon-fodder in Vietnam, and though I was unaware of the nuances of the politics of the day, I was aware that this was not a good way to lose three brothers. This fateful decision gained me the ire of homeroom teacher Mrs. Simmons who then black-balled me as was her right as the sponsor of the National Honor Society, precipitating a disengagement from my former scholarly ways spinning me into depressive teenaged ennui which developed into some less-than-wise decisions regarding birth control and voila! by the end of junior year I was pregnant, married and in grave danger of dropping out of high school. I got married to Mr. Wrong on June 14, 1974-- which dear reader you surely know is Flag Day. (I am NOT making this up)

Thus I started young adulthood already bound in this rather sickening relationship with the stars and bars. The beautiful and brilliant Mrs. Simmons never gave me the chance to explain that my loyalty to the country was not in question (though it is now) and she never let me explain that I held the Constitution in great esteem and found the Declaration of Independence pretty darn inspiring and that I had memorized the Gettysburg Address in the 5th grade and could recite that on the spot though not without crying. She never let me assert my constitutional right to NOT believe in the God tacked onto the Pledge before my birth (other gods might have worked, but not THAT god). Mrs. Simmons had no interest in hearing my logical argument against the wording which requires one to pledge allegiance to the symbol first and the entity it represents second; never mind the fact that the pledge is in fact a sham most days, when liberty and justice are clearly not available to ALL.

Allied to the anti-war sentiments fueling my difficult relationship with patriotic gestures is a struggle with the nature of using symbols when the real thing would suffice. When the symbol becomes loaded with connotations of an either/or conflict I have to ask, what is the content that we are avoiding? If I can't burn a flag as a way of resolving a teenaged conundrum (an honest therapeutic action perhaps in my case), then what does such a flag actually represent? Or, to get to the core, if I can't burn a flag as a political statement of dissent (I still place flag stamps upside down on my letters) then may I dissent at all?

On the day that the USA proudly announced the slaughter by bombing of a particularly inept (symbolic?) bad guy in Iraq I was preparing to do my patriotic duty of spending money as urged by our president after 9/11/01. In other words I was in my car at an ATM. Suddenly I hear a voice calling out, "Hey tree-hugger lady, aren't you happy they got Zarquai?" [interesting epithet considering I have several peace-related and religious bumper stickers but no ecology-related ones. hmmmm] Craning my neck and looking behind, I saw a man craning his neck out of his car window and gesturing at me. Through my rear-view mirror I saw that he had a cross dangling from his rear-view mirror. So I shouted back, "You need to go to church mister." I finished my transaction and pulled away to finish a phone call with my daughter. Preparing to leave the parking lot, I noticed the car was still at the ATM so I pulled up on the passenger side and gestured to open the window, which the reluctant female passenger did. I then asked the driver where he went to church. He gave evasive answers. I said, " I just want to know because I wonder what Bible your minister preaches from because apparently he hasn't told you that the Bible states that vengeance is the Lords' not man's." My interlocutor sputtered something about planes flying into buildings. I said, "So didn't Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek?" More sputtering about not letting them get away with it. I said, "And Jesus taught us not to return violence for violence. Sir, your disagreement is not with me. Your disagreement is with Jesus." And I drove away.

Somehow the RELIGION of patriotism (as my friend Gay pointed out on Sunday) has taken precedence over a shallow form of mis-labled Christianity in the hearts and minds of many Americans. The words of the man upon whom the religion supposedly is based hold no power among the "believers." They have turned their secular anger into religious zeal. While holding onto the Christian symbol of the cross (an instrument of torture I'd like to point out) this "new" Christian has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. A new form of Christianity has been adopted in the churches in this strand of the Bible Belt: Christianity without the inconvenient teachings of Jesus. All the symbols are intact: the flag draped over the cross, but now the meaning has shifted toward the vengeful angry god of old--the one who smote with joy and impunity--and away from the Prince of Peace. Damn. and just when I was starting to warm up to JC again. Prostituting and bastardizing the symbols of democracy and faith is ugly, ugly business.

Oh god! I have such an overwhelming urge to go burn something!

This time I'll burn some incense on my prayer altar and light the candle in my smiling Buddha's hands. Maybe that'll work. Symbols of peace, tranquility, compassion and love. Yep. That'll work.


  • At July 05, 2006 11:39 AM, Blogger LaReinaCobre said…

    You are braver than I am - you actually went back and talked to that guy!

  • At July 05, 2006 12:07 PM, Blogger Valerie Mapstone Ackerman said…

    Brave? Maybe. More foolishness was involved... ego... anger...false bravado. I strive for courage, but thrive on denial of consequences.

  • At July 05, 2006 12:07 PM, Blogger Joel Monka said…

    I second that- I'm gratified that you answered back.

    As to why you have never burned a flag, despite your feelings about our actions abroad- I'm gratified by that as well, and can give you MY reasons for never doing so, anyway. The flag does not stand for an administration or a policy; it stands for our hopes and aspirations. Burn the President in effigy, fine- but burning the flag is protesting the good along with the bad. I cannot so disrespect my fellow Americans

  • At July 05, 2006 1:40 PM, Blogger Chalicechick said…

    I dearly wish you had been in the room with me the day in the seventh grade when a Mrs.-Simmons-like teacher tried to force an Australian diplomat's daughter to pledge.

    THAT was nasty. But the good guys won.


  • At July 05, 2006 9:40 PM, Blogger Paul Tay said…

    Burn da Bible. If anyone ask, lie and tell them it's the Quran. No one gits hurt.

  • At July 05, 2006 9:44 PM, Blogger Paul Tay said…

    I once stomped on Old Glory in front of a police officer. He arrested me for spitting.

  • At July 07, 2006 7:41 AM, Blogger Selkiewomyn said…

    I just preached on the Declaration of Independence last Sunday - A Nation of Immigrants. I talked about what the country would look like today if the Indigenous people in 1492 had our immigration policies... I horrified quite a few people. This was at the church you briefly served...
    happy to see you out and about again!

    Selkiewomyn aka Heather

  • At July 23, 2006 5:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "I am the Lord your God, who delivered you from Bondage in Egypt. You shall make no graven images and raise them before Me!"

    The Congress ought to be spending its time on cutting spending, especially of Pork Barrel crap like that bridge in Alaska.

    They could reduce some of the Federal Regulatory burden. For example, laws that benefit special interests but keep out new businesses.

    They could reform other regulations, for example laws that favor Big Business.

    Reduce the number of "boutique" blends of gasoline. Find an optimal smaller number of blends and make the EPA stick to it.

    How about a Flat Tax? Simpler graduated tax? A study to determine what is the best tax rates so that new businesses would grow?

    Encourage realistic alternate energy sources without creating satrapies and pork barrel spending. Find a reasonable way to handle atomic wastes. Repeal the Carter era bans on waste reprocessing and encourage the use of MOX fuels? Like we're trying to make the Iranians do.

    Fund committees to study distance learning, Internet schools, etc?

    Might even consider backing off some of the "commitments" we've made as an Empire, for example in the Balkans or in Columbia. We might even consider a day when we're not in the Middle East minding everyone's business!

    Nope. They're worried about handing the dogs.. I mean the "Base" a bone. It's insulting...


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