Patriotic Symbols Considered

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 5, 2015

Leviticus 26:1-13 GNT

I can remember many occasions when I was growing up of gathering at the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park near Limestone for family reunions, church picnics, family camping trips, and such.  In case you have never been there, the park is located on the bank of the Nolichuckey River just off Highway 11E, on the Washington County-Greene County line.  When I was a boy, it had numerous picnic tables along the river, a campground, and small log cabin with a big bearskin rug on the floor representative of the cabin where Crockett was born.  And it also had a log cabin gift shop that was the delight of every boy and girl around.  The gift shop smelled of red cedar as soon as you stepped inside, emanating from the numerous red cedar jewelry boxes, wall thermometers, piggy banks, and more.  It was stocked with toy guns, plastic cowboy and Indian figures, pocket knives, coonskin caps, and flags—American flags and Confederate flags.  You can see why such a place would be a delight to any country boy like me.

I recall one occasion quite distinctively when we were there on a Saturday night for a family reunion picnic.  The one thing I wanted from that gift shop was a flag.  And I honestly cannot remember if it was an American flag or a Confederate flag.  But the flag itself was about 18 x 12 inches and was stapled to a small wooden dowel.  The price of the flag was 30 cents.  I was so proud after buying that flag.  I ran through the picnic area the rest of the evening holding that flag high and waving it vigorously.  Even at the young age of six or seven, I knew there was some kind of significance and meaning attached to that flag.  I realized that it was more than just a piece of hemp fabric died red, white and blue, and stapled to a wooden stick.

That’s the way with patriotic symbols like flags—they are charged with meaning for those who display them and love them.  But they can also be charged with meaning for those who loathe them and/or feel oppressed by them.

You don’t need me to remind you of all the coverage in the news of late regarding the controversy over such symbols, and most notably the Confederate flag.  The Confederate flag, which has been a long-held symbol of southern pride and southern heritage for many, has come under renewed fire since it was so blatantly displayed and touted by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who took nine African American lives at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.  But the Confederate flag has also long been a symbol of slavery, bigotry and oppression for others, and has in recent weeks become a symbol of racism more than ever before.

This latest tragedy has served as an eye opener for many Americans who may have never thought about the veiled meaning behind that Confederate flag that many southerners have long taken for granted.  We are used to seeing the Confederate flag on t-shirts, license plates, pickup truck windows, belt buckles, and even state and national park souvenirs, and more.  Many of us white Americans probably have viewed the image of the Confederate flag with little or no thought at all.  Until now.

Consequently, the Confederate flag is being removed from state houses right and left, and images of the Confederate flag are being yanked off store shelves and will no longer be carried or sold through Wal-Mart, Sears, Amazon, eBay, Etsy.com, and others.

Now, let me be clear: the primary intent of this sermon is not to pick on or trash the Confederate flag.  My aim goes much deeper.  My purpose is to make us think a bit about all patriotic symbols, the messages they convey, the way they can be emotionally charged, and the dangers that can be inherent in them.

Another symbol that has come under fire in recent days is the statue and bust of General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Our Governor has called for the removal of Forrest’s bust from the Tennessee Capital.  Forrest, as you know, was a celebrated Civil War General.  But he was also a wealthy slave trader and is remembered for the massacre of hundreds of black Union Soldiers who had surrendered, many of them on their knees.  He slaughtered them anyway.  Forrest was also the founder and first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that has been responsible for inflicting great oppression, terror, destruction of property, emotional harm, and death upon African Americans for the past 150 years.  So you can see why such an image would be emotionally charged for many.

The ancient Hebrew Torah warned against the making of idols, statues, or carved figures.  Why do you suppose that was the case?  Such items can become loaded with meaning and become objects of affection that detract us from what is really important in life.  The ancient Hebrew leaders, of course, were concerned that idols fashioned in the form of bulls or other animals would steal the affections of the people, away from the true God who had delivered them from Egyptian bondage.

But another point of importance is this: idols or carved images, as objects of devotion, can tend to relieve people of moral obligations and responsibilities.  Such idols and carved images didn’t demand that the people live ethical, moral, just lives.  Idol worship is an easy form of religion, it seems to me, that requires very little of those who engage in it.

But in ancient Israel, idols or carved images also had the tendency of becoming loaded with meaning that went way beyond the image itself.  Idols representing the Canaanite god Baal, the god of fertility, meant offering sacrifices to that god in order to assure agricultural fertility and abundance.  Other idols or carved images invited sexual orgies or temple prostitution.  So the Hebrew lawgiver knew the inherent dangers in idols, carved images, and statues, because for those who revere them, they are loaded with explosive possibilities.

And so, you see, in a nutshell, idols, images and statues have the potential of becoming objects of inordinate affection that detract us from what is really important and that blind us to true moral obligations and responsibilities.  The idol or image can become more important than ethical responsibility or human life itself.  Sometimes people become so attached to idols or images that they become fighting mad when those idols or images are threatened.

Such can be the way with patriotic symbols; with any patriotic symbols.  They are loaded with emotional meaning for many.   But carried too far, such symbols or images can become gods in themselves to which some people pledge their devotion, to the exclusion of what is moral, ethical, right or just.

For these reasons, there are some faith groups, you know, who refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, or any other pledge or oath; not because they do not love America, but because they see any flag as a form of idol.  Such devotion and reverence, they believe, should be rendered to God alone and to the demands of God to live morally, ethically, and justly toward all.

Now, don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  I am as patriotic as any of you are.  I love the American flag, and I recite the Pledge of the Allegiance to the Flag like most of you do.  But my responsibility to God, to the demands of God espoused by the 8th century Hebrew prophets and Jesus to do justice, love kindness, and to live in compassion with others will always take precedence over devotion to the flag or any other symbol.

So the point I have been trying to make is not that we should do away with all patriotic symbols.  Rather, that we realize how patriotic symbols can be loaded with both meaning and passion, and how they can bring joy and pride to some, while at the same time bring pain and suffering to others.  Patriotic symbols have the potential of bringing out the worst in people—bigotry, prejudice, hatred, and violence.

But patriotic symbols also have the potential of bringing out the best in people—love, service, selflessness, and sacrifice.  Patriotic symbols honored aright bring out the best in humanity.

But we should never let any symbol become as a god to us, or cause us to cling to or get fighting mad over that symbol to the exclusion of the positive principles and motivations the symbol was meant to convey.  In other words, human compassion, justice, morality, and ethical dealings with others should always take precedence over any object or type of symbol, patriotic or otherwise.

“Do not make for yourselves idols,” the ancient Hebrew lawgiver rightly warned.  Worship of God, human compassion, guarding the dignity of everyone, justice in all our dealings, and ethical treatment of all concerned—these things should always take precedence over any symbol or emotional attachment we might have to them.  And when that is the case, we see true patriotism in action.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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