As the flame caught a red edge of the cloth, I thought about my heroic uncle and his military service. I remembered, too, my childhood patriotism and my hometown parades. I thought of the “big truck” patriotism of today, and the religious symbolism woven within it. Standing by the fire, I thought about parachutes and candy, and about Bono, AIDS, and Africa. I remembered, too, the refugee I met in France, whose simple words kindled a spark within me; because of it, I committed my career to flames.
I burned my American flag on a wet day in December of 2023. It was not an act of rebellion, violence, or protest, but rather of honor and respect. While cleaning the garage, I had opened the sagging door of a rickety cupboard, and there was that old flag, which had been flown by the previous owner of our house. The flag’s colors were faded; the fabric in my hands was brittle.
It would be disrespectful to fly this flag in such condition, even if I wanted to. Consigning the flag, though, to more years of neglect and decay seemed a violation of it. I knew that you cannot dispose of an American flag in a garbage can. An image of a landfill tractor chewing up this flag appeared in my mind, and my head shook that image away in revulsion. From lessons long ago, I had a vague recollection that it was my duty to burn the flag. Nervous about that, I decided to verify.
The first images online were of people in a crowd around a large mass of flames. It was a flag-burning ceremony at a VFW. Yes, the site said, burning was the way to go. Several websites described at-home versions of this practice. Still, as I carried the flag to the grass alley behind our house, it felt wrong.
If I had to do it, this was an appropriate morning. Mist was gently descending, and it was foggy, which matched the condition of my patriotism. The weather was helpful also because, in the damp grey, the smoke wouldn’t be so noticeable. Our city has rules about what it calls “recreational fires.” Although this little flame would be too small to be illegal, I felt guilty, like I needed to hide.
Having previously placed a piece of ceramic tile on the ground, I stooped down and laid the flag upon it. Down on one knee, I scratched the match, and touched it to the fabric. I stood, then, in respect and thoughtfulness.
I thought of my uncle, and his top-secret mission in World War II. Three weeks before my backyard ceremony, I had visited him. He told me that only months prior, he had received a letter from the government granting him permission to, at last, share his story. He had never, across 70 years, revealed even a shred of it to his wife, his kids, or his friends. Sitting with him in his apartment, I became one of those he told.
There is not time or space to tell his story here. Sitting with my uncle in his apartment, though, I remembered sitting with him fifty-five years ago in a boat, fishing with him and my dad. He was a cool, funny guy, and my childhood hero. Now I know the real content of his heroism. He carries the aroma of dignity and self-sacrifice. I feel that same dignity hanging upon the other veterans in my family, and upon the ones I meet these days as a hospice chaplain.
I thought of how, when I was a kid, the people of my hometown gathered on Memorial Day for the parade, flags everywhere rippling in the breeze. With my classmates, I pedaled my bike in those parades; we had woven red, white, and blue crepe paper into the spokes. After the parade, everyone moved as a silent human river to the cemetery. Each year, we stood in the hot sun for the reading of every single name of our townspeople who had given their lives in service to our country. I remember the reverence I felt then, and still feel now.
I thought of how, in every church I pastored, there was a plaque engraved with the names of the members of that church who had died in military service. The plaque had holes on each side, into which small flags attached to wooden dowels had been placed. I remembered, too, those risky discussions I initiated: Is it right, by Reformed theology, to have the American flag standing in the sanctuary, on the platform, next to the pulpit, the baptismal font, and the communion table?
I thought of parishioners who over the years had told me their war stories, just as my uncle had recently told me his. Some told of the horrors they had seen; others of the horrible things they had done. Now, standing by this flame, I remembered them, and grieved them, again.
Standing by the burning flag, I felt honor, humility, and thankfulness in my heart. As the flames grew, though, so did the awareness of the fear, sadness, and sense of doom I feel over this nation, and over the Christian faith that I used to believe was the healthy beating heart within it.
At a local event recently, I bumped into a group of Christian Reformed pastors as one of them was telling the others of his dilemma. He wants to display his American flag from his front porch to “reclaim patriotism.” The pastor’s wife, though, is asking him not to, worried of what the neighbors will think. The consensus of the pastors’ group was that the meaning of the flag has been irretrievably ruined. Tainted.
Tainted by rioters brandishing American flags and using them as weapons as they attacked police officers on January 6, 2021. Some of the insurrectionists carried a poster of Jesus in a MAGA hat. Many American church goers sat in prim, complicit approval, and many of their pastors cannot openly confront this “taking of the Lord’s name in vain” without losing their jobs.
Tainted by misuse and disrespect. Just as there are rules for burning a flag, there are rules for the presentation and handling of the flag. You are not supposed to deface it or distort it or even let it touch the ground. Now, the American flag is used as an advertising rag. Now you find American flags with politicians’ names, or the names of sports teams or beer companies stitched or painted across the white and red bars. (See also “Talking with Flags,” by David Hoekema.)
American flags have been tainted by grim-faced zealots, stomping hard on the gas pedals of their belching vehicles. As this election year unfolds, I am bracing myself for their onslaught: Three-by-five-foot American flags, mated with equally sized Trump flags, bolted to baseball-bat thick poles from the back ends of large pick-up trucks. Sometimes the trucks display American flags cut into the shape of skulls. Other times, the head of a furious looking eagle with big black eyebrows is superimposed on the flag. Or, an angry eagle with guns in its talons. Or, just a flag and a gun. And/or an expletive. Then a message about either God or Trump, or both.
My uncle is a real-deal-patriot. These pickup truck guys have seen too many Mel Gibson movies. They are what Garrison Keillor described as “grown men playing soldier, making a great hullabaloo without exposing themselves to danger.”
In my backyard, standing by my little altar, I feel the internal dissonance. I am still the naïve kid on the bike. I feel the patriotic allegiance to my uncle’s America. In my grateful bones, I know that freedom is not free. Violent, gruesome things have been done. Blood has been shed, and loved ones stood weeping at flag-draped coffins to carve out the safe, comfortable, and privileged life I live.
When flags hang at half-staff, my heart does, too. When American soldiers are killed in the line of duty, I grieve and feel anger. When conflict erupts, instinctively my heart is with the U.S.
Yet my patriotism at this moment in our history is frayed. God calls our nation, just as any other, to uphold justice and righteousness, to seek peace and pursue it. I now know what the kid with the crepe paper in his spokes didn’t – about our nation’s slaughter of indigenous peoples. About our un-holy wars. About the embers of racism now fanned to full flame again. About the hair-trigger religious patriotism of today.
The tailgate of this little pickup truck carries religious patriotism’s message:
Notice that cross: It is not the old, rugged one. This one proclaims, “In this sign conquer.” The cross on the tailgate, and the religion woven like crepe paper through the letters of that name – that is a cross I do not believe in.
Watching the flag’s trail of smoke, I tried, within myself, to identify the America I do believe in, and remembered the “Candy Bomber,” Gail Halvorsen. It might have been at one of those childhood Memorial Day ceremonies that I first heard of him. During the Berlin airlift, American pilots with our flags painted on their planes flew over the city, dropping food and medical supplies. Halvorsen began dropping pieces of candy, suspended from handkerchief parachutes he had made. As he passed over the city, he would rock the wings of his plane so that, out of all the American aircraft dispensing benevolence, the children would know which one had the sweet stuff. That’s what stuck with me: America, at its best.
This is the America to which Bono appealed in the early 2000’s, when he was asking us to help save the lives of people dying from AIDS in Africa. The countries there did not have the lifesaving medications wealthier countries could afford. This, Bono said, “seemed to physicalize inequality.”
Initially, few in Washington D.C. warmed to the idealism and generosity to which Bono was calling us, but he persevered. Finally, he met with George W. Bush and placed three of the lifesaving pills in the President’s hand. Bono said, “Mr. President, paint these pills red, white, and blue if you have to, but in Africa these pills will be the best advert ever for the United States of America.” Finally, the United States gave $100 billion to save lives.
This is the America I hope for: Honor the flag by doing good for the world. That’s the “advert.” I believe in the America of the Statue of Liberty: A beacon of hope. Are we that? For one young refugee, no.
In 2017, I volunteered with the International Association for Refugees in Lille, France. There, I met teenaged men and women who had fled Africa. One day, one of the refugees asked me, “What do you think of President Trump?” His head was hanging down; he seemed afraid to ask. I asked him what he thought. After a long silence, body shrinking as he spoke, he said, “He puffs out his chest, and tells me there is no hope for me.”
That boy’s words struck a spark in my heart, which eventually grew into a conflagration I could not contain. I could no longer keep silent about Religious Trumpism. I openly rejected any movement claiming to be Christian which so willingly slams a door in the faces of people like this young man by fervently supporting this brutal, evil man as our President, and by passionately endorsing Trump’s message to the world. Under Trump’s influence, and with much of the American Church’s fanatical support, our nation has forfeited its dignity and glory.
At his rallies and on his website, Donald Trump calls his enemies “vermin,” and says that migrants are “poisoning our blood.” When a candidate for President uses his mouth as a bellows for racism, and his poll numbers go up, America is no longer a beacon to the world. When church people, fanned into religious delusion by pastors and national religious charlatans, view Trump as their standard bearer, they become the equivalent of the German church during the rise of Hitler.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “a national church which accepts Nazi policies may be popular, but it will never be Christian. The choice before us is clear: Germanism or Christianity.”
What it means to be an American and a Christ follower is the defining question for the American church today. There, in the wet grass and the fog, with the ashes already cooling, I struggled to discern a way to be both.
My patriotism still rises from my heart of gratitude, from my memories, from my prayers, and from my thinning thread of hope in the basic goodness of my country.
In uncertainty and sadness, though, I walked back to the garage and closed the sagging door of that old rickety cupboard.