The sharp edge here cuts right to the bone. Well, there is a harshness to family relations, and bitter feelings that get poured out to therapists and salved by friends, or else they produce rifts and divorces. We know this.
Jesus knows it too, and argued with his own mother about her demands on him a few times. But this is not what he means in his warning to the crowd. He means that we can’t divide our loyalties. Or worse, we can’t pretend there is no division between the values our families call us to, and his values.
And I think this demand is more starkly clear when we apply it to the flag. A week ago I wrote a post about the nationalistic rituals in the Olympics, and how I found them jingoistic. In it, I said I was sick of the national anthem being played while a gold medal was awarded. I’ve had a lot of critical responses to that line, most of them accusing me of a lack of patriotism.
The thing is, the flag, like the family, embraces a wide spectrum of values. Political candidates who despise each other’s values wrap themselves in the flag. Groups who defy the government, like those who took over the national park out west for a while, fly the flag. White supremacists fly it, bikers attach it to their motorcycles, Boy Scouts parade with it. And far too many churches have a flag at the front, as a sacred symbol.
The trouble is, Christ, whose sign is the cross, may demand that we criticize the government. Or even the Boy Scouts. And, of course, the Church.
This is a great country, the best in the world, say those who can brook no criticism of it. The US is my country, and I love it more than all others. But I cannot turn away from the fact that it was born as a slave-holding nation, and it took nearly fifty years of church protests, and a bloody-awful war, to bring an end to that slavery, over which the flag flew and which the flag represented. President Lincoln brought out the huge piles of church petitions to end slavery and put them on the desk next to him when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.And many churches did not protest. Several denominations split over slavery, into Northern and Southern Churches.
For the next century, the flag flew over legal segregation, a dark century in which black people were treated horribly. When the US government, under Kennedy, intervened to help end segregation, flying the flag for freedom, most southerners hated the government. Some, like the shooter last year in the Mother Emmanuel AME Church, still do.
The flag has an important role among us, but that role should not be proclaiming who is the best and deserves gold, as distinct from all the rest. The flag flies over our courts and legislatures, signifying our form of justice and law. The flag flies over our armed forces, signifying that they fight for this form of justice and law. The flag flies over our schools, which teach us how to be citizens and give us an education we are, by law, entitled to. And the flag flies over those who have lost their lives for this country.
But the flag belongs to the just and the unjust, to the evildoer and the saint, the poor man and the rich one. And it belongs to the losers at the Olympics as much as to the winners there.
The cross, which adorns churches and is worn by believers, stands apart from all this, insisting on a vision of justice in which the Human Family is created equal. Not just the citizens of the US. The cross insists that the love of God is particularly for the losers, for the sick, the unfit, the mentally ill, the failures, the unemployed, the workers who showed up late in the day as Jesus calls them, the woman who had five husbands, the adulterers, the sinners, the lost sheep of every kind.
The cross is not for winners, not an award for winning anything. It does not preside over wars or military units. It presides among the dead, who have lost everything else they had, except the cross.
If we elect a government that begins to build a wall to keep people out, and begins to deport 11 million people who are here without visas or work permits, in an effort to make those of us who are citizens richer, it will be time for the churches to stand up, once again, in opposition.
The flag, like the family, embraces all these divided opinions and actions. But the cross sides only with the oppressed, and never with those who think they are better than others, for any reason at all.
Image: Cross and Flag. carlswebgraphics.com. Free Memorial Day Graphics.