Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Patriotism and faith - both too cheap at only $9.95

Several years ago I offended some people that I really care about when I posted that God is not an American. As far as I know He still is not.

That is one of the reasons I find this fish meets flag car emblem so distasteful. The folks marketing it encourage us to "Proclaim our nation's righteous heritage" and to "Celebrate the Christian faith that upholds the USA."

Where to begin?

Ichthys as a symbol of faith
The fish symbol used as a Christian symbol is nearly as old as Christianity itself. Found among the catacombs - the ancient burial site for believers in Rome - the emblem represents the Greek word ichthys. The letters of that ancient word form an acrostic representing the words, Jesus Christ God's Son, Savior. Legend has it that it was used, not just to mark the graves of Christ-followers, but also as a covert means for two believers to identify one another.

It is said that, when two travelers met, one would draw an arc in the sand with his or her foot. If the other drew an inverted arc, thus forming the fish symbol, the two would know that they were in the safe company of a fellow Christian.

Exactly when the fish started appearing on the trunks of Hondas here in America is even less clear.

What is clear is that the phenomena has become a cottage industry complete with its own stereotypes, variations on a them and cynical knock-offs.

The flag as a symbol of our nation
Of course, the history of Old Glory is well known by every person that has heard the story of Betsy Ross or Francis Scott Key. A symbol of our nation, it is held in high regard by Americans and hated abroad by many enemies of freedom. In that sense, it is both revered and reviled and is as likely to be trampled and burned in effigy by foreign legions as it is to be burned ceremonially by members of The American Legion.

In short, the flag is highly infused with emotion.

The problem is . . .
. . . in a word, syncretism; that is, "the combination of different forms of belief or practice."

While there are some that believe it inappropriate for a Christ-follower to ever, for example, "pledge allegiance to the flag," I am not among them. Nevertheless, I can understand the thinking behind the position. As one former professor of mine put it, "Any time you put your hand on your heart and recite words from memory with a tear trickling down your cheek, that looks a lot like worship to me."

Still, we frequently pledge allegiance to people, to ideals and to organizations without betraying our first allegiance to the Almighty, and I see violation of faith in doing so.

What is troubling to me, and what makes the above referenced "Star Spangled Fish" so patently offensive is the mixing of two highly symbolic, emotionally charged, otherwise unrelated, and oftentimes, at-odds symbols.

Most would agree, I think, that imagining that we are the only nation blessed by God is hubris. And yet, I doubt many would be comfortable with mixing the fish symbol with, say an Israeli flag or an Australian flag (despite the Wikipedia article claiming the modern use of the fish symbol began down under.) How about mixing the fish with a rebel flag? Or . . . and hear me out on this . . . a Nazi flag.

To be clear, I am in no way equating America with the Nazis or our leaders with Hitler. I am simply pointing out that there are now, and have been in the past, other nations that claimed for themselves a divine national blessing that was not theirs to claim. Careful observers will rightly note that, though our nation was never guilty of the atrocities resulting from extreme German Nationalism, we do bear responsibility for the displacement of Native Americans, the oppression of African slaves, the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, and the deaths of millions of unborn Americans.

In short, our flag is imperfect because our nation is imperfect.

Our Savior is not.

Two pledges
Over the years I've learned my share of pledges. I "pledged my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service and my health to better living," back when I was a 4-H member. I learned and recited the FFA creed. I sing my Alma Mater whenever I return to Great Lakes Christian College on Alumni weekend. And I see no more problem with these expressions of fidelity than I do with pledging allegiance to our nation's flag.

I will gladly display Old Glory. I will heartily pledge my devotion to the republic for which it stands. I will defend it, if need be. I will support my son's plans to serve as a soldier in arms under that same banner.

But I have taken a greater oath. I have offered a greater pledge.

And I won't cheapen either by lumping them together in a $9.95 piece of plastic and slapping it on the back of my Dodge Caravan.