Spiritual Reflections

So now we are to understand that Betsy Ross was sort of a villain? Poor woman!

Only a few years ago, Elizabeth Griscom Ross (1752-1836), the lifelong Philadelphian and upholsterer who’s credited with sewing one of the first American flags, was a heroine of feminists. Now we are asked to see her as a contributor to white supremacy. This assertion despite the fact that Betsy was a Quaker. Quakerism found religious freedom in colonial Pennsylvania and was revered for its efforts to abolish slavery. For her part, Betsy never owned a slave. She even displayed her convictions by employing a former slave.

But today we are instructed that the flag she sewed was a symbol of white supremacy and nationalism since slavery was condoned at the time — not by Betsy, but no matter. So when a tiny emblem of her flag, with its characteristic 13 encircled stars, was attached to the heel of the Nike Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July shoes this summer, it caused offense.

Attaching a symbol of racism, a symbol a few fools recently hijacked for this purpose, is evil. Nike immediately waved a white flag, recalling the shoes from stores. Nike explained only that the design “featured an old version of the American flag,” as if that answered anything.

Perhaps it does. Nike’s response reveals a societal obsession with radical individualism that runs so deep we are willing to appease narrow-minded, reactionary complainants at the cost of yanking hard at our historical roots.

A few qualifiers: Nike is free to pull any product it chooses. Slavery was indeed practiced in colonial America and is indeed evil (Betsy agreed). A reverence for history requires no endorsement of all that one’s ancestors believed or practiced. Yet treating them with cavalier disregard is dangerously self-defeating to a society.

The Greek philosopher Plato argued that “the ancients are better than we for they dwelled nearer to the gods.” The Greco-Roman world held a semi-devolutionary theory of life. Life emanated downward, in increasingly corrupt forms, from the ideal realm inhabited by the gods. Antiquity was always better simply because it was old. Traditionalism was always virtuous.

For obvious reasons, we reject such traditionalism. But viewing our society in evolutionary terms, as we are wont, presses us to equally debilitating conclusions. We are better than our ancestors. History has nothing good to teach us. Feel free to shove Betsy aside; there’s no virtue in tapping her positive beliefs and practices, let alone those of her slave-owning compatriots. Since theirs was a slave-practicing society, its moment in the sun deserves none of our respect and all of our antipathy.

Healthy societal change cannot grow on the toxic fumes of historically rootless anger against the way things are. To grow today, we must take history for where it was, not read it exclusively by where we now are or don’t want to be. Our flawed ancestors (all of them) are our friends to help us escape our own flaws — some inherited, many of our own making. Radical individualism erodes reverence for ancestors and even despises them for failing to meet our narrower protocols of acceptable belief and behavior.

The Greeks were susceptible to seeing the ancients as gods and themselves as devils. We are in danger of seeing ourselves as gods and our ancestors as devils. “Screw the colonial flag and all it stood for! Move over and let me rule the world, I know just how to do it!” Not really.

As a Christian traditionalist, I lament those impoverished souls who have no heritage other than the one that creates heroes in their own image and who distort into enemies historical characters whom, had they known them in their day, they would have respected. Sadly, these malcontents will themselves be airbrushed out of the pages of their children’s reverence. Then again, evolution is a survival-of-the-fittest sum game, so who cares?

I rejoice in the stabilizing joy of one generation passing on the entrusted faith to the next, replete with stories of the glorious exploits of God’s kingdom. When the second generation asks: “‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statues and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say … ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves … and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand …’” (Deuteronomy 6:20-21).

The older generation is called to teach the younger generation “the glorious deeds of the Lord … that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psalm 78:4-7). Stable societies feed on historical roots (including negative ones, v. 8).

Rev. Dan Miller is a pastor at Eden Baptist Church in Burnsville and can be contacted at www.edenbaptist.org. He is one of several area pastors who write for “Spiritual Reflections.”

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