Join me for a game of Imagine for a bit, shall we? This is a game where I imagine the world as I would like it to be. Or where I try to imagine the world as others wish it to be.
Let’s start with the one thing many would consider a shared value, something as routine as the Pledge of Allegiance. I grew up during a time when school kids were expected to say the pledge first thing every morning. Nobody questioned it. Loyalty to a country was a shared value in the communities in which I lived. It never occurred to me ever not to stand and say the pledge. Standing and saying that pledge became even more important to me after my father died in the Vietnam War. The anniversary of his death is next week. His death brought out the patriotism in a lot of people. There’s just something about a folded flag being handed to a young woman with small children that just bursts open the hearts of Americans.
There is nothing particularly special about flags. Every country has one. They are mostly manufactured in China these days. Flags are just symbols, but it’s those symbols that matter. It’s kinda of like Ivory soap for me. I can’t ever open a bar of Ivory without thinking of my Granny Leona. The scent invokes memories of her. The flag invokes all sorts of memories for all of us. For me, it invokes the memory of my father’s funeral. So, yes, standing and saying the Pledge after he was killed became something I did without question and with a great deal of pride.
Let’s consider now another shared value among millions of Americans – going to church. I was raised in the South, which meant that church was our gathering place. I went to church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Monday nights for youth group, Wednesday nights for church supper, prayer meeting and choir practice. And we often did other events on Friday or Saturdays with our youth group. So, yeah, I was raised up in a church that loved me to Jesus. They were great people. Many of them became my closest lifelong friends. Even the non-religious will sometimes go to church on Christmas or Easter or when a loved one dies. Even my non-believing friends often live in ways that reflects the teachings of Christ. I love that about them.
Respecting our law enforcement is another shared value among most Americans. Most Americans are law-abiding. We might speed on occasion or text while driving. We might cheat on our taxes a smidgen. We might take advantage of our bosses at times. But for the most part, the bulk of us aren’t the sort to cuss at a police officer or call him a pig (Confession: I may have done this a time or two in the late 60s), or to lie to an officer. We certainly wouldn’t outright defy him or her. When a cop in Seattle told me to get out of the car because she suspected I was drunk, I got out of the car. I laughed when she asked what I’d been drinking and I answered a “Starbucks latte” but I never once defied her. I did everything she told me to do without once being ugly to her, even when she was ugly to me. Obedience to law enforcement was drilled into me, into most of us from a very young age.
Respecting people in positions of power is another shared value among most US citizens. We are taught to treat people in positions of authority with respect. We don’t storm into city council meetings demanding that others sit down and pay attention to us. We don’t storm out of our bosses offices when we are being reprimanded. We pretend to listen even if in our heads we are arguing back at them. We are taught deference to those who run our cities, our states, our country. We might write letters of protest. We might voice our dissent but we do it in a respectful way.
Now this is where the Imagination game begins:
- Imagine living in a country where we are required to say the Pledge of Allegiance. A country where if we refused to stand for the flag and say the Pledge we risk being thrown into prison. Or deported to Guantanamo. Or forced to wear an armband that identifies us as traitors. Or put into a cage on the public square where our neighbors & family members walk by and spit on us, or threw beer cans at us. A country where not standing before the flag and saying the Pledge is punishable by law.
- Imagine now living in a country where everyone is required to attend church. And not just any church, mind you, but a church in which the only book taught is the King James version of the Bible. What if we lived in a country where everyone is required to confess Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior? What if Christianity becomes a state-sanctioned religion? What if anyone who refuses to identify Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior risks being imprisoned until they recant and confess their sins? What if in that state-sanctioned church only men are allowed to preach or speak? And what if in that state-sanctioned church, birth control is forbidden? What if women are forced to have as many children as our bodies will tolerate? What if within the church doctrine it is written that women are required to obey their husbands, no matter what? What if any woman who fails to honor such demands is thrown out on the streets, forced to live her life out as a beggar? Dependent upon the goodness of the very congregation of people who condemned her to begin with?
- What if we lived in a country where law enforcement is never questioned? Where the military and police are ever present entities in our daily lives. What if we lived in a country where we are forbidden from hosting social events in our homes unless we first clear it with our local police departments, and even then we have to identify who we are hosting, and the nature of our relationship with these people, be it business or personal? What if we lived in a country where cameras are everywhere and police or military officials have access to monitoring our every movement? What if we lived in a country where we could not travel from state to state, or county to county, or town to town, without first alerting local authorities? What if we lived in a country where passports are not a guarantee for reentry into the US? A country where our ability to travel freely depends solely on our socioeconomic status and our ethnicity.
- Imagine living in a country where dissent in any form is punishable by law. A country where a neighbor might report us as unpatriotic, and local law enforcement has to determine whether we are true patriots. Imagine living in a country where someone falsely labels us a terrorist, even if we don’t own guns, and barely know how to make biscuits much less bombs. Imagine if we are labeled a terrorist without one shred of evidence, and hauled off to prison without the ability to have representation. No attorney. No jury. No trial. Nothing. Just a law that allows others to stick a label on us because they perceive us as a threat. What if we lived in the country where the president demanded complete adulation. A country where if we said one negative thing about the president, we were marked as traitors to the country and singled out for harm?
Imagine living in that country.
The thing is we no longer have to imagine it.
We only need to look around and see the country that Trump is creating.
Americans have lost sight of what it means to be an American. The entire reason men like my father died was to protect the freedom of dissent. He died in a country that did not allow for such dissent. People’s lives were heavily monitored. They were forced to hang photos of Uncle Ho in their homes. They could not meet with friends or family without permission of the local authorities. They could not travel freely from county to county without permission. Criticizing the government could land one in prison or even a death sentence.
To be a true patriot, one doesn’t need to stand for the Pledge or show cops respect, or confess Jesus as Personal Lord and Savior. To be an a true American patriot, one doesn’t even need to express adulation for one’s president.
To be an American is to embrace the refugee, not the president. .To be an American is to vigorously participate in dissent. That Pledge isn’t an oath of loyalty to the president of this country, after all, rather it’s an oath to the country itself.
Not just those with whom we agree. Or those whom Trump prefers.
Karen Spears Zacharias is an author, a journalist and a Gold Star daughter. Her father Staff Sgt. David Spears was killed-in-action in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley on July 24, 1966.