Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a column reprinted with permission from Woodside World, a newsletter issued to the congregation of Woodside Church of Flint, where Rev. Conrad is senior pastor. She wrote it partly in response to NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s recent national anthem protests. This is not offered as the editorial position of East Village Magazine but rather as an opportunity to read and consider the view of one of our neighbors on an issue of current debate.
By Deborah Conrad
Wednesday, Sept. 14 was the 202th anniversary of the writing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” a song that became America’s national anthem in 1931, more than 100 years after it was written. It was another bit of Herbert Hoover’s legacy.
I quit singing the national anthem more than 25 years ago. It is hard to sing, for sure; but moreover, I have had no taste for the militarism and dominance on which it is founded and which it spews.
Plus, “the land of the free and the home of the brave” has never really rung true for me, as a lesbian lacking both civil rights and courageous political leaders who would be allies in the pursuit.
America just doesn’t seem all that brave to me. We consistently avoid difficult conversations and strategic changes that would make life better for a lot of people, just because we’re afraid. “Land of the free, home of the brave” doesn’t describe America as I know it.
So I quit singing.
Colin Kaepernick is a pro football player who has also quit singing, choosing instead to sit or take a knee during each pre game rendition of the anthem. Colin has quit singing, and people are paying attention.
Two things have happened.
First, some people got mad. Began criticizing, vilifying, threatening him.
Second, some other people followed his lead. A small-but-growing group of athletes, some young students, run-of-the-mill Americans have seen a bravery and honesty in him that is inspiring them to ask questions, to review the lesser known lyrics of this patriotic song. People are paying attention. It’s how change happens.
Sept. 14, besides the birthday of this song, was also a little-noticed festival in the Church, Holy Cross Day, a day for remembering a key event of Christianity, the execution of Jesus.
But something happened to Jesus’ legacy along the way – much like so many other martyrs for causes: he got cleaned up. Co-opted. Reduced to bland, inoffensive nothingness. Our Jesus who resisted oppressive political systems, railed against unjust economic systems, demonstrated against military occupation, broke laws, rebelled against customs, cursed and called names, this Jesus was executed for conspiracy against the state, executed for being a problem. Crosses weren’t for swell guys that encouraged complacency. They were for troublemakers who weren’t going to take it anymore. That’s the paradox of Holy Cross. Sacred Insurrection.
Before the Star Spangled Banner, there was another song — several, in fact, all unofficially anthems of America. “America, the Beautiful,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Hail, Columbia.” Maybe you’d prefer one of these as a “national anthem.”
In the African American tradition, the song often called the “Black national anthem” is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which moves me to tears, so raw and honest it is:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our parents sighed?
And in the New Century Hymnal, there is this other that at Woodside Church we’ve sung twice this summer:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine
There is a measure of humility in that song, which is not evident in the Star-Spangled Banner. How nice it would be to sing a song of national pride that doesn’t dwell on superiority, power or warfare.
On Labor Day Sunday we sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” with its equitable and hopeful refrain: “this land was made for you and me.” We even included the more stirring lyrics that usually get left out:
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
by the welfare office, I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking:
Is this land made for you and me?
The thing is, we have choices. Things change. Life invites pondering. I’m appreciative of Colin Kaepernick for his brave act of sitting out this ugly song. Songs of country are not necessarily songs of faith in our secular nation; but the songs we sing tell us something about ourselves, about what we value, where we stand, how we live, the community we’d like to be.
A recent Sunday was Rally Day at Woodside and at many other churches, and it really all relates. Not in a “hate America” way, which some folks will assume from this writing; but in a “permission to figure it out” kind of way, which is the best kind of faith tradition. Permission to learn and grow and change and grow and change again and more. Including the songs that define our faith, including the songs that declare and command our greatest allegiances.
Deborah DeMars Conrad, EdD, is a native of South Carolina and has served as pastor and teacher in many settings — congregational, campus, hospital and community organizations. She has long been outspoken about power, wealth, and our sustainable and just relationships with Earth and each another. Deb is founder and director of UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville, KY, and she currently serves as Senior Minister of Woodside Church of Flint, where she’s added “they poisoned our water” to the list of things to be mad about. She is also a photographer, with work currently available in Art at the Market, at the Flint Farmers Market.