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Liberty and justice for all

JULY 4 AND JUNE 14 OCCUR CLOSE to each other on the calendar, and their themes are similar.

July 4 commemorates the day in 1776 when the Second Continental Congress (1775-1781) signed the Declaration of Independence. This declared the political solidarity of thirteen British colonies with one another, including their claim to be free and sovereign, no longer subject to Great Britain’s rule.

June 14 commemorates the day in 1777 when the same Congress adopted the “13 star flag” as the official flag of the United States, the predecessor to our “50 star flag” today.

The Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. Flag was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist working for a Massachusetts magazine publisher. He had previously served as pastor of a Baptist congregation, but was asked to resign by certain church members who resented his sermons’ advocacy of human equality.

Recently I experienced how symbols have different meanings for different people. I should have realized this because I know how every worshipper in front of the Christian cross has a varied understanding of that preeminent symbol: (1) as a reminder of Jesus Christ’s “blood atonement” for human sin; (2) as a doorway to heaven; (3) as a reminder of human cruelty to which God submits in order to prevail in resurrection power, etc. Fellow Christians hold and appreciate diverse respective interpretations of the cross and of Jesus’ death (and resurrection beyond death), which differ one from another.

Asked to write a column for the local newspaper on Flag Day this year, I recalled a story told to me in the 1980s by my aunt, a life-long Baptist. When she was 13 years old, on a Saturday night in 1938 in her Central Texas hometown, a group of ruffians grabbed a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses leaving their place of worship near the courthouse square. My aunt said, “They brought out a U.S. flag and demanded that these Witnesses ‘pledge allegiance,’ knowing that this was against Jehovah’s Witness’ practices. A local man named Ed Bayless stepped forward and told the intimidators that they should be ashamed for treating people this way. He said that the flag to which they demanded others pledge allegiance stood for constitutional freedoms which allowed those others liberty of conscience not to pledge allegiance! Once challenged, the zealots faded into the night, and the Witnesses were allowed to go on their way. Mr. Bayless was about 30 at the time. I was thirteen. To this day, I have not seen more bravery than he showed then.”

After the article I wrote was printed, a reader sent an emotional email to me and every person whose email address was evident on our church website, saying that “liberals and Jehovah’s Witnesses” were the main causes for the problems within Christianity and the United States, and that I must be: (1) liberal for endorsing Jehovah’s Witnesses theology and thinking the U.S. Constitution allowed their treason; and (2) bigoted for referring negatively to the intimidators as “ruffians.” Conveying my aunt’s story, I had triggered her resentments of “liberals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

It reminded me of what I already know about Jesus’ cross as a symbol: different persons view symbols differently. One woman’s understanding of “liberty and justice for all” in 2014 is substantially different from what my Baptist aunt said that she believed in the 1980s, remembering Mr. Bayless’ actions in 1938.

“Liberty and justice for all” can never be taken for granted. I suspect that’s what my Baptist aunt desired for me to remember when telling me about a Presbyterian citizen named Ed Bayless.

Ted FooteTED FOOTE is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bryan, Texas, and author of “Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt” and of “Being Disciples of Jesus in a Dot.Com World.”

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