When I was a kid, we spent two weeks each year with my grandparents in their old summer cottage on Long Island Sound. Every night around sunset, my grandfather lowered the American flag, folded it gently, and put it away. He raised it again the next morning.
Even with his attentive care, the flag became tattered by the salt spray and the wind. After subsequent generations failed to handle it with such faithfulness, the flag became threadbare. We eventually stopped flying it. All that remained was an aluminum pole that rattled in the breeze. It finally snapped in a storm.
As we approach this Fourth of July, I am thinking about those tattered and threadbare flags that led to an empty flagpole. I am thinking of the reasons my grandfather, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, flew the flag with both humility and honor. I am thinking about what the flag represents, the ideals of liberty and justice for all, the idea of our common equality bestowed upon us not by our society but by our Creator. Those ideals have at times in our history become threadbare, putting us in the position of raising flags that no longer carry any meaning at all.
Around Memorial Day this year, another holiday with flags raised high, many Americans learned about the 100-year-old Tulsa Race Massacre, when an entire Black community was terrorized and destroyed. Many of us also reflected on the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and demonstrations that rippled across cities and towns last summer. The injustices of a century before lined up with the injustices of the recent past. Both stood as haunting representatives of so many other moments in American history that do not accord with the values our founding documents espouse.
Each act of injustice within our society is like a knife slashing through the fabric of the flag, like a spray of blood that stains those white stripes of freedom. And each remembrance, each protest against injustice is an act of veneration of those same stars and stripes. If the flag flies as a symbol of our nation, then it represents both beauty and brokenness. As we celebrate our nation’s independence, we need traditions, stories, and a theological imagination that allows us to hold both the beauty and the brokenness with hope for who we are yet becoming.
For Christians, despair and hope, bondage and freedom, brokenness and beauty are familiar tensions. The gospel records of Jesus’ resurrection invite us to pay attention to the wounded places as well as the possibility of healing. When Jesus appears to his disciples after his crucifixion and resurrection, he draws their attention not only to his embodied self, but specifically to his wounded places: “Look at my hands and my feet!” (Luke 24:39).
He isn’t simply proving that he is not a ghost. It is through attention to his scars—the places of wounding where he has been healed—that his disciples are to know his resurrected humanity. He turns their attention to the places where his body had been broken and has now been restored and even transformed. He turns their attention to the harm that has been forgiven but not forgotten.
The Japanese tradition of kintsugi demonstrates a similar conflation of beauty and brokenness, and it offers us an image of what the work of repair might look like within our own culture. I was introduced to this art form through Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese American Christian and visual artist. Fujimura has written about kintsugi in multiple places, including his most recent book Art and Faith.
Kintsugi emerged out of Japanese tea ceremonies that were interrupted by earthquakes. When the ground ruptured, the exquisite pottery often fell to the floor and shattered. Artisans took the shattered pieces and glued them back together with gold. They didn’t deny the fragmented nature of their artistic practice. Instead, they pieced together the broken places with beauty.
We need practices of repair within American culture to bring beauty out of our collective brokenness. Christians have an opportunity to lead in this work, as we follow the leadership of our wounded healer. Duke Kwon and Greg Thompson have recently written about the reparations—the work of repair—that the church is called to when it comes to racism and injustice in America. They name three areas where that repair needs to happen: money, power, and truth. Christians have opportunities to participate in the work of repairing all these areas of historic injustice by living with generosity, humility, and honesty on both an individual and collective level.
As we approach this Fourth of July, this holiday of patriotism and fireworks, parades and family gatherings, how can we tell the truth? How can we hold the beauty of the American ideals alongside the brokenness of our history? How can we participate in the work of repair?
There is much to do. We can participate in local elections and challenges to restrictive zoning laws. We can give to nonprofits and invest in communities that have a history of discrimination. We can teach our children the beauty and brokenness of our national and local stories, both in school and at home. We can practice lament, confess, and come before God in prayer for our future.
We also, like the tradition of kintsugi, can find ways to depict our story. We can reimagine our symbols. If I were a visual artist, I would find American flags that had been thrown away, burned, slashed, and trampled on—the ones typically declared unfit to fly. I would expose those tattered flags to the light as a way to acknowledge the truth of our past. The truth of injustice. The truth of suffering. The truth of separation and harm and murder and racism and discrimination. The truth that threatens to undo the ideals of freedom unless we reckon with it and then lament it and then work to repair it.
And then I would invite my community to mend those flags. To wash them. To stitch them together and let the seams show. To do the work of repairing what has been broken without trying to deny or hide the brokenness. To use beautiful materials and craftsmanship to allow the stars and stripes to fly, not in denial of the ugliness of our past, but with hope and faith in the promise of possibility for our future.
I envision a flag that has endured storms, that once was blood-stained, that was ignored and forgotten for generations. This Fourth of July, I imagine that flag flying again in a place of honor.
When we participate in the work of repairing the wounds of injustice, we participate in the resurrection of Christ. We receive the healing and forgiveness God offers, both personally and collectively. By his grace, when we acknowledge brokenness and seek to repair it, we not only see the pain of injustice. We also are invited into the beauty of healing. And then we are invited to become agents of that healing work.
Like many veterans, my grandfather fought for an ideal of American freedom when he went to war. He bore emotional scars, and he never wanted to talk about those experiences. But I saw the beauty that emerged out of his own brokenness when he folded that flag with care. It wasn’t an act of defiance or denial of the bloodshed and horror of the past. It was an act of humility and hope in who we wanted to be and who we one day could become.
Amy Julia Becker is the author, most recently, of White Picket Fences: Turning toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege.