Volume 74, Number 9 | June 30 - July 6, 2004

Talking Point

July 4 reflections on war, liberation and politics

By Keen Berger

The author will give the following speech at Judson Memorial Church on Sun., July 4:

The Fourth of July is the only American holiday that stays on the actual date, no matter what day of the week. I will be firmly rooted as well, in childhood, then early adulthood, then post 9/11.

Part I: Childhood

Fall 1945, World War II just over: I was 3 years old, living at 744 Stewart Lane, in South St. Paul, Minnesota. My best friend, Annie Kelly, asked me why my daddy — a Navy captain — was not home yet, unlike all the other soldier-fathers who were still alive.

“He just needs to kill a few more bad guys,” I told Annie.

In fact, he was writing the United Nations Charter, but my childish mind saw the world as good and evil. My daddy was good — he must be destroying evil.

My views were echoed by my older brother, Glen. He led a group of small boys, called the Commandos. Their main activity was sitting in a dirt dugout on the hill above the Mississippi (which begins in Minnesota). They watched for enemy submarines sneaking toward Minneapolis. They did this patriotically, even religiously, despite the steamy summer heat or the frigid winters.

For Glen and I, as children, everything was good versus evil. We waved the flag and ate buttered corn on the cob on the Fourth of July, as did our immigrant grandparents. They told us the United States was godly and “the old country” was evil. They were from Germany, and we knew how evil that was.

Another little girl told me she could not be my friend.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I am a Democrat,” she said.

“So am I,” I told her.

“No you’re not, you are a Republican.”

I was hurt and shocked. I thought all good people are Democrats, Americans and Republicans.

Part II: College

College in Northern California in the ’60s: Good versus evil was childish, the complexity of the world was obvious. I had roommates who were African American (Evangeline), Japanese American (Kat), Native American (Sue), Polish American and Catholic (Peggy). My most exotic roommate was Margie, who had been in a Los Angelino gang. She had a scar on her wrist where she had cut herself to mix her blood with her fellow gang members, so they would be “blood brothers.” (This was before we knew about sexist language, or AIDS).

I learned about socialism, pacifism, communism, liberation theology, existentialism, ultimate concerns, authoritarianism, racism. I marched, spoke and even sang for freedom. I made my mother cry — not because of my black boyfriend, or my taste for Scotch, or my radical politics, but because I said I was not sure about heaven.

I was pro-choice, antiwar, feminist, suspicious of marriage and motherhood. But I knew that absolutist thinking was narrow. I became pro-choice and pro-life, antiwar in Vietnam but not against the war my father fought. I didn’t believe everyone should marry and multiply, but I married Martin, gave birth to Bethany, Rachel, Elissa and Sarah.

Part III: Sept. 11, 2001

New York: My first impulse was to learn if my family and friends were O.K. — an impulse shared by almost everyone. Soon I joined many New Yorkers who tried to tell the world this attack was not good versus evil. My president did not hear my message: We are less safe now than on Sept. 12, 2001.

So where am I? Not absolutist, but not relativist either. Back to patriotic and religious, partly because I am stunned to hear my bedrock values twisted. Being Baptist is what I believe, especially priesthood of believers, religious liberty, soul freedom — all ideas I learned in my Minnesota Sunday school. I pray daily, sometimes five times a day (I think the Muslims understand prayer better than the Baptists). My prayers are usually gratitude for the very things I doubted as a young adult: my children, my church, my country!

Even the American dream. The signers of the Declaration of Independence “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Yes.

I identify with Kerry. When I was a young adult, I was suspicious of my childhood beliefs. Did I flip-flop? Not at all. In America people question their traditions, sometimes declaring, “Enough.” That is what Independence Day is about. If I do my part, and you do yours, the United States will have a new leader. It’s my patriotic wish and prayer, a pledge on my sacred honor.


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