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American Flag in the wind against a blue sky

With Liberty and Justice for All

Like many American children, I started my school days for 13 years with the Pledge of the Allegiance. We would turn towards the small American flag hanging somewhere in the classroom, put our hand over our heart, and recite the words. Words that, candidly, I didn’t stop to think much about at the time.

Fast forward to February 1995. I’m not quite 25 years old and have been backpacking solo in Vietnam for nearly a month. I arrived in Hanoi and learned from fellow travelers that the US flag had just been raised for the first time in 40 years outside a new liaison office. I found myself compelled to go see it. As I turned the corner onto the street and saw those broad stripes and bright stars waving in the distance, it unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes. Traveling in Vietnam as an American had raised a complex set of feelings. It was an amazing experience, but there were lonely and difficult days. Seeing our flag exuded a sense of familiarity, of comfort, and of home. It seemed to whisper to me: “It’s OK to be here now.” Perhaps I could sense that this flag represented an historic turning point. What I certainly did not know at the time is how life-changing it would be the next time I saw it.

Fast forward to January 2009. I’m not quite 40 years old and have been traveling in Vietnam for three weeks with Mr. Stevens, our four year old son, and 18-month old Quinlen, our newly adopted daughter. We experienced her wide-eyes and tears at leaving the orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City, the only home she had ever known. Her terror at the feel of a bath, but also her absolute joy in toddling after her new brother. We were now in Hanoi, waiting to hear they were ready for us at the US embassy.

We finally got the call. As we pulled in, I looked at that flag waving in the wind and tears welled once again. It had been an arduous, year-long battle to get to this point. The US had suspended Vietnamese adoptions in early 2008 before we could pick Quinlen up. We had endured months of not knowing whether it would go through or not. We were so close to getting the treasured documents that would give us permission to head home and grant her American citizenship. But I was still terrified that something would go wrong over the next 24 hours. The flag seemed to whisper once again: “We got this. She’s coming home.”

On this Independence Day weekend in the United States, I have been reflecting on some of the words of that pledge cited so often long ago. One Nation. Indivisible. With Liberty and Justice for All. The words, written in 1892, and endure as a powerful ideal for this still relatively young nation.

But it has to be said: affirming love for our flag and love for our country must not imply affirmation for where we are—the way our schools are funded, the way health care is provided, the way national leadership and policy is conducted—today. Right now, our patriotism must be rooted in our commitment to and responsibilities for one another. When we pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, we are pledging to do the hard work to stay united in spite of our differences. We are pledging to fight for justice, especially when it means we must take to the streets in the face of injustice. And we are pledging to fight for liberty, knowing that no one is free until we are all free.

In the end, those who claim to love this nation need also to love the ideals to which she aspires. Here in the United States, all are created equal, all deserve justice, and all deserve liberation. Believing anything else is simply not very American.

Quote of the Week: There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America. — Bill Clinton