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I sat at the President’s Lunch on Black Friday, a little impatient because it was starting late, but suddenly interested because I saw a long line of newsmen rush in and then rush out. I thought, “The President is coming.” But he did not. So then I thought something was amiss and I got up to ask a parishioner who is in the news business what it might mean. I stood stunned as he told me that the President had been shot.
As so often happens in such periods where blank astonishment comes over a person, the most bizarre thought simply lit up in my mind: Those ridiculous words of Jesus – ridiculous in the circumstance – “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in Heaven.” And I thought “We showed them; we glorified God”, and I was not proud of being an American just at that moment because this was the demonstration of something that we had lived with in Dallas, and let exist here … just plain hate. We have a lot of haters in Dallas. We have right-wing haters and we have left-wing haters; and I do not like either. I do not like the apathy with which we let them express their hate, and in doing so, say to us, “We are Americans.”
But then, I realized that I was not expressing my real feelings, because these haters are not Dallas and they are not America, and something else had to be said to express the feelings that all of us express.
I know as much about violence as any man, and I have seen killing – and I do not like either. But all the violence and the killing that I have seen have come from passion and the momentary loss of reason. That is one thing. This was something different – and I felt that it struck the heart of the problem of America. To take life is dreadful; it has the curse of Cain on it. But this mean and furtive shot from a mail-order rifle with a telescopic sight from a hidden place … this sickening violation of law and authority as we know it .. . this vulgar spitting on the symbols that represent our life and our ideals … this contempt for three hundred years of American history … this callous unconcern for the life of a human, and this particular human the symbol of all American humans, … this makes the soul simply shake in fury.
But John Fitzgerald Kennedy is dead. I never voted for him, but I loved the President. I did not always agree with him, but always felt he had a right to think different and I honored him for it. He, a person and the symbol of us all, was struck down by the twisted mind and hatred of a bigot, the nemesis of all men of good will – and John F. Kennedy was a man of good will.
As I drove home with my wife weeping in the seat beside me, I wondered “What can I say to my people? I know they feel as I do but how do you express such feeling.” I knew that it must be put in words; we cannot wring our hands in despair; some light has to shine even in this darkness.
Then we passed by the Highland Park Police Station, and they were lowering the
American flag. Like a flash, I said, “That is what I will say. I will say what it says.”There is the sermon and there is the interpretation of the assassination.
As I thought it, I knew that we did not hear the message of the flag. We did not even know it. All the more reason to let it speak, because there with its colors, though draped in black, it speaks of the faith of a nation … the real faith: what we really mean by mericanism. And that faith is almost a religion, and that religion is almost Christian. One of our troubles is that we have forgot the things that this nation was created to make real to the world – our own heritage. We have forgot the flag as one of them; and the assassin never knew it. He never heard the message. So, I want to speak this morning to the assassin of Dallas about the flag.
I say to him, “Consider our flag.” And I call on you as my witness. As you know, it is called the Flag of Freedom, by which we mean that every individual human being holds from God certain rights which are personal to him and which no one has the right to take away from him. There it stands, a draped and mute but colorful witness to the thirteen colonies that gave it birth and the fifty states that give it life and power today. And it speaks of one thing which we have forgotten. What it says is that every man, being created by God- an extension of God Himself (it was God’s own breath which was breathed into the nostrils of our clay) – that this is the sum total of the meaning of life on this earth. And this is Americanism . . . this alone – That we are the extension of God. So then, consider who we are and who are our brothers. This is why the hate cults, right and left, are so dreadful. They are so un-American, even though they speak of themselves sometimes as super-Americans. To them the individual is despicable, unless he happens to be an individual who is on their side, whom they can use. The most vicious thing about Communism is simply that it places no importance on the worth of the individual, and the most vicious thing about Fascism, even when we find it here in Dallas among our own people, is that it places no importance on the worth of some individuals.
0, haters of men, 0 assassin, have you never known your flag?
Look at its colors. Even these were carefully chosen because they speak of the qualities that make individual freedom important. They were not chosen at random. They were carefully chosen. The red for sacrifice, the blue for justice, the white for integrity. You know where it got these colors? Out of the Christian Church: first in England, which gave to the Union Jack its red, white and blue of the Church; then in America, the red, white and blue of the Church – the same colors. The reason for this is that both the Church and this country conceived themselves in the same ideals. So look at those colors.
Look at the red. The red of sacrifice: the sacrifice of men for the great cause of human freedom and individual human freedom. What would our country be without the sacrifice of those who have given their life’s red blood to establish this? This we so easily forget in our hate.
O, assassin, you did not give your blood, you took it.
Then consider the blue. The blue of justice. Justice which is tinged with mercy is an attribute of God, just as it is an attribute of man and the American ideal. Have you ever noticed that the Statue of Liberty holds under her hand a law book, written justice, to which she holds firmly as she holds aloft the torch of liberty. The one goes with the other.
O, assassin, what kind of American are you that forgets the blue.
Then look at the white of integrity. If integrity is, as some have said; the strongest virtue, it is also the most difficult virtue to attain. When you and I come closest to integrity, we come closest to God. The only one I know who has fully attained that
virtue is Jesus Christ. He is the ideal of the flag.
Is He in your councils, 0 haters of Men? Was He in that upper room with you with that $12 rifle, O assassin?
So the flag is draped. We draped it, but I saw 1t lowered by you, assassin. The symbol of America and the ideal of individual worth and freedom.
But even as it is draped maybe we can hear its message and remember its strength – the red of sacrifice, the blue of justice, and the white of integrity.
You see now why this is almost a religion. It makes me think of the prophet who called his people together with the summons, “What doth the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
There is the flag, draped, in Dallas. And here are we, who by life and action must henceforth make it honored forevermore.
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