Nike stepped in it this week with the recall of patriotic sneakers emblazoned with the Betsy Ross flag. The red, white and blue sneakers with the flag of the original 13 colonies had already been shipped to retailers when the company decided that the flag design was potentially offensive, as the flag is from an era during which slavery still existed in America.
I was taken aback by the story. The flag has been around for 243 years. No new information has recently come to light about the founders or their slave owning ways, and nothing new has been discovered about our nation’s history. Why are people offended now?
Thomas Jefferson was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. The city has long honored the birthday of the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president as a paid public holiday. This last week the city council of Charlottesville voted to end the holiday, citing Jefferson’s history of slave ownership. As with the Betsy Ross flag, the decision was not based on any new information. Almost overnight the city of Charlottesville transitioned from pride to shame in their native son.
I have read much condemning these decisions, but little about the changes in thought that led to them. What has happened in America that has so quickly led to the condemnation of the previously celebrated?
I wonder if the answer is the death of grace. There was a time when it was universally understood that all men are broken, that there is brokenness, even evil, in all hearts. This realization of personal brokenness is a protection against judging others, it allows us to see the failures of others and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It helps us remember that all men tend to share the sins of the time in which they live, and to see our forefathers in the context of the culture into which they were born. It keeps us from judging the past by modern standards, to realize that we would likely have made the same mistakes as our ancestors if we had lived in a similar time.
It is this historical grace that allows us to praise the accomplishments of slave owners such as George Washington, James Madison and Jefferson. It gives us room to overlook the adulterous failings of Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin and instead focus on their contributions to society. It helps us see the good works of fallen men like Martin Luther, who was an anti-Semite, the murderous apostle Paul, and the beloved Franklin Roosevelt, who as president put Americans of Japanese descent into relocation camps.
When we cease to see the world through the eyes of grace, condemnation and judgment will take the place of forgiveness and acceptance in our society. As grace dies we will see more retrospective judgmentalism and more relentless searches for the flaws of our past heroes. The problem is that there are no perfect heroes. No historical figure will be able to withstand the inquisitions of the offended.
I think we will all be better served if we remember a simple truth. The grace of God has always allowed fallen men to achieve great things. Over 200 years ago in His grace He allowed rebellious, flawed men to form the greatest nation in the history of the world.
I think that is something to celebrate.
PS: I would have bought the shoes.