Seldom a week goes by that I don’t hear about relationships being frayed because of political differences. “How can you claim to be a Christian and vote for Trump/Clinton?” Political affiliation and voting records become litmus tests for whether we think someone is a Christian or if we even want to be friends with them.
I confess I’ve felt that way at times. Why can’t people see it my way? But sometimes lessons come when you least expect them.
When my partner, John, and I moved to Sarasota, Fla., several years ago, we soon met one of our neighbors, a retired Marine colonel. The Colonel is the quintessential Marine: direct, hard- driving and always in charge. He flies the U.S. flag on his mailbox and wears a flag lapel pin every day.
My first thought was, “How is this Marine colonel going to feel about having two men living next door?” But the Colonel and his wife, Gail, were very welcoming, and we became great friends and the best neighbors anyone could ask for.
Over the next few months, we had many pleasant conversations. He learned I was a pacifist. I told a few stories of how Mennonites have faced persecution over the years and their need to emigrate various times to enjoy religious freedom. He told stories of flying jets over Vietnam and other experiences during more than 30 years in the military.
Around Memorial Day, I was talking to the Colonel in our driveway, and he said, “I see you don’t have a flag for your mailbox; I have an extra one.” I quickly said, “I don’t have a flag pole.” He said, “Oh, I have a flag pole, too.”
Now I was stuck. Before I knew it, I had agreed to fly a flag.
I told John what I had agreed to do. John, who grew up in a military family but shares my pacifist beliefs, said, “Do you really want to fly a flag?” I said, “No, but what can I do?”
After more conversation, I knew I had to talk to the Colonel and explain why I was uncomfortable flying the American flag.
With apprehension and praying for guidance, I walked across the street and knocked on the door. The Colonel and his wife, sensing my nervousness, invited me in. I settled into a comfortable chair, feeling like our friendship was in jeopardy. How could I explain to him that I couldn’t fly the American flag, which represents so much of what he believes? Finally words came to me.
“You know we’re Mennonites, and historically Mennonites don’t display a national flag, regardless of what country we’re living in,” I said. I went on to explain that it doesn’t mean we don’t love our country. We are grateful for all the sacrifices that have been made for religious freedom.
Over some wine and cheese, we had a spirited but friendly conversation about pacifism and Mennonites’ long history of immigrating for religious freedom. They were gracious and understanding. Toward the end, the Colonel said, “Well, I took bullets so you can practice your faith as you see fit, so I get it.”
We didn’t vote for the same person in 2016, and we had conversations about that, but our friendship has grown stronger. We trust each other, and we’re like family. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gained a much higher appreciation for people who’ve made tremendous sacrifices for freedom.
When Memorial Day rolled around the next year, we asked the Colonel and his wife if we could join them for the celebration at the local National Cemetery. Of course, they said, “Yes.” Our friendship endures.
JB Miller lives in Sarasota, Fla., and attends Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.