Before you read any further, you need to know a few things about me:
1) I have never served in the military, nor have I ever been a police officer.
2) I do not play in or work for the NFL, and my fantasy skills are mediocre at best.
3) I am white.
Disclaimers have been disclaimed. It’s time to talk about flags, knees, and hypocrisy.
When Colin Kaepernick started his protest against racial discrimination in policing, I thought it was a dumb move. Not because I don’t agree with Kaepernick’s reasons it because I hold the anthem or flag as sacrosanct. I felt that it was dumb because it was a thumb in the eye of half the country. I get that protests are partially about making the people in power uncomfortable and even angry, but I think this does that with out doing the other thing that good protests should do: prompt change.
But that’s a whole other issue. What’s at issue now is what the anthem and the flag mean to us as US citizens and Christians. So let’s start at the beginning of both.
The Flag & The Anthem
Put aside your myths about Betsy Ross—it might be true, but we’re not sure. The source of the flag, as far as Congress is concerned, was the Flag Act of 1777, which not only determined the design of the flag but also the meaning.
Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.
I want to unpack what that says about the flag itself, but let’s pit a flag pin in it and turn our focus to the number one song-about-a-flag: “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Our National Anthem was written in 1814, during a battle of the War of 1812. Originally, a poem, the author, Francis Scott Key, wrote while aboard a British ship, while the British were bombarding Fort McHenry as part of the Battle of Baltimore. The lyrics of the song truly communicate an incredible sight: at dawn, after a day of bombardment, Key was relieved to see that the flag of the United States still hung over the fort, proclaiming victory in the face of certain defeat. Throughout the night, Key had only been able to catch glimpses of the flag—when it was illuminated by the rockets hurled at it by the British. The story is truly dramatic and knowing it makes the song that much more powerful.
So, we have a flag and a song about that flag, but so what? What does it all mean? What does it stand for?
The flag is easy. It stands for the union of states, this new constellation on the horizon of human achievement. It stands for the states and the people who fill them. It stands for us.
The anthem, in turn, stands for the flag. It is a testimony to the strength and power and determination of this people who have united, under the Constitution, against all foes.
So, when someone kneels during the anthem, they aren’t disrespecting veterans. The anthem isn’t about them. The flag doesn’t stand for the armed forces: they stand for it, for us.
Neither the flag nor the anthem belong more to veterans than to any other civilian. And thinking that they do leads us to the heart of the problem.
The Disease of Militaristic Nationalism
Oh, justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way
That’s a verse from Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue (The Angry American)”–not one of my favorite songs.
This song was chosen to play behind a montage of photos of servicemen and servicewomen that was shown on the Fourth of July.
Did you catch that swear word? Oh, man. Most of us did. But what most folks didn’t catch was how the song was basically one long death threat against the Middle East. I get that the song is a response to the terror attacks of 9/11, but church is not a place for political statements, let alone a celebratory, braggadocios announcement about the proctological placement of ones boot.
And yet, someone though it was totally appropriate.
This and the aforementioned issue of assuming that the flag stands for veterans over civilians is symptomatic of a dangerous disease: militaristic nationalism. I’ll explain each part separately.
Militarism is a glorification and over reliance upon the military. Prussia, the German state around which other German states united to form the nation-state of Germany, was a heavily militaristic state. One of their government ministers assessed their level of militarism as such: “Prussia is not a state with an army, but an arm with a state.” That is militarism run amok. In fact, it borders on totalitarianism, which is a form of government wherein the citizens exist to serve the state, or, in Prussia’s case, the army.
Nationalism is different. It’s an overwhelmingly intense pride in one’s nationality or nation-state. This was a huge factor in the run-up to World War I. And World War II. It’s a great way to start a war, honestly. Nationalists believe that their group is the best group. Other groups need to recognize that and get out of the way. The nationalists have no problem, morally, with attacking another nation unprovoked. Their greatness justifies their actions.
This is the ugly side of American Exceptionalism, the ideology that states that the US holds a unique position in world history. While I agree that the US has been incredibly blessed and has done much good for the world, nothing about us makes it ok for us to be the sole arbiter of justice in the world. God is the judge. He alone is King. No one but Jesus deserves the immediate unquestioned deference that many claim belongs to the anthem and the flag.
Therefore God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It may not have been a “national” anthem, but the three Hebrews refused to bow down when they heard the music and saw the representative image of their sovereign (i.e. a huge idol). It may not have been a flag, but Jesus rejected the idea that the government has any right of ownership over our hearts when he told the Pharisees to give to Caesar only that which belongs to him, reserving for God the worship that only He is due.
As a citizen of the US, you may feel like we live in the greatest nation on the Earth. If so, why? What makes us so great? Is it our freedom of speech, thought/faith, press, and assembly? Then, embrace that by letting your countrymen protest and listening to their petition in good faith. As a Christian, do you recognize that Jesus, not Caesar, is to be your only Lord?