Proverbs 14:15 MSG
"You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Exodus 20:4
The American Flag is a powerful symbol and here’s the thing about symbols: They have no inherent meaning. They only mean what we decide they mean.
You may have experienced this truth if you have ever driven in a foreign country. Some of those signs are just meaningless. We don’t know what the words or the symbols on traffic signs mean and we have to figure them out from the context and usually pretty quickly.
The very same thing is true when you go into someone’s home.
The little threadbare teddy bear on the mantel is just a worn-out toy to you, but to me it’s a symbol of those contented and comfortable times in my childhood when I cuddled it to my chest. You would probably throw out that old shotgun that doesn’t even shoot any more, but it was my dad’s, the one he used the first time he took me with him to hunt rabbits and quail, and to me it’s a symbol of his love for me. To you, that painting is probably just a picture of a dog standing in a field but what I see is the signature in the lower right-hand corner, my late mother’s signature. She painted it and the painting is, for me, a symbol of her love.
I know that this teddy bear, this gun, and this painting don’t hold the same symbolic meaning for you that they do for me. Symbolism is a very personal thing, after all, and I appreciate it that you respect my feelings about them and don’t mistreat them. But neither do I expect you to revere them as I do. That would be weird.
I’m a Christian, so the cross has some significant symbolic meaning for me. It represents the instrument of torture and death upon which Jesus died. It’s empty so it represents the promise of resurrection that is celebrated on Easter morning. It represents a challenge to me like the one Jesus offered when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
To Stephen King fans, the cross represents victory over vampires. To Jews it may have no meaning at all or they may harken back to their history lessons and recall that it was the symbol worn by crusaders as they marched to the Holy Land slaughtering thousands of Jews on their way. Or others may recall it as the symbol of a safe place to hide when they were running from the Nazis. The symbolism of the cross has been a mixed message for those who behold it.
Recently, we have discovered that the American Flag is a symbol no less complex than the Latin or Christian Cross, and we have discovered that the symbolic actions we take in response to the flag have complex and very personal meanings.
It is beginning to feel like we need a written protocol to understand the symbolism that is attached to the Stars and Stripes and certain reactions that some people have to it.
As I understand it, kneeling on one knee, or “taking a knee” when the national anthem is played, has been taken up as a protest of racism and police violence against African Americans. It can also be a sign of respect for the victims of that violence, just as many players take a knee while they wait for the diagnosis and prognosis for an injured player – teammate or adversary – and, in doing so, pay tribute to the injured player’s spirit and bravery. Placing a hand on the shoulder of a person taking a knee indicates one's solidarity with the knee-taker's protest without necessarily agreeing with the knee-taker's particular objection. Linking arms with others who are standing is a way of saying that you believe in the knee-taker's right to protest and the shoulder-toucher's right to sympathize with the protest, without either protesting or sympathizing with protest yourself.
And all of these are done during the singing or playing of the national anthem because the anthem is symbol that is meant to unite all Americans. By taking these actions, the protesters are saying, “But wait! We aren’t all united. Some of us have been forced to the periphery and not allow to play the game that everyone else is playing. Some of us are being forced to play by a different set of rules than everyone else. Some of us are being beaten, battered, and even shot, not because we have done something wrong but because of the color of our skin!”
And what is really amazing to me is that there are people, white people, who have joined in this protest. Old people, young people, military veterans, clergy, professionals, athletes from other sports, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists are all coming together to add their voices to those of the protestors.
And in doing so they are saying, “You can revere the American flag all you want. You can believe what you want to believe about it. But you cannot make me share your belief or your reverence. As a symbol, that flag has a different meaning for everyone who beholds it. And my meaning is my own. Also, you don’t get to say what my symbolic act in response to that flag means. It’s my act and only I get to define it. Every soldier who ever died on any battlefield defending America died protecting my right to claim that freedom.
Dean Feldmeyer is the author of 5 novels, 4 non-fiction books, three plays, and over 100 essays, articles, poems, and short stories, some of which can be found on this web site.