Worshiping the flag


This has not been a good year for the National Football League. Game attendance and viewership are both down, although no one is sure if that is due to kneeling players or substandard play.

Some are convinced that national anthem protests have enraged fans to the point that they have lost interest in the sport.

After Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones threatened to bench any player who took the knee during the anthem, Coach Jason Garrett was bombarded with the obvious questions.

“There’s no question in my mind,” a frustrated Garrett told reporters, “the national anthem is sacred, the flag is sacred. Our team has demonstrated that.”

The anthem and the flag are sacred? Did Coach Garrett understand what he was saying?

What was he saying?

Strictly, the word “sacred” refers to something that is worthy of worship or religious veneration. But “sacred” objects might simply suggest that certain people, places and things are entitled to respect.

Was Coach Garrett saying that the national anthem and the flag of the United States should be worshiped?

If you asked Garrett that question, he would probably have to mull the issue for a minute. Americans certainly treat their flag as a sacred object. Anyone who has been to a military funeral knows that. But what kind of “sacred” are we talking about?

Many American Christians believe that the U.S. Constitution and our system of government were erected on a biblical foundation. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it ain’t so. The real model for a fledgling America was the Roman Republic.

Rome, not Jerusalem

If you were fortunate enough to have attended an American college in the 18th and 19th centuries, you would have spent half your time studying Latin. Our founding fathers were far more excited about Rome than Jerusalem. They took their cue from Cicero and Tacitus, not Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

Our national bird didn’t become the bald eagle by accident. The American eagle was inspired by the power and authority of Rome. The eagle on the great seal of the United States of America holds an olive branch in one talon (signifying that the new nation wished to live in peace) and a cluster of arrows in the other (reminding the world that our nation was born of war and willing to fight to the death to preserve her liberty).

The tradition of playing the national anthem at baseball games arose during the World Series of 1918 between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. America had entered the Great War a few months earlier and 100,000 American soldiers had already fallen on the field of battle, so a military band had been hired to play the national anthem during the seventh-inning stretch. A few wavering voices picked up the melody during the first few bars, but by the end of the song, 40,000 voices were singing lustily, hands clasped to hearts.

The anthem was reserved for special occasions (like the World Series) until the patriotic fervor of World War II (and the advent of powerful amplification systems in stadiums) made the exercise mandatory prior to even the most modest sporting event.

Like you, I have stood to attention in sweltering gyms and frigid stadiums as the national anthem was played. I feel I am honoring the ideals America stands for: “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

But is this promised liberty and justice as universal as the pledge suggests?

Colin Kaepernick didn’t think so; that’s why he took a knee.

A recent CBS/YouGov poll asked respondents what they thought football players were trying to say with their kneeling protest. Most people (73 percent) thought the players were concerned about racism and 69 percent mentioned police violence. But 40 percent of respondents thought players were trying to dishonor the flag and 33 percent felt the goal was to show disrespect of the military.

As you might have guessed, responses broke sharply along racial lines. A full 50 percent of white respondents, for instance, were convinced that the players were out to disrespect the flag, a sentiment shared by only 11 percent of African Americans.

Vin Scully isn’t a fan

For 67 years, Vin Scully was the voice of Dodgers baseball (both in Brooklyn and Los Angeles). In his spare time he called the World Series and NFL games. You’d recognize his voice immediately if you heard it.

Scully never allowed his personal opinions to intrude into his public work, which may be one reason why the sight of black players kneeling on the sidelines irks him in such a singular way. Asked about the phenomenon at a recent public appearance, the 90-year old Scully didn’t hold back.

“During the fall and winter, I watch the NFL on Sunday, and it’s not that I’m some great patriot. I was in the Navy for a year, didn’t go anywhere, didn’t do anything, but I have overwhelming respect and admiration for anyone who puts on a uniform and goes to war. So the only thing that I can do in my little way is to not to preach; I will never watch another NFL game.”

The crowd burst into passionate applause.

But why did Scully, a man who celebrated the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson and Henry Aaron, associate kneeling during the anthem with disrespect for military veterans? Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who initiated this form of protest, insists that he has great respect for the flag, the nation and the military.

The American military is generally popular among African Americans, a group that comprises only 12 percent of the American population but 17 percent of the American armed forces. When veterans are honored at public events, African Americans stand and cheer like everybody else.

But African Americans regard the iconography of America in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Like the U.S. Constitution, the flag is seen as a promissory note, as much aspiration as reality. Non-white Americans salute the flag in the hope that America will one day make good on her promises.

In his memoir, Jackie Robinson recalled his first World Series game in 1947.

“The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands.”

But Robinson, the first black man to play major league baseball, was unable to savor the moment. “As I write this 20 years later,” he said, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

But this is 2017!

For white Americans like Vin Scully, this reticence is hard to fathom. Maybe Jackie Robinson had a legitimate beef in 1972, but this is 2017, for God’s sake!

And that is precisely what bothers Mr. Kaepernick. Half a century has passed since the triumphs of the civil rights movement and young black males are still being abused by police officers.

Most white Americans salute the flag with uncomplicated zeal. The flag represents the sacrifices of millions of Americans, who, from 1776 to the present, put their lives on the line to keep us free.

And this veneration of sacrifice easily transfers to police officers who live in harm’s way so law-abiding Americans can sleep safely.

If you wear a uniform and carry a gun, white America salutes you.

The relationship between military and messianic sacrifice has always been apparent:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

The sign on the front lawn of a church I visited a couple weeks ago read, “We Back the Blue.” Nothing wrong with that. I back the blue too. But the present context implies an addendum: “And we are offended by kneeling football players.”

For many Americans, the flag stirs emotions far deeper than anything God inspires. We pray that God has our back; but we know we can trust our soldiers and police officers. Trusting in God requires faith; but those guns are real. A recent recruitment video for the U.S. Army captures the spirit perfectly:

Every team trains hard.
Every team prepares to win.
But when U.S. Army soldiers take the field,
It’s best if the other guys don’t bother showing up.

In a sense, this is true. Like Imperial Rome, American military might is unrivalled. We spend as much on our military as the combined military expenditures of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France and Japan.

But didn’t our overwhelming force convince us that the Vietcong, the Taliban or the Iraqi army would be pushovers? We win every battle but can’t seem to win a war. We are the most powerful military force the world has ever known, but God “no longer goes out with our armies” (Psalms 44, 60 and 108.)

We are all familiar with Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” But we demand might, power and the Spirit of the Lord (in exactly that order).

Have we created a national religion in which the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the sacrifice of soldiers on the field of battle, and the invincibility of American firepower are practically indistinguishable?

If so, we need to talk about “Nehushtan.” That was King Hezekiah’s dismissive term for the bronze serpent Moses cobbled together in the wilderness to stave off an infestation of snakes (Numbers 21:45; 2 Kings 18:4). This relic of Israel’s glorious past found its way into Solomon’s temple where, over the course of centuries, it evolved into an object of veneration.

King Hezekiah called the bronze serpent “Nehushtan,” “a mere piece of brass.” Then he took an axe and hacked the icon to bits. An invisible God demanded faith, but Nehushtan was seductively tangible and all too real, a surrogate for the Living God.

Is the flag sacred in the sense of being worthy of respect, or has it become our Nehushtan?

Here’s the test.

Does our flag inspire us to press forward toward that more perfect union where liberty and justice are extended to all?

Or does the flag represent an undifferentiated muddle of cavalry and Calvary?

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