Monday, September 25, 2017

Two Sons and the Flag

One might be tempted to use the Epistle lesson appointed for this Sunday (Philippians 2:1-13) to comment on the recent controversy over the decision of several professional athletes not to stand during the national anthem. After all, the text tells us that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth." There are many football players who are taking a knee in protest, but I think the better passage from which to base a comment is this Sunday's gospel lesson and the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:23-32. Both are asked by their father to go to the vineyard and work. One refuses but later changes his mind and goes. The other agrees but never bothers with it. Which one did the work of his father? Even those who question Jesus' authority know the answer: the first. In today's circumstance, however, the answer isn't so clear. Which group does the will of the Founding Fathers? Which group represents the real patriots?

First, let me describe what sort of flag-etiquette-observant American I am. I like to display the American flag at our house, but I don't do so on days when I won't be home before the sun sets because I don't have appropriate lighting and want to be sure that the flag is taken in before it gets dark. If I drive by a business and see that their flags are improperly displayed, I will pull over and walk in just to let them know that, unless the center flag pole is noticeably higher than the others, the country's flag should go on the left as you observe them so that the flag of the United States can fly in the position of prominence (on the flag's own right). If the television is tuned to a sporting event and the national anthem is played, I stop what I am doing and stand up and sing right along with the television as if I were there in person. Those are some of the ways I like to show my love for my country. I have never served in the military, and I never made it past Bear Scout, but I take my flag and the anthem that celebrates it pretty seriously.

I write all of that so you will know that I am deeply committed to honoring our country and its flag before I tell you that I do not have a problem with professional athletes who decide to kneel, sit, raise a clenched fist, or otherwise protest during the singing of the national anthem. Why? Because I choose to think that the same love of country and the flag that represents it is motivating the actions of those who protest and the actions of those who stand, remove their hats, place their hands over their hearts, and sing boisterously while tears forms in their eyes.

Those who signed the Declaration of Independence may not have understood what equality really means, but they believed in the kind of freedom from tyranny that those who are protesting the treatment of black Americans yearn to see. Those who ratified the First Amendment may not have ever imagined a day when burning the American flag would be a symbol of freedom, but the freedom that they enshrined in that text, which cannot be taken away by the state or its representatives, means that those who lead an unpopular demonstration are guaranteed that right. If the NFL or team owners want to force players to stand during the anthem, they can take that up in their next round of collective bargaining. When an individual works for a company, she or he gives up the right to free speech. I'm not a huge professional football fan, but I don't want to see amateur-level competition on Sunday afternoons, and the decision of team owners and coaches to join with players in their demonstrations in response to President Trump's recent comments about the protest suggests that they don't want that either.

One group says that they love their country and refuses to stand for the national anthem. One group says that they love their country and proudly stands for the national anthem. Which one is right? Which one loves their country more? It's complicated. Are those who exercise their right not to stand more committed to freedom than those who refuse to accept their protest? What about people who are critical of people who think that everyone should stand for the anthem? That's a Constitutionally protected right, too. Are those who label the anti-protesters as anti-American actually missing the point more profoundly than those who are critical of the protest itself? What would Jesus say?

There are two sons. One agrees to go and help his father but never gets around to it. The other refuses but ends up going to help out. The former sounds dutiful but fails to follow through. The latter appears faithless but proves himself in his actions. Who is who in this situation? In case you've forgotten--and at this point that's understandable--this protest started because a few high-profile athletes were distraught that unarmed black men were being shot by police. In the Land of the Free, black people are not treated the same as white people. As the months went by and Colin Kaepernick remained unsigned by any NFL team, it became clear that this protest and the reaction to it has its roots in a deeper racial divide. When the President of the United States decided to express his opinion that protesting athletes should be fired and claimed that this wasn't about race, he further proved that that's exactly what this is about.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating (and not in the looking), we need more than a show of patriotism. We need people who are willing to take risks for the sake of those whose freedoms are not guaranteed. Men and women risked their lives to fight for freedom from the British crown. Men and women risked their lives to fight for a unified country that would be free of slavery. Men and women risked their lives to demonstrate and fight against segregation and legalized oppression. Men and women risked their lives to fight for freedom and human decency in places near and far away. Now, it's time for men and women to take risks in order to be sure that all men and women and children are given the freedoms that patriots have died to protect. You can't do that if you're standing for the national anthem and turning a blind eye to the way black people are treated in this country. You can't do that if you're kneeling in protest and look at everyone who stands and judge them as someone who is opposed to real freedom. It's risky to talk with people of a different race and background about what it means to be an American, but, until we take that risk, we're all just pretending. It doesn't matter how faithful, open-minded, and patriotic we tell people we are. What matters is what we're willing to do about it.

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