Controversy continues to rage concerning athletes kneeling during the national anthem in athletic programs all around the country. Though there are many reasonable arguments to consider on both sides of the debate, the main point of conflict is respect for the flag. Those in favor of the protest highlight that their cause justifies their demonstration and their opponents reject the protest because of its form, wondering if this the best way to protest for this dilemma or if disrespecting the flag in this way crosses a line.
Is the act of kneeling a direct affront to the flag and all that it stands for? Dialogue around this question will only be as rich as our understanding of the purpose of symbols and the true portrait of a patriot.
THE POINT OF SYMBOLS
In order to address this controversy effectively, we must first establish that the act of protest and the flag itself are symbols meant to point our attention and affections towards a greater reality: justice. Men give flowers to their beloved as a symbol of their love and hope that their beloved would return the same affection.
Likewise, the flag represents the values and virtues of America. It waves to remind us of all the sacrifice, mistakes and successes it took to attain them. But like any symbol, its strength is most truly measured by its effectiveness to inspire its values and virtues in those who pledge their allegiance. For to pledge allegiance to the flag -- the banner of justice, liberty, equality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness -- but neglect its values, is to pledge in vain.
Historically, figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. faced great amounts of backlash for their courageous acts of protest against injustice. After being arrested in the midst of protest, Dr. King penned "The Letter from a Birmingham Jail," one the most powerful letters in American history. In response to being bad-mouthed for his actions, he wrote to the clergy of America, "You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being."
Dr. King's accusers had failed to realize that the demonstrations were, like the flag, symbols of a greater reality. Moreover, in Dr. King's well known "I Have a Dream" speech, he references Amos 5:24, "But let justice roll down like waters / And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." The context of this passage further details the nature of symbols and the consequences that follow when they are not observed.
In Amos 5:7, God accuses the people of Israel of turning "justice into wormwood" (a symbol of bitterness and grief), and declares a divine protest against their religious practices. The people of Israel were worsening the burden of the poor with heavy rent, unfair taxes, refusing to deal with them equally in city affairs, and showing favoritism to those with money power and prestige. God declared His "hatred" of the religious symbols of worship the nation Israel observed in obedience to His command.
God rejected their festivals, their offerings, their assemblies and their songs of worship -- all things that he previously commanded them to do. God had not changed His mind about His will or commands, but the people had changed their mind and heart about the purpose of God's commands. The symbol became meaningless because the observers missed the meaning.
THE PORTRAIT OF A PATRIOT
These examples reveal that the sanctity of a symbol rests in the obedience of its observers, such people are properly considered patriots. As it pertains to the flag, the most patriotic citizen proves commitment to the values of the flag by the way he or she lives. G.K. Chesterton helps outline the true character of a patriot by declaring what it is not. A pessimist looks at the flag and the inconsistencies within the country for which it stands and hates the country; contrarily, the optimist sees the beauty of the flag and its values but is blind to the inconsistencies within the country and so loves it blindly.
According to Chesterton, the evil of the pessimist is not that he chastises his country, but that he doesn't love what he chastises. The fault of the optimist is that "he will not wash the world, but whitewash the world" by defending his country right or wrong. Neither of these individuals truly embody the values of the flag, nor are they in a mental position to be a catalyst of change for the good of the country.
For Chesterton, the patriot "has a loyalty long before he has any admiration." He asserts that the optimistic thoughts and the pessimistic complaints both belong to the patriot. Chesterton illustrates this idea by referencing an unfortunate town during his era by the name of Pimlico. He expounds, "It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case, he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico."
This kind of patriotism from the exterior can appear irrational, but at the heart, it burns true with the deepest love and devotion. Chesterton continues, "If a man loves some feature of Pimlico, he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem.” Likewise, if our love is directed to a piece of America – be it the flag, or selfish ambition – we may tear America into pieces, but if we simply love America we may kneel, or even wage war against it to defend its glory.
Thus, the protest and the flag, as symbols of values and virtues, find harmony in the heart of a true patriot. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an undeniably patriotic American hero, was so committed to our country that he was willing to be despised, imprisoned and assassinated if it meant helping the country become all that it could be. God was so committed to His glory and the holiness of His people, that He rejected the symbols of worship in order to awaken the worshippers.
Likewise, those patriots today who are committed to our country and the principles to which our flag directs us (whether they kneel or stand) have more in common than anyone who stands tall to bellow our anthem with blind eyes and an apathetic heart. Loving our country well can be difficult at times. We must not stumble over symbols, personal agendas, or secret motives. But if our aim is truly the betterment of our country, we can find unity in purpose and reflect the virtue of our flag with our lives -- the greatest form of respect.
T.R. "Ty" Ragland is a husband, teacher, journalist, and graduate student at the University of Dallas studying Humanities. Ty yearns to see truth made accessible to the public sphere through all art forms. Ty is the co-founder and associate editor of The Grounds Journal.