Today is Flag Day — commemorating that day in 1777 when the second continental congress of American revolutionaries took a break from writing their articles of confederation to create a flag with 13 stripes, alternate red and white, and that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.
A quick look around my neighborhood this morning was inconclusive as to whether the scattering of flags I saw flying are up in recognition of this holiday so decreed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 — or whether they have remained up since Memorial Day and will remain so through Independence Day on July Fourth. Or whether they are among the few that are all year fixtures, rain and shine, winter and summer.
That symbol of patriotism with whom I have personally had a troubled relationship for much of my life. With that star-spangled banner in our national anthem.
Of the immorality that has taken place under that flag.
As a teen and young adult that flag came to be seen by many opponents of an endless, needless, and our view shameful war as a symbol of falsely patriotic hostility — of a bullying invitation to love it or leave it — our country — of a bombastic nationalism. And it has been hard to get beyond that.
It’s hard for me not to associate the flag-boasting national anthem with sports — baseball games, football games, those weekly professional football games on Sunday afternoons my brilliant, internationally known scientist father and my three brothers watched each week. Me on the periphery, catching the opening playing and singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” by famous performers, by local choruses and quartets — the standing and putting one’s hand over one’s heart. The football players’ faces caught on camera in close up — sometimes mouthing the words, mostly impassive with that black chalk around their eyes.
My dad, a World War II commissioned officer, sometimes — in fact pretty much every Sunday — complained about this. He hated the anthem, with the rockets red gleaming and bursting in air — the warlike tone.
Why not “America the Beautiful,” he would rail? He was both a professional and amateur biologist and naturalist, and a song lifting up the beauty of this country — the purple mountain majesties and spacious skies and fruited plain he thought was far more inspiring (though the reference to pilgrim feet beating a thoroughfare for freedom across the wilderness while pushing out and slaughtering native peoples is a blight on the rest of the lyrics).
As well it could have been, but it lost out to the anthem we have, and the one that has been the focus of so much dissonance and pain for those whose experience of this country is not a land of the free.
There are scholars who study flags, and one of them, David Martucci, says that flags are not just symbols of a country or a state. Their meaning lies in the consciousness of the person looking at them. Whether a flag evokes our most idealized sense of history or our present reality probably says more about who we are then the flag itself.
When you wave the flag, one writer has observed, the flag is also waving at you.
These past couple of weeks, the videoed choking murder of a Black man on a street in Minneapolis has triggered wave after wave of protests. Pent up visceral fury and frustration at the diminishing and murderous degradation of Black people.
It’s an old story, of course, sportswriter Larry Stone reminds us. Four years ago, San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick felt the same outrage over another death (and so many deaths) at the hands of police officers. He first took a seat during the national anthem, and then, subsequently, he would take a knee.
Explaining that he was protesting racial injustice, oppression, and police brutality. All of which was going on and on and on under this flag he was forced to place his hand over his heart and revere.
Saying with his whole body that Black lives matter.
Not the first time that players have asserted their right of moral conscience on a football field. A look at the history of playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of a league, a multi-million dollar sports industry, flexing its patriotic muscle by adopting symbols of military might — with descriptions of a game played in trenches, featuring blitzes and bombs.
At the height of the Vietnam War, players were directed to face the flag and stand at attention during the anthem — a requirement stopped and then restarted in 2009, a command protested by at least one player that year.
“I am not anti-American. I love America. I love people,” Kaepernick announced at the outset of his protests, with whom he was joined by dozens of other NFL players.
But his prophetic words, his integrity were drowned out by accusations that he was disrespecting the flag or protesting the anthem, and the substance of his grievances ignored.
Kaepernick was given the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award.
Listen to the text of this honor:
“Like Ambassadors of Conscience before him, Colin Kaepernick chooses to speak out and inspire others despite the professional and personal risks. When high profile people choose to take a stand for human rights, it emboldens many others in their struggles against injustice. Colin Kaepernick’s commitment is all the more remarkable because of the alarming levels of vitriol it has attracted from those in power.”
In 2018, the NFL announced a policy requiring that players stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem and allowing teams to penalize players that did not. This from a body of white owners selling high priced tickets to mostly white fans to watch mostly Black players.
Kaepernick lost his job — and has never been rehired. And the policy still remains.
Perhaps not for long.
After the murder of George Floyd that the whole world could watch, another much-watched video message from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, where he condemns racism and confesses that his league was wrong in prohibiting player protests against police brutality and social injustice.
But perhaps only after NFL team members, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, had decided to march, after a video was created by one “rogue” NFL employee and some players who were embarrassed by how the NFL had been silent , how it had not condemned racism, how it hadn’t said that Black Lives Matter.
Nonetheless, things seem to be changing in these large, powerful, reactionary institutions — changed by at least the beginnings of compassion for how our flag and our anthem might be viewed and heard by those who have been Othered for far too long.
Perhaps the NFL commissioner found some justification for reversing his stance in the league’s values statement: that upholds respect, including self-respect, and integrity. Found in it what it means to be both a moral force and a hugely profitable source of entertainment. Promising a large investment of money into anti-racist work and Black community endeavors. Declaring Juneteenth — the day that commemorates the emancipation of Black people in this country — as a league holiday. Perhaps helping to see that those who spoke out early and often are no longer punished for their acts of conscience.
We Unitarian Universalists look to our seven guiding principles to affirm and promote under this flag — and all flags — what it is to be moral.
We can find, and have found, support for justice and compassion in human relationships there. For democracy.
We have previously resolved to oppose the targeting of Black men, the disproportionate imprisonment, reproductive injustice against Black women, and other terrors and indignities, economic injustice, voter suppression.
I say, though, that this is no longer enough.
Out of this pandemic of racism we need more, we need better. A new resounding moral statement.
It is time, past time to add an eighth principle. I join with those who advocate for its adoption:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.
Under our banner, may it be so.