An excited patriot handed me one of those 10-inch flags that you stick into your lawn on July 4th.The plastic red, white and blue was intact, but the pole that once held it together was broken three stripes from the top. I did not ask for an unbroken one. I do not like flags.
I grew up in small towns in Mississippi where Confederate flags flew in front of church-sponsored all white private schools. When I became the pastor of a country church I hid the American flag in the basement, but it miraculously made its way back to the sanctuary in time for Vacation Bible School. The children pledged to “the republic for which it stands,” as well as to the Christian flag “and the kingdom for which it stands.” The words ran together.
We saluted these flags because everyone on our side saluted these flags. No matter how much well-meaning people want to pretend otherwise, flags say, “I am this, and if you’re not, then you can go to hell.” If you do not think that is true, try to imagine an Alabama fan with an Auburn flag on the pick-up, a U.S. presidential candidate wearing an Iraqi flag lapel pin, or the Mexican flag flying over Trump Tower. Half of the point of a flag is to let people know they are not part of the group.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem, We and They closes with a stanza that could have been about flags:
All good people agree,
and all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
and everyone else is They
But if you cross over the sea,
instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
as only a sort of They!
I do not like flags, except for the broken one I was given. A broken flag says that we, like they, are not all we should be. The broken flag has lost its sense of superiority. The broken flag says “I am cracked, wrecked, smashed, shattered, and fragmented just like whatever I might represent.”
The broken flag is contrite. We should break all our flags — maybe three stripes from the top. Breaking our flags would turn a symbol of power into an act of repentance. The pledge to a broken flag might include a more honest “not with liberty and justice for all, but with that hope calling us to change.” We could skip “one nation under God” which must make God’s eyes roll anyway.
We should make flags with flaws, like Navajo weavers who put an imperfection in each rug as a “Spirit line,” a break in the border to allow the Spirit to be free and a reminder that all of creation is flawed.
On July 10, South Carolina took down the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia, because that flag is more than broken; it is evil beyond reclaiming. What makes me pause is that as the color guard removed the flag, the crowd chanted “U.S.A.” as though the hockey team had just beaten the Russians. This occasion to confess the racism that pervades our country may have been, for some, yet another moment of triumphalism, us defeating them.
The United States Flag Code states that when a flag is worn or damaged it should “be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” Directions are given on how to fold the flag and how big the fire should be, and suggests reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as the flag burns.
Instead of disposing of torn and tattered flags we should run them up the flagpole and see who salutes. The broken flags are the ones we need to keep.