Thinking about our flag

I realized at bedtime last night that today would be Flag Day. Too late, I realized, to go out and buy a flagpole. We have a flag, one I purchased several years ago when we lived in Michigan, but the flagpole I purchased with it stayed behind on the house when we sold it. (It was a two-piece pole and the upper piece didn’t line up quite right with the lower piece, producing an effect of the flag sagging on its pole.) Sometime between now and July 4 I need to find a good flagpole (preferably one that doesn’t require drilling holes in our aluminum siding).

My father always displayed our flag on holidays. It was an old flag, from before the entry of Alaska and Hawaii into the Union. I always felt vaguely uncomfortable about our house flying a flag with only 48 stars, and wondered if that was proper. It finally occurred to me today to look that up, and I found this answer at The Betsy Ross Homepage:

Is it appropriate to fly a flag that has fewer than 50 stars?

Yes. Official United States flags are always considered living, active flags. From the Betsy Ross flag to the present 50-star flag, any flag that at some time was the currently active flag is still considered a living flag to be accorded all due respect.

We children had our own handheld flags (not the tiny ones with about a six-inch pole but a pole well over a foot long and the flag larger than letter-size paper though I don’t remember the size exactly), and we planted them in the ground in the front yard on days such as July 4. Other than that, however, I don’t remember any particular teaching about holding the flag in special respect. It was a symbol, and as such it was not the symbol that mattered so much as what it was a symbol for.

When I worked at Word of Life Ranch as a teenager, I was surprised at the emphasis given to honoring the flag. I had never knowingly dishonored it, but I hadn’t thought of myself as less patriotic for not having participated in regular flag ceremonies. (We had recited the Pledge of Allegiance daily in elementary school, but at some point along the way in the older grades the daily ritual had been dropped.)

Not that I had given much thought to the idea of patriotism either – at church I had always been taught to think in terms of the community I lived in, where I could help people in person, and of the global community, as God cared about people everywhere. The fact that I was a citizen of the state of Connecticut meant next to nothing to me, and while I appreciated being a citizen of the United States, it didn’t have the deep emotional meaning that it evidently did for some people.

When I studied abroad, in Spain, I spent more time consciously thinking about what it meant to be an American citizen. When we walked past government buildings guarded by men armed with what looked like machine guns, we always were reminded how, back home, we could walk right up into government buildings, and even take pictures – because the government buildings belonged to us as citizens.

There were plenty of Spanish citizens who thought the actions of our government were wrong, however. This was at the beginning of Reagan’s presidency, and there was a lot of concern for what was going on in Nicaragua and El Salvador. I remember sitting in a young people’s Bible study, at an evangelical church, and hearing one of the young men earnestly exhorting his fellow Christians to act out their Christian faith by opposing the imperialistic actions of the U.S. in Central America.

The second time I went to Spain, in 1983, I got to know a man who led a meeting of Socialists. Back home, the word “socialist” had nothing but negative connotations (within my limited experience), but there in Madrid it was the party that led the country. I wanted both to know more about the country and its people because I was a Spanish teacher, and because I was very curious about a way of thinking that I knew next to nothing about.

One time my friend invited me to come out with him to a protest march he and his friends were involved in. I went as a spectator, not a participant, but in order to talk with my friend and learn what was going on, I had to walk along with him. I wondered if anyone who know me from school would see me and wonder what I was doing there, but I figured there was nothing wrong with being there and getting exposed to more of the Spanish culture.

Someone started a chant, decrying Reagan and his policies. They called him a cowboy, a Fascist, and a gunslinger. I figured the words had been chosen as much to inflame passions – and because they fit an easy rhythm and rhyme – as for any hint of validity to their claims. I had voted for Reagan, but during my Spanish studies had come to seriously question American involvement with the contras in Nicaragua.

Then the protest was stepped up a few notches. Someone got out an American flag, lit a match, and set it on fire. I had heard of flag-burning, but had never witnessed it. I was surprised how indignant I was, how much I wanted to quickly distance myself from these people. That flag was a symbol of my country, and even if it was “just a symbol,” it was a symbol that deserved respect, even from people who disagreed with its government’s policies.

I turned and walked away, and I never attended any more of my friend’s meetings. His small group hadn’t been involved in the flag-burning, but they hadn’t object to it either. (Would I object, I wonder, if I saw a crowd of Americans burning the flag of another country?) That incident made me see the flag differently, and take the whole idea of respect for it more seriously.

I can tell you it’s not an easy thing to get a bunch of Cub Scouts to take it seriously. Of course, it’s not easy to get a bunch of boys that age to take very much seriously. I watch the flag ceremony at monthly pack meetings, and hope that the repetition of it will lead the boys to regard this matter of respecting the flag as the norm, rather than something they have to get through so they can do something else.

Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to look for a flagpole.

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