The Flag, the NFL, and the Freedom to Protest

The Flag, the NFL, and the Freedom to Protest September 25, 2017


422811477-flagI believe in freedom of speech and, therefore, the right to protest.
Unless anarchy, revolution, or self-aggrandizement are the goals, I also believe that at the end of any and every protest, the only way in which to achieve the goals of that protest is to define the legislative objectives one wants to achieve, frame it in language that is actionable, win approval for its content, and apply the law.

The reverse, however, is not necessarily true: Legislative goals need not begin with protest.  The degree to which people feel compelled to protest involves a complex array of variables (real or imagined). Their access to the legislative process, the resources available to galvanize public support for their goals, and the urgency of the moment are among those variables.

Because I believe in the freedom of speech, I necessarily believe that people will differ with one another. They will use and misuse their rights. They will fail and succeed in defining their goals. They will exercise their rights with mixed motives. Their efforts will attract people with the same mixture of motives, and everyone involved will operate out of real and imagined assessments of the circumstances at play.

I also believe that those who are repelled, angered, or alienated by those efforts will act out of the same complex array of variables. In responding to those who protest, they will also be exercising the same freedoms that those who protest enjoy.

The one thing that neither side can do is to deny the other side the exercise of those rights. To deny anyone a right is to deny everyone a right – perhaps not today, or tomorrow, but someday.

Ironically and inevitably, those on both sides of the debate have made the American flag and the pledge of allegiance the centerpiece of the NFL dispute. For some the flag has become a symbol of freedoms achieved that the nation has failed distribute without prejudice and discrimination. For others celebrating the flag represents patriotism and the sacrifices made by the men and women of the armed forces.

The difficulty, of course, is that the American flag has no “official” meaning. The earliest and closest thing to a definition, apart from the reference to the first colonies and the fifty states, is the explanation offered by Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress and the designer of the national seal who, in 1782, described the colors in both the flag and the seal as follows: “White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valor and Blue … signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.” So, the flag lingers, like a giant Rorschach test that tells us more about ourselves than it does about itself.

There is, then, no place to stand historically from which to make an unassailable judgment about the current flap over the NFL. One can only say what this dispute means to each of us and what it might mean to all or – more likely — some of us.

For my own part — as a Christian first, last, and always — this is where I find myself with regard to the NFL and the flag:

As a Christian, perfect freedom lies in God. No temporal institution has the power to make me or anyone else truly free.

For that reason, my commitment to the freedoms celebrated by Bill of Rights and the Constitution is pro tempore – for the time in between. The Kingdom of God is already and not yet. The values of that Kingdom can be realized in the life of the church, which is the instrument of God’s redemptive work. They are not realized in our national life, except as the church witnesses to God’s redemptive work in Christ and wins others to those values. In the meantime, I live my life in uneasy tension, not only with the world around me and my own country, but in uneasy tension with the imperfect ways in which I myself respond obediently to the call of Christ in my own life.

I commit myself to the well being of my nation because I believe that in that liminal place between the already and the not yet, the defense of freedom and self-governance provides the best (though far from perfect) place where the invitation of God to true freedom and the rule of God over human hearts can find expression.

From that vantage point, like every American, the flag represents things to me that will inevitably find resonance with some and none with others. That is and must be possible. But for what it is worth, this is where I find myself:

The flag does not represent an achievement. It represents an aspiration and a shared commitment to life and liberty. From the Christian point of view, it promises more than it can deliver. As a Christian, I also believe that we might live ever more deeply into that promise, but our performance will fall short of the ideal.

Those two convictions are not an excuse for half-measures or indifference.   A faithful response to the demands of the Gospel for “the time in between” claims my energy and attention and I welcome the tension: the tension of a life lived out between the demands that my faith makes on my life in the form of freedom that only God can give and the gift of living in a nation in which – with effort – an ever greater number of people might be free to choose true freedom.

It is for that reason, that I say the pledge of allegiance and I salute the flag. Members of the armed forces make a sacrifice in defense of that flag that we do not bear, but as citizens we are all obliged to defend the values that flag represents. When our nation fails to extend the liberty that flag represents to all who live under its protection, we all fail. What we do and say will contribute to its resilience and breadth or erode its future. And, frankly, when we refuse to salute the flag, I am not sure who we would argue has failed. It is not some “other.” It is us.

So, from my point of view, for those who choose to protest by not saluting the flag, questions remain:

  • What failing are they protesting?
  • Why is that failing the object of their protest?
  • Why are other failings not included in that list?
  • What is the legislative change or the social achievement that will address the failing that prompts them to protest?

For those who object to the NFL protest, questions also remain:

  • If the failings that the protesters raise are not legitimate, why not?
  • If there are other priorities, what should they be and why?
  • Assuming that we have not and cannot achieve perfect liberty, what will count as having advanced the cause of freedom in our time?

It will become immediately clear from the questions that I’ve raised, why I’ve never participated in a protest. For me the most important questions have always been the ones that invite definition and precision.

It’s not that I don’t believe that protests cannot galvanize opinion or set the stage for concrete change. They have.

But I am not drawn to polarizing, virtue-signaling that lacks definition and shouts down the opposition. The current NFL protest is, to my mind, little more than that and it comes from people who have the resources to do so much more. That they haven’t made that choice is their right.

Make what we will of the right to protest, I hope that we will all choose with greater care than marks the current political climate. Sadly, this small sliver of history will not last forever and the freedom to choose might not always belong to us or to our children.


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