On the surface this hardly seems like something we need to be talking about all over again, but then millions of people have skin in the game – actual flesh and blood.
A lot of people think about The Pledge of Allegiance in very religious terms. In fact, it has become more religious over time than originally intended, even though it was written by a minister. Religiosity regarding ‘the pledge’ and by extension, the flag, was born of McCarthyism and his ugly brand of populist nationalism.
The original pledge from 1892, written by The Rev. Francis Bellamy (University of Rochester), was simply: ” I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Bellamy believed in the stark separation of church and state and would never have included God in it. Also, it was to be delivered with a salute rather than hand over the heart.
I grew up at a time when people were burning the American flag on a daily basis, so taking a knee during the anthem seems downright respectful in comparison. But if you are someone who literalizes the flag as the object of allegiance itself, any disrespect is going to feel outrageous. If “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” means literally, I dedicate myself to the actual flag, then the flag becomes a sacrament instead of a symbol. The National Anthem then, focused as it is on the flag, takes on a religious character.
In our current context, for many who have suffered any consequences of war, whether soldier or family, the flag may be an outward and visible sign of sacrifice and loss – flesh and blood. Likewise, for many people of color who have lost members of the community to unjustifiable police violence, or have themselves suffered violence, intimidation, or any kind of marginalization, the flag may be a painful Rorschach of contrast between the rhetoric of our republic and its racist history – flesh and blood. In both cases, flesh and blood are woven into the threads of the flag and it is more than a symbol.
So, thinking religiously about ‘the pledge’ or national anthem turns it into something more than it is, imbued with a great deal more freight than most symbols. If our national leaders were interested in healing and unity, they would help us to see and feel allthe flesh and blood that soaks the flag rather than only our side, or our people, or our kind. Such leaders would help us come together around the flag and anthem to see reflected in them, faces and events we have not seen before. Mostly, we only see our own flesh and blood in that mirror, but there are so many more people and events sewn in it to see.
Any national leader with our best interests at heart, would help us see one another’s reflections in the flag. Conversely, those who have a stake in dividing us will rub our wounds and salt them.