Burning Flags and Burning Cities

The American Flag is either an object of reverence or contempt.  For those who have fought to defend it—especially for those with family members who paid the ultimate sacrifice—the flag is the emblem of honor, freedom and patriotic devotion.  For others who view America as an engine of brutal exploitation through slavery, systemic racism, or marginalization, it is a hated symbol, akin to a holocaust survivor’s revulsion to a swastika.  

Protest is as American as baseball and apple pie.  Protesting by burning the flag may be un-American, but it is nevertheless constitutionally protected free speech according to the Supreme Court.  But what about protests that turn destructive, torching police cars, blazing public property and igniting buildings with anarchist glee?

Once, Americans knew to draw a line between protest and property.  But downward converging spirals of historical amnesia, identity politics, expressive individualism and Marxist ideology are accelerating.  Before long the line between protest, property and persons will be blurred.  And this is no small matter.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”  His logic is clear: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  So consider the dominoes as they fall.  Protesting injustice is good and necessary.  Make the protest against injustice more poignant by burning the flag.  Make the protest against injustice even greater by burning the city.  Make the protest against injustice final by killing those you believe are the cause of the injustice.  

Our inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny necessarily leads to the question of when does the pursuit of justice turn unjust?  George Floyd’s death calls for justice.  Black lives do matter.  It is true that America as a nation has not been perfect.  Where does this all lead?  

Dr. King nearly sixty years ago referred to “various black nationalist groups”.  He explained, “This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination.  It is made up of people who have lost faith in America…. I have tried to stand between these two forces saying that we need not follow the ‘do-nothingism’ of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.  There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle.  If this philosophy had not emerged I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood.”  Calling on whites and blacks to join him in “nonviolent efforts,” he warned that if they didn’t, “millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.”

Seeking justice over the taking of the life of George Floyd is necessary and honorable.  But is it just to burn down cities to extract justice for this heinous act?  Dr. King’s words have poetic justice as everyone watches billowing flames of smoke ascend broken American communities—we are indeed caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.  Every television network makes that an inescapable reality.

And just what is that inescapable network of mutuality?  What is the tie that binds us in a single garment of destiny?  It is the American flag that proudly flies over this troubled land of the free and sadly smolders amid disgruntled protests in our home of the brave.  Inevitably, the flag that burned yesterday has become the kindling of cities burning now.  Which flame will kindle the hearts of our people—love for the sacred fire of liberty or flaming hate that burns cities to the ground?

In 1957 Dr. King highlighted the alternatives of love and hate when he preached a sermon titled “Loving Your Enemies”.  He proclaimed, “Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”

Join me in fulfilling the ancient call of Jeremiah 29:7. “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you….  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” On this Flag Day, June 14th, 2020, people will choose either to love the flag or hate it. They will decide either to build the city or to burn it.  With Dr. King I declare, “I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.”  May love extinguish the hate that’s consuming souls and burning cities.

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