In the aftermath of President Trump’s Twitter assault on NFL players who knelt during our national anthem, one commentator wrote that NFL fans were outraged by their action “because they feel you are disrespecting the American flag, the very flag that gives you your liberties. They feel you are spitting on the blood of servicemen who died … protecting your freedom.” Though I fully understand and share the anger many people are feeling, I found this formulation of its cause more than a little misleading.

The respect we Americans show for our flag, and during the performance of our national anthem, is not like the applause we give to the people who prepared the decorations for the prom in high school, or the standing ovation we offer a singer or band after their rendition of a song we love.  As the congressionally adopted language of the Pledge of Allegiance says of our flag, it’s an expression of loyalty “to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The liberty and justice we Americans are supposed to enjoy has been handed down for generations. It is, therefore, a gift, first transmitted by the generation that initially asserted the existence of our nation, on terms that required a form of government that would secure right and rights, including liberty, for all. But before justice and liberty can be secured, they must be asserted. And before they can be asserted, they must be understood.

But the understanding that made securing right and rights, including liberty, the defining purpose of just government, did not say that justice and right are the gift of any flag or anthem. In the Declaration of Independence, when representatives of the first citizens of the United States of America first asserted their existence as a nation, they stated unequivocally that justice derived its meaning from “the laws of nature and of Nature’s God” and that rights, including liberty, are endowed by our Creator. They are, therefore, not the gift of any flag or anthem. They are the gift of God, whose enactment of Creation is the source of justice, rights and laws for humanity and all Creation.

Once we remember this, we realize that our show of respect for our flag and anthem is simply a gesture meant to signify our determination to show respect for the true sources of our existence as a nation. But if we make a show of respect for the flag and the anthem, but live our lives disrespecting God and the rule of justice and right according to God, our gesture is just that – a “show” performed with our limbs and lips, but betrayed by our actions, and by hearts that give worth rather to the pursuit of money, power and the service and praise of others, than to God, and the republic crafted to secure the justice He demands for us.

People today equate respect for the flag of the United States with respect for the sacrifices of those who risk and give their lives in the battle required to defend our nation. But there was a time when the “Stars and Stripes” unfurled to inspire American seamen in battle with enslaving pirates, even though it was also still flying from the masthead of ships bringing people like my ancestors to be sold on the auction blocks of the slave trade in the United States. The flag and the true republic for which it stands have not always been cut from the same cloth.

Every generation of Americans has witnessed conflicts, battles and wars required to meet and overcome this self-contradiction, in all its multifarious forms. But in every case, the vindication of our primordial allegiance to those truths strengthened our commitment to do right by God, and practice His justice toward one another. If there is still a resource of union capable of binding us rightly together as one people, it is that we have ears to hear the cry for justice, and the heart to move in its defense, until we see it done. Isn’t this sense of justice – this light of human hope for decent liberty – the shared spirit we seek to express when we stand in respect for the anthem or the flag? Isn’t that shared spirit the true “Republic for which it stands”? But the first truth, the truth from which all others derive, is the Divine Authority that transcends our humanity. Sometimes we honor it by rising to our feet with courage and determination. At other times, we do so by taking to our knees, humbly appealing to God’s good will.

In a column published earlier this week, I sorted through the anger I feel because athletes, greatly blessed by our way of life, seem disposed to disrespect the symbols of our existence as a nation. But, as I did so, I realized something. They may be mistaken in the facts and ideologies that fuel their cause. But I can’t rightly say they are mistaken to challenge this nation to live and act according to the premises our flag and anthem evoke, and which they should always cause us to ponder. Does action that impels this nation to do so show disrespect, or serious regard, for their importance?

I would gladly join the NFL athletes, or any other aggrieved Americans, on their knees in prayer, asking God and their compatriots for justice. But the prayer would be sincere only if, when we rose to our feet, all joined together in a sincere and truthful search for justice for all. That includes Americans who feel wronged by police behavior. But it also includes officers of the law, responsible for justly wielding the powers intended to secure not only individual rights, but also the right of the whole community to live safely and with confidence, in peace.

According to our national creed, all are entitled to be judged as individuals for their actions and intent, not praised or condemned for the color of their uniforms, or of their skin. By honoring our creed, we honor our flag, our anthem and the memory of our fallen patriots. But most importantly, we seal and transmit to our posterity the commitment to do justice, which they should always represent and inspire.

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