“The Flags We Wave” by Fr. Daniel Simons | June 24, 2020
Flags have been around for much of human history. They have signaled peace, war, boundaries, identity, turf, allegiance, and aspiration. They are a shorthand by which we identify those like us and those unlike us.
While flags signify much, they also invite a deeper conversation about what they are for. I understand their important power in creating a larger “we” around an idea or value. And “good fences make good neighbors,” to quote Robert Frost’s neighbor (Mending Walls), and flags help shape, identity, and signify infinitely more intangible commitments. I also recognize how they limit us. A flag is a declaration, a statement. One of my teachers says that every answer has an expiration date. Every time we land on our truth, another horizon opens up in front of us, a larger question becomes the next stage of the journey.
It’s most often the questions in life that are far more interesting and productive for our ongoing transformation than the answers we temporarily inhabit. So a flag, like a wall, can sometimes create a larger identity, and can sometimes limit the deeper investigation of identity and boundaries in a community. “Virtue-signaling” is a term coined to name identification with a cause — “waving the flag” without the deeper commitment and work that backs it up. Virtuous actions, like my not using single-use plastic, can actually inoculate me from the deeper work needed from me and the system to truly change our trajectory, making me more a part of the problem than the solution.
A solid place to stand and gather is a wonderful thing, and a strong identity is needed as a fundamental component of any healthy growing child or community. Creating identity is creating the container, which we sometimes mistake as the whole project of life, when in reality it’s just the first stage. The next stage is to discern what the container is FOR — what we fill it with. And then at some point the container may no longer even be needed, like a skin sloughed off. This is natural growth, and can at the spiritual level become deeper liberation and emancipation. In Frost’s poem the narrator calls us to investigate “where it is we do not need the wall.”
Flags are on my mind for three reasons: It’s Pride month, and though this year celebrations were canceled in solidarity to focus on the Black Lives Matter protests, the Pride flag identifies this movement. As we mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we will be hanging an updated version of the pride flag called the “Progress Flag,” which includes a forward arrow chevron of black/brown for marginalized LGBT communities, and pink/blue/white from the transqueer community. Second, our diocesan bishops have recently asked all churches to hang flags supportive of the Black Lives Matter protests on our grounds. Third, with the July 4th holiday approaching, flags are already appearing all over town with a dizzying and mostly implicit range of messages and definitions of allegiance.
As we fly the flags that identify some of our deep commitments and values, I am eager to see how they are a call to us to deepen those values and keep crossing boundaries–the etymological meaning of the word “pilgrim”–in a way that makes every flag a temporary marker on the way toward a deeper communion.
Next week in our “Going Deeper” conversation I’ll tune the conversation around this topic, so if you’re interested in talking more about how we signal and ground our values, join me there for a further conversation.