When is it okay to burn the American Flag?

As we drove home, I was lost in thought. I barely noticed the streetlights and cars that we passed. It was full dark, the kids were watching a DVD in the back of the van, and something was playing on the radio – I’m not sure what. My mind was too busy chasing itself round in circles, replaying the night’s events over and over – asking myself – did my children really understand what we had just done? Did they wonder, as I had earlier – was it really okay to burn the American flag?

They day started as a typical, lazy Saturday. My family, along with many other parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends had gathered at a local campground to be part of the “crossing over” ceremony for my son’s Cub Scout pack. It was a festive, and at times chaotic event, but the boys were mostly well behaved. The Cub Master invited us all to stay around that evening and join the pack for a campfire. There would be songs, skits, and – he mentioned – a flag retirement ceremony. I was intrigued. How does one retire a flag exactly?

As the pack settled in around the campfire, it began to get dark. We all had fun as the dens came up, one by one, and performed silly skits that have probably been performed at Cub Scout functions for as long as the Scouts have been around. We did silly cheers, had some laughs, and generally had a good time. After all of the skits and cheers were finished, the Cub Master told us that it was time for the flag ceremony to begin. As he stood by the flames and began to describe it to us, a hush fell over the assembly. Even a group of rambunctious 6-10 year olds could tell that something of great import was being discussed, and fell quiet.

The Cub Master told us that this was a solemn occasion – one to be treated with respect and reverence. “Once a flag grows tired and tattered,” he said, “it is tradition to retire it with dignity – usually by burning.” He described how the field of blue was to be removed from the flag first; then each individual stripe was to be separated from the whole. The stripes were then to be placed on the fire, one by one, as the states that they represent were remembered. Finally, the field of blue was to be placed on the flames and a moment of silence would be observed.

As the boys began the ceremony, everyone was still. I was shocked by the sound of the ripping cloth as the flag was dismantled – it did not occur to me that they would rend the stripes from each other, by hand. The sound was sharp, and biting, and violent – and necessary. It put me in the mind to recall the violence that had been visited upon our country through the years; of the blood that had been shed, by men and women whose names I will never know, to ensure that I could be there, on that hill, on that night, with my family, to pay respect to the symbol of my country, and all that it stands for. It was a visceral moment that set the mood for the evening, and shocked me in its weight.

As the Cub Master began to call out the states, one by one, the boys approached the fire and offered up the stripes. My son placed the stripe for New York on the flames. I was so very proud of him in that instant, and wondered – what he would take away from that moment? Would he understand the privilege he had been afforded? At last, with all of the stripes consumed, it came time to lay the field of blue on to the fire. As it was draped over the coals, it burst into an intense, searing light. The cloth was quickly consumed, but not before everyone stood and paid witness to it’s passing. It burned bright, if briefly, and then faded in to the night.

As we drove home that night, I was lost in thought. Why had the evening hit me so hard? It took a few days to sink in, and a few more to write this, but I found my answer. I realized that sharing that flag ceremony with my family was a powerful reminder that so much of who we are is passed down from those before us. That what we teach our children, and how we prepare them to teach their children, is the key to our future. They say that freedom and liberty are always only one generation away from being lost. If we want our children to find their way to what is good and right with America – to that shining city on a hill – we have to show them the path. I realized that it’s up to us to light the beacon, and yes, sometimes feed its flames with the flags of our fathers.

All to often, our flag in burnt in protest or as an act of defiance. Many believe that doing so gives them power to harm our nation, our way of life. I understand now that they are wrong. The flag is more than a piece of colored cloth and thread, and to burn it in anger does no more than belittle those that strike the match. The true power – the power I felt there by that campfire – comes when the flag is burned with respect. With reverence. With honor. When a flag is burned for those reasons, it’s an act not of destruction, but of remembrance. It’s a moment that we can share with our children, and each other. To celebrate the costs of freedom; both paid in the past, and due in the future.

Think about that the next time you see a flag. Consider the fact that freedom is not free, and nothing about tomorrow is a certainty – tomorrow has to be earned. If we take the flag for granted, and all that it stand for – then it truly is just a piece of cloth; easily burned, to no greater purpose. Think about that, and talk about it with your children. I know I will.

Cross posted at – thewordzombie.com