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There has been a lively conversation going on up and down my street, in a townhouse development south of Tucson. But it isn’t the people who are talking. It is the flags.

In the aftermath of the November election, partisans of the ousted president retreated into imaginary worlds in which the election had been stolen, blue lives matter more than others, and radical socialism was on the ascendant. Some of them are my neighbors. Here in my winter home in southern Arizona, and indeed in every American city or town not irrevocably dyed solid red or blue, it was easy to know what not to talk about, but sometimes hard to talk.

In February a neighbor just a few houses down my street decided to take his stand in a way all could see by flying what is colloquially known as a “blue line flag” or, by its advocates, a “freedom flag.” In place of the traditional red, white and blue, all is rendered in black and white except for a thin blue line. Proponents of the flag say it symbolizes support for the police, who work very hard to protect us, so we should just forgive them and move on if from time to time they kill an innocent black man. (That’s not exactly how they would put it.)

To superimpose any sort of political symbol on the flag of the United States, or indeed to alter it in any way, is a violation of the Flag Code (Title 4, United States Code, Article 1), adopted by Congress in 1923. You can fly any flag you like, of course, so long as it is not an altered version of the American standard version.

My wife and I discussed whether to lodge a complaint with our homeowners’ association, but we decided that the wiser course – Matthew 18! — would be simply to drop in and tell our neighbors that we respect their political views but we wish they would respect our flag and not desecrate it by overlaying political messages.

Receiving us cordially, our neighbor told us that the flag was a gift from her husband’s friend, a retired police officer. She was not convinced by our argument that it violates flag protocol but said she would think about it. We expected that she would discuss the matter with her husband, who was out doing errands, and she did. What we did not expect was that, the next time he saw us walk past, he would berate us for abusing his wife, tell us how disgusted he is to have neighbors who don’t support the police, and urge us to find another place to live. But we have continued to wave a friendly greeting when we walk past, and most of the time, having said his piece, he returns it.

The flag kerfuffle was not over yet. On our house, until now unadorned, we mounted a flag holder a week later and began displaying an American flag, as a number of neighbors already do. Perhaps not all of them intend their display to say, “Thank goodness our Republic has a president at last who values the public good over stoking his ego and burnishing his brand!” But that’s our message and we will just go on assuming it is theirs too.

After a week, though, we replaced it temporarily with the Frisian flag, honoring my father’s place of birth in northern Netherlands. Not many recognized it, but the red lily pads stood in for hearts over Valentine’s Day.

Down the street, near the blue line flag, another so-called “freedom flag” was waving in the breeze a few days later, featuring green and red lines in addition to the blue line. Its meaning? The neighbor who put it out explained that it asks us all to support the police (dressed in blue), the firefighters and first responders (red hats and trucks), and the armed forces (lots of khaki on their jackets and weapons).

We thanked him for the explanation and for flying a flag that, while still in violation of protocol, was much more attractive. And we offered him our alternative interpretation: green for “save the wilderness,” blue for “save the whales,” and red for “solidarity forever.” He laughed and said “OK, you can read it that way.” This neighbor was a vocal Trump supporter too – just check out his bumper stickers, which he has not removed — but he has a sense of humor.

The three-stripe flag is proving highly infectious, appearing on more and more of the homes and flagpoles that we see on morning walks. And the symbolic conversation continues, up and down our street.

We replaced the Frisian with the American flag for a week and then swapped it for a Philadelphia Pride flag, a recommendation from our son who lives there. It supplements the rainbow colors of an LGBTQ banner with black and brown stripes. A few passersby asked about its meaning, and when we told them they just said, “That’s interesting.” Others asked where they could get one.

Now we are seeing a number of other flags popping up on our street – mostly ones that whose symbolism we don’t recognize, but we will ask their owners to enlighten us. None of them, thankfully, are Confederate battle flags – we see those only occasionally on the pack of pickup trucks passing through town. Let a hundred flags bloom! They are not expensive at all online, we have learned.

This morning the American flag went back up on our house, and next in line is one from South Africa. Why that one, from half a world away? Because of its rich symbolism of many colors coming together in harmony. Living for a semester in South Africa 15 years ago, we learned that even its colors speak louder than words. Green, yellow and black were the colors of the African National Congress, and you could be thrown in prison just for displaying those colors until the 1990s. Red, white and blue were carried over from the flag of Transvaal, one of the colonies that became part of South Africa, its flag incorporated into the flag of the Republic. Both the colors and the design speak clearly of coming together to overcome divisions and build unity. That is an ideal that the country hasn’t entirely achieved, but it’s come a long way since apartheid.

After all, should we not all recognize and applaud a nation that manages to throw off the paralyzing and dehumanizing grip of an authoritarian regime that enjoyed broad support from Christian pastors, despite its embrace of white supremacist ideology? A nation whose people stood in line for hours at the polls, defying the ruling party’s long history of suppressing their votes, in order to restore a government of the people and for the people?

Can you think of any other country that falls under that description? Then fly its flag too.

David Hoekema

David A. Hoekema resides in West Olive, Michigan, and, in winter, in Green Valley, Arizona.  He retired in 2018 from Calvin College (that was still its name), having served as Academic Dean, Interim Vice President for Student Life, and, most of the time, Professor of Philosophy.  Previous positions were at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and the University of Delaware.  In Arizona, where he is a Visiting Scholar in the Philosophy Department of the University of Arizona, he reads and writes, hikes and bikes and runsplays and listens to music, and cooks.  not necessarily in that order of priority. His pandemic pod includes his wife, retired attorney Susan Hoekema, and his mother-in-law, retired Calvin professor Bette Bosma. He worships at Second Christian Reformed Church of Grand Haven and at Southside Presbyterian Church of Tucson, two vibrant and supportive communities of followers of the Lamb. 

16 Comments

  • Lee says:

    Some express their biased points of view by displaying flags, others by writing online journal entries. Ho him.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Flagland. And conversations. Symbols that point to reality.
    And all in good humor. Love that David. Dialogues to keep the juices flowing. Good for you and your tribe, here, there and everywhere. Thanks.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Professor Hoekema,

    Unless they allow mail-in voting, my prediction is that you will never make it onto the board of your HOA.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Love this. Thankful for your convictions and courage. Love the humor too. Thank you for this.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    More than the flags, I appreciate the conversations. It seems that continued conversations with our neighbors even in the midst of disagreements is our hope for a way forward. Thanks for the imagery, but maybe more important thanks for a healthy way forward for all of us.

  • Tom says:

    I enjoyed this piece for the most part and, as noted by Rodney above, appreciate the ‘conversations’ you describe, which ARE the best hope for the way forward. But, one nitpick on where I would appreciate some honest reflection and acknowledgement of reality – and while this is specifically responding to this post, I mean it to apply generally to the tone of most posts on this blog that relate to politics.

    Re: “Thank goodness our Republic has a president at last who values the public good over stoking his ego and burnishing his brand!” Any honest assessment of Joe Biden must conclude that he is a dishonest, cynical politician with a remarkably flexible moral spine, more than willing to abandon principles he has formerly held dear in order to advance his own position and career. He has a long history of blatant fabrications of his own accomplishments; he has spoken passionately and convincingly about abortion and the filibuster and now takes the exact opposite position; he bristles indignantly at any suggestion that his family members have benefited financially from his position of power; he’s misrepresented Georgia’s new voting laws so thoroughly that he scored “4 Pinocchio’s” from the Washington Post – – this could go on for a long time. Other than his somewhat better manners, as a person he doesn’t look a lot different from Donald Trump.

    Just once, I’d appreciate an honest assessment from some of my left-leaning friends – that they now find themselves in the position I was in for the last four years: that the president is a seriously flawed, dishonest, untrustworthy man, but he leans my direction so the policies of his administration will likely be more in line with my preferences. Therefore, I voted for him rather than the other candidate in spite of his faults.

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    Sounds like you have a pretty nice neighborhood, David. It seems your neighbors have learned to disagree without being consumed by it. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be able to handle the flying of these different flags.

    But you were a bit snide about that first (blue line) flag, saying “Proponents of the flag say it symbolizes support for the police, who work very hard to protect us, so we should just forgive them and move on if from time to time they kill an innocent black man. (That’s not exactly how they would put it.)”
    Indeed, that’s not how they would put it, but beyond that, did you know that from time to time, police kill innocent white men too (and other “races” and women)? I know that from a lifetime of close up experience (practicing law for 41 years, never as a prosecutor but a couple of decades doing criminal defense no less).

    As well, did you know that very, very, very few police have killed innocent men (or women)?

    And that but for those police, countless more innocent people, black, white, male, female, whatever, would be killed?

    • George Vink says:

      Thanks, Doug. As the father of a policeman, I appreciate your comment. We’ve got to be careful with the word brushes we use………

  • David Hoekema says:

    A brief response to two challenges posed:

    (1) Yes indeed, police take great risks to protect us, the vast majority follow the rules and use minimum necessary force, and they deserve our support and respect. But the few who ignore the rules and abuse their power are not always held accountable. Some forces have won the trust of the communities they serve through community outreach, limits on lethal force, and effective discipline when boundaries are crossed. Other forces prioritize intimidation, impunity, and a code of silence. They need to change, for the sake of the communities they fail to protect and in order to restore the honor of their profession.

    (2) We elect mortal men and women, not angels. Choosing can be hard, for followers of Christ and for everyone else. Suggesting a moral equivalence between presidents 45 and 46 strikes me as preposterous, however. I thank God that the man who boasted that he had never prayed for forgiveness because he has never done anything wrong, who went to a church only to stand outside it for a photo op, and who pronounced his blessing on an angry mob carrying a list of public officials they hoped to kidnap has lost the election (something he still will not admit) to a man who has the courage and humility to admit past mistakes, listens to scientists and epidemiologists, and seeks to heal a broken nation. Which has something to do with his lifelong practice of confessing his sins and going to the Lord’s table each Sunday.

    (3) On the charge of indulging in some snarkiness, however, I will have to plead guilty.

  • Tom says:

    Yes, we certainly do not elect angels! And I make no attempt to judge where any person stands with God and appreciate Joe Biden’s apparent faith. However, judging only by what I can see absent the ability to look into the man’s heart, throughout his career he has always been highly dishonest and willing to adopt with a high level of conviction whatever position advances his own position at any given moment. The difference between Trump and Biden is a matter of degree. Trump is worse! – but the degree is less than most people are willing to admit.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      I understand your position on the current state of our politics. The only thing that concerns me is it comes with the tinge of cynicism about people or our institutions. I find cynicism to be among the most deadly of attitudes for our faith and our work to bear witness to the kingdom. It may be that you don’t intend it to be cynical. I would just warn against falling into that trap.
      One other thing, I think, as people, especially as Christians, we need to work to discern the difference between learning/repentance and a new direction and dishonesty that cynically changes direction in whatever way suits our grasp for power.
      It seems that these are usually mixed, but to cling wholly to one in absence of the other doesn’t account for the complexity of humanity as an animal with a conscience.
      The trouble of course is our own mixture of these two dynamics at work in us. We are just as complex as our leaders, seeing what we want to see and working to apply dishonest to the “other side” while applying a bulk of the learning in context to “our side.” It takes a great deal of discernment both of our leaders and of ourselves to find the truth in any situation

  • Tom says:

    Rodney – you are, of course, correct, and I agree with your assessment. I’m probably less cynical than I sound. I am highly bothered by the fact that over the last couple of decades, what used to be confined to the realm of politics has bled further and further into the rest of life and now poisons our churches and our personal relationships. I’ve had a family member tell me that Trump was God’s warrior sent to save America. I’ve also been told by a fellow church member that anyone who voted for Trump needs to ask God’s forgiveness. I object to both those statements.

    About the only time I comment on this blog is in response to broad-brush statements that seem so say that everything Trump is evil/ anything anti-Trump = good. I suppose we all tend to understand all the gray areas and moral complexity and thoughtfulness underlying our own political views while seeing nothing but knee-jerk, black and white, wrong-headedness in those who disagree with us, but I’d hope a group of ‘thoughtful’ Christians such as this would be a little better at seeing the good in the other.

    On this blog, I’ll credit Jason Lief as one who attempts to see both sides and shows some understanding of why people might justifiably disagree with where he stands. I’d appreciate a little more of that because we owe it to each other.

  • Tom says:

    https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/04/all-one-thing-or-all-the-other/

    I would recommend this piece that came out today. (Not sure if non-subscribers will be able to open it, so apologies if not)

  • Johanna De Jonge says:

    You are welcome in my neighborhood anytime! I don’t fly a flag ( this post might have changed my mind) but I do have a pretty cool yard sign posted by my front gate ~
    ” Only love can turn an enemy into a friend ”
    ~ MLK
    Thanks for this lovely little dance of an essay on humor and hope in the midst of loving neighbors like we’ve been loved.
    Peace from Visalia, CA!

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