"You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third or fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." Exodus 20:4-6
So much anger and fuss has been going on about the kneeling protest by many of the NFL players that it's hard to get on FaceBook or Twitter or even watch the news without hearing everybody's passionate comments about it, from your crazy uncle all the way to the President of the United States. I get that people see this issue very differently, from people who are concerned about the racial disparities and oppression that the kneelers are protesting as well as the respect for the anthem and the flag that the standers are offended over. Obviously, everyone has the right to their opinion, and the right to express it as well. I'm concerned about the cause that motivates the players to kneel, but I'm also concerned about the backlash against it, especially from fellow Christians. It seems that we've been talking so much about the first amendment that we've entirely forgotten about the second commandment.
The American flag, despite all that it represents for different people, is a thing. The national anthem is also a thing, albeit a different kind of thing. My concern, especially for Christians, is that we have turned these things into idols that we worship on a regular basis, and even demand that other people worship them as well. As Christians, can we really be that upset that people are not genuflecting passionately enough before our sacred objects? Doesn't that seem like idolatry? I grew up in church hearing all the time that idols are not just objects that we bow down to or salute, or icons that we keep in our homes and pray and sacrifice to. I remember hearing over and over that anything we put before God in importance in our lives is an idol. Pastors and Sunday school teachers told me that money was an idol for some people, or fame, or power, or even more innocent things like jobs or sports or hobbies, if they kept you out of church or kept you from obeying God. But every morning we still stood and saluted the stars and stripes, and I never saw any correlation between the two, until recently.
I'm not saying that pledging the flag or standing for the anthem is wrong. That's something that each believer has to work out in their own heart. What I am saying is that I was brought up to believe that anything that got in the way of serving and obeying God is an idol. Jesus summed up the commandments into two statements: "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "love your neighbor as yourself." When Christians have neighbors, countrymen, brothers and sisters that are saying to them "I don't see justice for people like me," and their only response is to vehemently demand that their neighbors shut up about it and sing the national anthem, that's the definition of idolatry. When those neighbors are crying out that they think nobody is listening to them, and they feel that their lives don't matter to the rest of us, and we respond with how offended we are that they have chosen to send this message at the time that we have ordained to salute our sacred symbols, that's the definition of idolatry.
And I know that these symbols stand for something great for so many people. I get that we want everyone to rally around the flag and celebrate freedom and bravery. However, as Christians, we have other, greater, allegiances. The only symbol that we should be rallying around, the only icon that God has approved for us is the cross. That's the only symbol of freedom and bravery that we should be trying so hard to share with others. Frankly, it bothers me that Christians seem to get more upset when the symbol of our country is simply ignored than they get when the symbol of our savior and our faith is burning in someone's yard as a threat of violence.
This idolatry has gotten so bad that now people are boycotting the NFL until these players are fired for their demonstration. Even the President has called them nasty names and demanded that the teams fire anyone who doesn't salute the flag appropriately when the national anthem plays in the stadium. Many of the people I hear supporting this are Christians. It reminds me of something else I learned in Sunday school.
However, when the music played, there were a handful of people who still refused to bow down and worship that idol. They were all young men, fit and athletic, bigger and stronger than most of the men their age. They stood out for their size, but even more because of their race. Unfortunately, they were foreigners who had been captured and brought to the greatest nation in the world, and yet they had already proven themselves to be wise, and brave, and bold since the moment they arrived. They had lost their country, their families, and even their names, but they held on to their faith. Because they served the one true God, they refused to bow down to that idol when the music played. Furthermore, whether it was out of bravery, or faithfulness, or just stubbornness, they chose to carry out this protest right in front of the magistrates and all the officials of the province, in full view of everyone, knowing full well the consequences for doing so.
According to the law, these young men were rounded up and punished, not just executed, but thrown into a fiery furnace that was especially prepared for them. It was turned up hotter than it had ever been before, to match the anger and the hatred of the ruler and all the true citizens who didn't care why they wouldn't bow and demanded they respect the idol. The fire was so hot that it killed the men who were ordered to carry out the young men's execution. But God Himself was with them in the fire and saw them through it. After seeing them walking around, unharmed, in that pit of fire, even the ruler was so impressed by their faith and God's favor to them, despite everything he had done to them, that he declared that people should worship the one true God too.
So I guess there's still hope for us.
I understand what the American flag represents to the people who are offended by the protest, but I also know that every idol ever made represented something beautiful and meaningful to the people who worshiped it. The irony is that some of the same Sunday school teachers who told me that story when I was growing up, as a way of teaching me that even death was preferable to idolatry, are now telling me that saluting a flag is more important than loving my neighbor.