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The Flag: Salute/Respect

Driving home one night, I saw a flag flying upside down. I did a double-take. Maybe the wind had caught it some odd way and wrapped it around the pole. But no, here was another one! And I’ve seen a few since. Turns out it represents some protest, if not about Iraq, then about Patriot Act restrictions of rights we’ve grown accustomed to.

Still, it’s jolting to see, even when we’ve grown used to flags serving as jackets, bandanas, patches, underwear, and even fuel at the occasional flag-burning.

Jehovah’s Witnesses would never do any of the above to the flag. At all times, we treat it with respect. And yet we do something which, to many people, is worse. We decline to salute it.

This is a hot button issue for many. If, in your mind’s eye, you can see troops hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima, then you may not take kindly to people who won't salute. Maybe they should find another country in which to live, you might fume.

It might help to realize that JWs refrain from saluting any flag in any land, not just that of a particular country. Thus, whatever their reasoning may be, it is obviously not one of disrespect, much less subversion, toward any nation. The obedience of Jehovah’s Witnesses to civil authorities is well known.

Their stand can best be summarized by reading the ten commandments. Found in Exodus chapter 20, here is the second commandment: 

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them; for I, the LORD thy God, am a jealous God...  (Exodus 20:4,5 bold type mine, 21st Century King James Version

Thus the flag salute is seen as an act of worship, an act of idolatry, and if there’s one thing that God makes clear he doesn’t like, it’s idolatry.

One might suppose that flag salutes go back to antiquity. In fact, it’s a relatively modern trend. The present hand-on-heart salute dates back only to 1942. It replaced what was known as the Bellamy salute (named for Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance) instituted in 1892. The Hitler salute of the 1930’s so closely resembled the Bellamy salute that the latter was modified to its present form. Thus, while flags are old, flag saluting is not.

The 1990 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses tells of a Canadian Witness child who they tested with regard to flag decorum. She and another child were summoned separately to the principal’s office, where they found a Canadian flag draped across his desk.  The non-Witness child was told to spit on the flag, and she did so, notwithstanding that she saluted it every day. Spitting must be okay….her teacher had told her to do it.  The Witness child was brought in and told to do the same. She would not do it. They tried to coax her. Since she didn’t salute, there’s no reason not to spit, they suggested. She held her ground. No, spitting would be desecrating the national symbol, she explained. Jehovah’s Witnesses respect the flag, though they do not worship it. Results were announced in class, hopefully not with the other child’s name. Apparently, it was part of some civics lesson.

So what is in a gesture, anyway? If a child who salutes the flag can just as readily spit on it, how meaningful is the salute?

The well known

English historian Arnold Toynbee warned of the development in our time of the “grim shape of a pagan worship of sovereign national states,” describing this also as “a sour ferment of the new wine of democracy in the old bottles of tribalism.” Those who claim that their own nation is superior to all others, even to the point of worshiping the State, have been manipulated by rulers and regimented in order to carry out their policies, whether good or bad…..[This results in occasional trials for Jehovah’s Witnesses]….who love the land of their birth but decline to worship the State and its symbols.
Watchtower  1989 1/1 p 22, par 17, brackets mine

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