This past week, my stickler-for-the-rules seven-year-old son got in trouble at school for refusing to stand for and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This refusal came not from a strong familial protest against any particular clause in the pledge. Instead, my son had decided on his own volition – without revealing his plan to me, I might add – to stand up against a tradition with which he did not totally agree.
The incident started a week or two prior to the morning of the Great Elementary Protest of 2014, as it shall henceforth be known in our family. On the way home from school one day, my son said, “Mom, I don’t like that we have to say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, because it seems like the pledge wants to say that the United States thinks it is better than everyone else and that we are blessed by God more than other countries. It’s like the United States wants us to think that it is always good and that we’re supposed to love it and agree with it, even though it hurts a lot of people,” he replied.
Wow, I thought. This is awesome! My second-grader is already challenging the system and thinking critically! So, of course, like any self-respecting activist mother, I combined praise with push-back. I argued that perhaps this sort of exclusivism and monopoly on God’s blessing is not what the words intend.
“But,” I added, “there is something that doesn’t sit well with me as a Christian about saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I feel like maybe I shouldn’t be pledging my allegiance to anything other than God and what God stands for, rather than to a nation made by people. What do you think?”
“That actually makes a lot of sense,” my son replied.
As I thought about his comments, I grew increasingly excited about his thought process. I burst out, “You know what you are? You’re an iconoclast!” I defined the term for him, then told him the story of how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were willing to stand up for what they believed when everyone else was following the nation’s commands. My son seemed to like the story, and we left the conversation at that. Little did I know that his mental wheels were turning away, concocting a plan to take action on his beliefs.
And then came the email. A week or two later, his teacher wrote that my son had refused to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance. He claimed that he did not like that he was required to say the pledge when the United States does things that he thought were wrong. His teacher was greatly disturbed by this but said that she could not force our son to say the pledge if we, as his parents, did not want him reciting it. Then, she asked, “Do you have a tradition of not respecting the flag in your house?”
Aside from my aggravation at her response, I was mortified that I had failed my son by not discussing with him age-appropriate options for respectfully and effectively acting upon his beliefs. Furthermore, I did not highlight for him some of the positive work that the United States has done in our checkered history nor call his attention to citizens who have contributed to world peace, justice, and liberation. But my initial dismay gave way to laughter and admiration; all I could wonder was how many times I would be bailing him out of jail for civil disobedience. I had honestly underestimated my son’s courage and activist heart, and I realized that perhaps his boldness and bravery is what is missing from much of the religious community. When I asked my son what his motivation was for refusing to say the pledge, he responded, “I just wanted to do what was right and what would please God…and I wanted to be an iconoclast!”
Iconoclasm. The lost art now co-opted by the hipster generation that embraces difference for the sake of being different, so that difference has now become the new norm. “Iconoclasm” today too often takes the shape of picking our pet controversy to rail about while avoiding any real action that risks serious repercussions – and effective consequences, as we present our arguments more often than we should solely to those likely to agree with us. Today’s aspiring iconoclasts too often overlook the subtlety by which the most dangerous ideologies operate. The dogmatism and imposition of the Pledge of Allegiance is an example of the sort of insidious operation of harmful ideologies and myths that often go unchallenged. These myths operate, as Steven L. Arxer writes, like an “invisible hand” that “[hides] the human facet of its origin by advertising itself as unbiased, autonomous, and transcendent of discourse.” The deconstruction of these myths certainly calls for a true iconoclasm – one born out of passion and pain and boldness and bravery and love for not just one group or nation but for the world. Iconoclasm ought not to hitch rides on the comfortable bandwagons of difference and diversity, it ought to stop the flow of the traffic altogether.
The real iconoclasts are a lonely bunch. They know the risks of standing up for their positions all too well and speak and act out of a sincere conviction that their religion, country, or community is failing to be what it ought to be. For those of us hailing from faith traditions, I think we will find that this closer reading of the “axioms” and myths central to our society, coupled with the courage to take unpopular action and bear the blast of an angered power center, will move us closer to the ideals and heroes of our faiths whom we try to emulate.