It was a beautiful August day as we gathered in the town square. Two large tubs, one with soapy water and one with clean water, had been set up in front of the speakers’ podium. A good-sized flag hung from a clothesline behind it, its stars and stripes bright in the sunlight. Two more clotheslines hung on either side, plentifully supplied with clothespins. A table held the dishes that had been brought for what I guessed was a potluck to follow.
Everyone had flags. Small ones, large ones, flags hanging from flagpoles, flags stapled to sticks, flags draped across shoulders.
Mrs. Smythe, a sprightly elder woman well known in our community, stepped up to the microphone. “Good afternoon, everyone,” she said. “Welcome to our flag washing ceremony.
“Today, we come together as neighbors, friends and fellow-citizens, from all parts of our community, to remember parts of our history that we would, perhaps, much rather forget. But just as we share in the benefits of being Americans today, so we must also share in responsibility for our country’s actions, both today and in the past… for as this song declares, ‘This is our country.’ Please join us as we sing…”
She began, in her high, reedy voice, and we all joined in: “This is my country, land of my birth….”
Then Rev. Francis stood up and made some remarks. There were plenty of days when we celebrate our achievements as Americans, he said, but sometimes we have to remember the rest of our history as well. The moments when we didn’t live up to our professed values. The times when we made mistakes. My Lai. Abu Ghraib. Such incidents, he reminded us, stain our reputation; in a sense, they stain our flag.
He stopped, and scanned the crowd with his stern but kindly eyes. “So we are here today,” he said, slowly and deliberately, “to wash our flag.”
As some solemn music played, a group of four, Rev. Francis and Mrs. Smythe among them, took down the large flag from behind the podium, and carried it flat to the tub of soapy water. They dunked it and wrung it out several times, and then repeated the process with the clean water before returning the flag to its place.
Mrs. Smythe returned to the microphone. “We now invite you, as individuals and households, to bring your own flags forward, wash and rinse them, and then hang them on the clotheslines. While doing so, if you so wish, please feel free to share your name and your reason for washing your flag. In the interests of time, please use a brief format such as: ‘My name is so-and-so, and I am washing my flag to remove the stain of such-and such.’ We may disagree with some of each other’s choices, but we will listen to everyone with respect, as we would be listened to, and engage in discussion later. We will have opportunities to speak more at length with each other during our shared meal.”
We all looked at each other. Tentatively at first, people stepped forward.
“The Japanese internment.”
“Our failure to take proper care of our veterans.”
One woman walked up to the tubs with four children in tow. She looked nervous, even scared.
“My name is Jean, and in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I am washing my flag to remove the stain of abortion.”
A couple of people applauded. Some others visibly stiffened. But there was no mistaking the sincerity and pain on her face. There was an awkward silence, until one of the other attendees, who had said “inequality” when she washed her flag, approached Jean and gave her a big hug.
“Friends and fellow-citizens,” said Mrs. Smyth, “while the flags are drying, may we join together with our neighbors and share in the food that has been brought. We further invite you to begin the work of renewal now, by taking a few moments to meet someone you might not yet know. Before we eat, let’s conclude our ceremony by singing ‘America the Beautiful.’ Thank you all for coming today.”
(Note: the full script for the “Flag Washing Ceremony” may be found at citizenscreative.wordpress.com.)