Some American Typology: The Gadsden Flag
by Sean Johnson
I was cruising down the road recently when a hog passed me. Not one of the sweaty, hairy, toothy things that live in the brush; one of the rumbly, metallic, two-wheel things that live in the garage—all of its valves and cylinders and carburetors and handlebars being as rumbly and metallic as they could manage. There was, however, something sweaty, hairy, and toothy seated on top of the hog. As his ilk is wont to do, he had swaddled himself in many fine leathers. He was rumbling metallically along at too great a clip for me to know just how many and how fine were his leathers, but I did notice the colorful design on the back of his jacket: a fanged serpent ready to strike. Now, someone seeing such an image on such a fellow might very well assume that the Hell’s Angels had finally traded in their skulls and demon wings for a more traditional and historical Satanic sigil (after all, graphic depictions of the Devil don’t get more historical or traditional than the serpent). But, they would be wrong (and maybe a little right).
They would be wrong because, in actuality, what I saw on the back of the swaddled fellow was the Gadsden flag—a flag depicting a coiled snake and the words “Don’t Tread On Me” dating from the time of the American War for Independence. Since its creation, when it was flown by the Colonial Navy’s flagship (there’s a pun there, somewhere, I’m sure), the flag has represented at least one aspect of the nation’s international demeanor: mess with the snake, get the fangs. More recently, though, it has sometimes been adopted to represent the demeanor of individual citizens or citizen groups over and against their own Federal Gov’t.
They may be a little right, or at least justified in their mistake, because the talking snake is an awfully evocative image and its adoption by an ostensibly Christian nation or ostensibly Christian citizens could be puzzling. Of course, I can understand why the serpent would say “Don’t tread on me;” he knows by heart the whole bit about having his head crushed and we shouldn’t be surprised if he tries to talk his way out of it, that’s part of his modus operandi after all. What’s harder to understand is folks self-identifying with the serpent. Now, I could get behind a flag depicting the serpent and the words “Tread on this:” or one depicting a lamb and the words “Tread on me,” or “Feel free to tread on both cheeks,” but being on the snake’s end of the head/heel interaction should be understood as historically and typologically undesirable.
In so much as the flag represents a struggle, it is the struggle for American rights. I can certainly support that struggle, but it is a heavily qualified support. Civil liberties are wonderful and we should strive to protect them, especially if we have a written contract that seemingly guarantees them, but the Gadsden flag helpfully demonstrates that the way of violent resistance and the way of the serpent are one and the same. One could even say that both are the “American way” and the flag’s use would support that. Because there has been historic confusion on the point, it is important to note that the American way and the Christian Way are not the same. Many empires have harbored and supported the Church, but none (no matter how they might try) can usurp the role of the Church in the life of the World or in the life of the individual. So forgoing the way of the serpent, while perhaps un-American, is not unChristian, and submitting to tyrants like so many saints of old is not a betrayal of the Gospel. But it is not enough to say that the Church and the nation are distinct, it has to be said that they are sometimes and in some places directly at odds with one another. To know where, one must look no further than the respective flags, images, symbols, and types they rally around. They are not neutral, and neither are you.
Sean Johnson is a student of Literature and can’t help but understand the world through images and types; bear with him.