To No Earthly King

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 06-14-2020
Quick quiz: Who was Ralph Rose?
Before answering that question, consider something we’ve all seen several times in the past week, and for that matter over the past several years: people kneeling in public. In some cases it has been clearly a sign of deference to and thanks to God. Such acts have come in for nearly universal derision from the media, as well as ridicule from various comedians and social commentators.
Meanwhile, we’ve recently had those scenes, repeated in a number of cities, of political leaders kneeling before the mob. Presumably, they’ll claim that they were kneeling out of respect to the death of Mr. Floyd. And while Mr. Floyd’s death deserves investigation and Mr. Floyd’s family and friends have every right to mourn his death, there is something disturbing about people kneeling to a man or to a mob. 
But more disturbing than random individuals kneeling are the scenes of those who seek to lead the nation kneeling to a man, a woman or to a mob. Sure, they can be forced onto their knees, perhaps even beaten into the kowtow, touching the forehead to the ground, as was done to show submission to the Emperor in Imperial China. But voluntary submission?
If you’ve ever watched any television you have at one time or another come upon the story of Henry VIII and his seizing of control of the Catholic Church in England. Even if you didn’t know it, the story line has been used in all sorts of fiction and in fantasies. Elements of this story line (and more generally the War of the Roses which brought Henry’s father  - Henry Tudor (Henry VII) - to power) formed parts of the story line of the wonderfully entertaining "Game of Thrones.”
One of the recurring scenes in any such story, whether historically accurate or simply a fictional tale, is that of a King (or Queen) ordering the clergy to kneel to him, the King assuming the title of the supreme figure on earth, second only to God. Some don’t, and many of those who don’t end up a head shorter. But many do kneel. And kings and emperors and dictators (in fiction but more importantly in reality) all around the world have for millennia known the truth, that very few people can kneel and not psychologically surrender. Someone who voluntarily kneels is, in a very real sense, subservient. Those people will not lead a revolt, they won’t lead anything. They have become followers, "obeyers."
Free people don’t kneel - not to anyone. They are free, and they are equal. Kneeling is a sign of obeisance, of recognizing that you are, specifically and individually, less than the other. It’s why you kneel when you pray, to recognize that God is above you. If you voluntarily kneel to a man you’re suggesting that the man, or the mob, is the equal of God. At the very least, you are admitting that they are greater than you.
As for forcing someone to kneel, insisting that it is necessary to begin any sort of conversation… Is that going to leave people open to meaningful conversation, to a free flow of ideas? Or is that going to leave those forced to kneel so bitter that the net result will be to make matters worse?
Ralph Rose was born in Healdsburg, California in 1885 and only lived 28 years, felled by typhoid in 1913. He was a giant of a man for the era - 6 foot 5, 250 lbs, and he excelled in strength competitions - the shot put, the hammer throw, the discus, the javelin; he was the first man in the world to put a shot more than 50 feet. In 1904 he won medals in the shot put, the discus and the javelin. Over the course of three Olympic games (1904, 1908, and 1912) he won 3 gold medals, 2 silver medals, and 1 bronze medal. 
But it’s what he said - perhaps apocryphally - in the 1908 Olympics in London, that has sealed his place in the history of the nation. During the opening ceremony each country’s team paraded by the Royal Box. As he approached the Royal Box during the opening ceremony, Ralph Rose, US Shot-putter and standard-bearer, refused to the dip the American Flag; many years later it was reported that he said, as he approached the point where he should have dipped the flag, where other nations were, in fact, dipping their flags: “This flag dips to no earthly king.”
It’s a pretty good bet that Ralph Rose wouldn’t kneel to anyone.
We would all do well to remember that lesson.