Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On flags, worship, citizenship, and faith

Article for Redeeming Features by the Rev. Kate Ekrem

            Recently the worship committee has been discussing the issue of having an American and Episcopal flag in our sanctuary, in response to questions from parishioners. The flags were moved to make room for the Giving Tree at Christmas, and when we forgot to put them back right away, some members asked that they be returned, to honor our service people.  When they were put back, that drew attention to them again and some other members asked that we reconsider having flags in the sanctuary as, to them, it was in conflict with the idea of separation of church and state. So, as always when five or six parishioners ask about something worship related, the worship committee discussed it. One of the things the worship committee concluded is that, as a parish, we should think a bit more about the reasons why we want to have flags in or out of the sanctuary. What does the presence of the flags mean to us and why? 

            For some, the presence of the flag honors our country, our freedom to worship, and especially those who serve in the military. For others, the presence of the flag hints that we might believe God favors our country over others or might be misunderstood as an object of worship.
            Thinking about the flag in our worship space does bring us face to face with the question of what is the right relationship between our faith in Jesus Christ and our loyalty to our country. I actually think at Redeemer we’re in close agreement about that. While there may be a misperception that those in favor of the flag in the sanctuary believe we can somehow have an equal relationship between these two things, I am sure that all of us – pro-flag or anti-flag – know that our commitment to God always, always comes before our commitment to our country. We know it’s important to not fall into the trap of thinking “God’s on our side” (I’ve always liked Abraham Lincoln’s point: it’s not about whether God’s on our side, but whether we’re on God’s side.) And we’re all saddened, when it seems like American war casualties are counted more carefully and held to be more important than casualties from other countries. We know that we are, regardless of where we were born, all God’s children, and God has no nationality.
             And likewise while there might be the misperception that the those who want to remove the flag aren’t very patriotic or don’t appreciate the service of people in the military, I’ve noticed that everyone on all sides of this discussion has said how important it is that we pray for our service people and government leaders out loud in church each Sunday. So, I think we can agree that we’re all equally supportive of our service people, and equally aware that God is more important than country.
            The question still remains: what does having the flag in the sanctuary say (as symbols are worth far more than a thousand words) to us, our children, and those who visit our church? Does it say “we support our service people” or does it say (to put it bluntly) “we worship America as well as Jesus”.
            This may be a question to talk about more. But in the meantime, here’s some food for thought, from the Bible and Christian history:
-- St. Paul said that Christians should be good citizens, obey local authorities, and pay taxes (Romans 13:1-7).
-- Early Christians were prosecuted because they refused to say “Caesar is Lord,” which was required by the Roman government to show allegiance to the emperor. Christians insisted the “Jesus is Lord” and therefore went to jail or were executed (including St. Paul).
-- Christians from St. Paul (Philippians 3:20) to St. Augustine (in his book City of God) to the present day have affirmed that we have “dual citizenship” in the Kingdom of Heaven.
-- Most mainline Protestant churches have issued statements that flags generally should not be in worship spaces, but when they are used should be clearly below the cross. The Episcopal Church has not issued any statement on the subject.
-- Some churches display the American flag alongside the flags of other countries where they have missionaries serving or flags of the home countries of members of their congregations.

What does the flag say to you? What do you think it says to visitors to our church? Could there be confusion or misunderstanding about what it is communicating? As we talk about larger issues of making changes to our worship space, the worship committee would like to hear what others think about these questions. 

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