The American Flag in Christian Worship - Bob King July 3rd, 2011
Zechariah 9:9-12 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! ... Lo your king comes to you; ... humble and riding on a donkey, ...”
Romans 7:15-25a “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate ... “
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we waited, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds ...”
O Lord, give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy in all your works.
Last Advent, we had removed the American and Episcopal Church flags from the sanctuary to make room for the mitten tree, and no one thought to put them back until a parishioner mentioned it this spring. When the flags were returned, other parishioners questioned if they belonged. This exchange encouraged Kate to open a conversation about the flags with the congregation, and what better way to start than with a sermon on Fourth of July weekend,
preferably by a lay person with tenure in the congregation. I think that each us at some level appreciates the opportunity to share our thoughts on themes that are important to us, but I confess that when Sabeth asked me to do so on this subject on this weekend, I was not at all sure. Patriotism, the flag, and, for that matter, any of the symbols we use in our liturgy often to incite strong reactions in a congregation. I’ve certainly learned that much from being on the Worship Committee. And a few minutes reading internet blogs on flags in churches confirms it.
My patriotic impulses run very deep. Do those of you of my generation remember the Landmark books on American history that we read as children? Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, Paul Revere and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. I read them all. Having the opportunity to live in Lexington as an adult was a dream come true for me! As a college student and adult, I spent almost ten years with the military service: almost four years each in ROTC and on active duty, and two years in the active reserve. I can still remember welling up in tears during a film we saw at Commander’s Call showing American planes delivering desperately needed food to the people of Somalia during their civil war in 1970s. And yet… when Mary Etta and I worshiped last July 4th with her brother in Georgia and the congregation began the service with the Pledge of Allegiance, I felt violated. I love my country—the land, its people, sometimes even its political and military leaders—but for patriotic feelings, no matter how justified, to intrude upon the worship of God, seemed very wrong to me.
I’ve spent some time over the past two weeks trying to make sense both of my own feelings and the practices of American religious congregations regarding the flag. One thing I learned is that display of the national flag in worship space is a distinctly American tradition. Even in countries with state-affiliated churches—Anglicans in England, Lutherans in Norway—the national symbol is almost always kept outside of the sanctuary. The second thing I learned is that the display of the American flag in worship is relatively recent and was often defensive: Irish and Italian Catholics in the early 20th century when anti-Catholic prejudice was running high; Conservative and Reformed Jewish congregations wanting to show their loyalty to America even as they support Israel; politically conservative churches reacting to the banning of prayer in schools or to anti-war sentiments during the Vietnam era. I also learned that the national Catholic and mainline protestant bodies that have taken a position on flags in the sanctuary have usually come down against it, but with final deference to local bishops, clergy, or lay governing boards. For many American Christians, including, I suspect, most members of Redeemer, the presence or absence of the flag is scarcely noticed. Hence it’s probably less important whether or not we display the flag than why, with that “why” being a reflection of the values we hold most dear.
The crux of the question for Christians, of course, is does the intrusion of a national symbol distract us from worshipping the one true God, or imply an allegiance equal to or above our allegiance to Christ?
There are good reasons why the tension may not be so great, and I’ll make use here, with some paraphrasing, of a list compiled by Michael Spencer, a hospice chaplain in Indiana:
1) We’re grateful for the right to worship freely in this country, so we display the flag as a way to say we’re appreciative of that right.
2) We don’t worship the flag, and references to it in worship are rare.
3) Just because we display the flag doesn’t mean we’re not free to criticize our government if we believe it is violating Christian principles.
4) If asked, most of us would quickly and sincerely deny that we put our American citizenship above our aspirations for God’s kingdom.
5) Scripture tells us to show proper respect to government (“Render unto Caesar…”) and that is all the presence of the flag does.
I particularly like this last point, because it also reminds us that our government is made up of people, sinners just like us, …who, as Paul confesses in Romans, try but fail to put their professed ideals into action. Is it just our leaders who are like the spoiled children in today’s gospel, who reject John the Baptist as too ascetic, and Jesus as too indulgent — you could think “Democrats” and “Republicans” in the current Washington discourse ! —or are we ourselves too focused on a particular political ideology or a particular brand of patriotism to hear the voice of God calling us to love one another, and not just those who agree with us or those of our own nation? Perhaps the presence of the flag can remind us that our faith cannot be practiced only in private or even in voluntary associations. Until God’s kingdom comes, government will be an important part of our life in community. We certainly affirm that at Redeemer when we partner with government agencies in supporting the work of Bristol Lodge and the Grow Clinic.
On the other side of the question, I would emphasize two values:
The first is the universality of our faith. We are called, as one commentator said, to be “Christians without borders”. When a stranger walks into our sanctuary, every visible sign should say “We welcome you”, whether you are an Anglican from Canada, England, India, or Africa, a Christian from another tradition, or a non-believer, we want you to feel at home. For some worshipers who are not American citizens, the presence of the flag is not offensive, but for others it is, either because it is was not part of their tradition or because of the negative views of America held by much of the world. Dare we err on the side of spiritual exclusion?
The second question we should ask is how does the flag—or for that matter any of the symbols we use in our sanctuary—affect the way we approach worship? Perhaps we can learn something from Zechariah. He was addressing the people of Judah upon their return to Jerusalem after a generation in captivity, having been freed by a secular ruler, Cyrus of Persia. Like our 18th century forebears, his people were facing the task of building a nation. Zechariah invokes many images to make his point: four horns and four craftsmen to contrast the forces that scatter with those forces that build, clean garments for the high priest to encourage justice; lamp-stands, olive trees, flying scrolls, a woman in a basket, chariots, mountains of bronze, horses red, white, and brown—he goes on and on. And then we get to the passage we read this morning: What is the image of Zion’s King? a donkey! No crown, no eagle, no flag. Sometimes I bemoan the fact that we don’t have an image of a donkey somewhere in sanctuary.
What we do have, of course, at the center of our worship is bread and wine, products of the “fruited plain” and “amber waves of grain” about which we so love to sing. They give us sustenance, and they are powerful symbols of a sharing and caring community. It is my hope that even as we give thanks for the men and women whose vision and courage made it possible for us to worship today in freedom, we will never conflate their success or ours with God’s will for the peoples of the Earth, but rather hold fast in our faith in the One who enters Zion on a donkey, humble and righteous.