Why Having an American Flag in Church is a Bad Idea

This caught my eye while browsing my blog/news subscriptions today and so I thought I’d share it:

Shared by TravisM

I have to agree, American flags in churches (particularly ones up on the platforms, alters, or anywhere prominent in the worship environment) are so strange to me – Glad that where I worship doesn’t have one where we worship (just out front).

Note this is a shared article, not written by me, follow the links below to access the real article and comment.

Now I wrote this a few years ago (October 8, 2007), but I often think about it. I wrote it on a myspace blog back when myspace was the thing to have. I was writing a paper about patriotism and went back and found it, and thought it was worth reposting here.

I heard a story about an interview a Native American activist gave a few years ago. When asked, “What would you like this country to do for you and your people?” he answered, “Well, one small thing the government could do for us is to return Mount Rushmore to the state in which they found it.” The interviewer was shocked, unsure how a seemingly innocent symbol like Mount Rushmore would make a difference to the Native American way of life. The activist continued, “It would be a start, a small thing, but a start. You can imagine how humiliating it is for us to have had one of our sacred mountains defaced with the images of some of the bloodiest leaders in history– Roosevelt, Washington, Jefferson, and a man like Lincoln. It’s bad for our children to look up and see those images carved into stone. Some of them might take them as examples they ought to follow. What if some of our children grew up to be like Jefferson?”

This man lived by a story in which a monument like Mount Rushmore had very different implications than for the average American who had been told a story in which those four men were heroes. The community of Native Americans that he was a part of shaped his identity so much that he looked at the world around him with different eyes, seeing a different “real.”

If someone was to ask me the question, knowing I am an “activist” (or disciple” of Christ, “What would you like the church to do for you and your people?” I would answer, “Well, one small thing the church could do for us is to return the American flag to the place from which it came from.” At my interviewer’s shock and curiousity as to what that had to do with my identity in Christ, I would continue, “It would be a start, a small thing, but a start. You can imagine how confusing it is for us to have both the symbol of this country and the symbol of the Christian faith side by side on the platform of the church. It is almost as if the church is suggesting that the Lordship and power of Jesus Christ is equal to, or at least not opposing to, the lordship and power the American empire has. Yet the only way the American empire has gained its power and its citizens’ allegience is through violence and war. Christ came and taught us that we have much more powerful weapons than war. It’s bad for our children to look up and see those images next to each other, as if they were not in opposition. Some of them might take up the way of the American flag as the example they ought to follow. What if some of our children grew up thinking that violence is what brings true power?”

I live by a story in which a symbol like the American flag has very different implications than for the American who does not know Christ. When I see the American flag inside a church next to the cross, at the very least I see an out-dated obsession of clinging to the idea of a Constantinian Christian Nation. As the idea of postmodernity spreads, however, crashing down that ideal, it is a very exciting opportunity for the church. No longer do we have the option of successfully changing this nation “Christian” through laws and customs that do not require each individual to die and be reborn. Now we have the chance to focus on “being church,” identifying ourselves with the truthful story of the Gospel.

The American flag confuses our commitment to that truthful Christian story.  Nations and empires derive their authority from promising to do good for us if we will behave as cooperative citizens. As Christians, we submit to the truthful authority of Jesus Christ. It is by focusing on his truthfulness and forming a community that submits to his authority that we shape how we live and speak and act in this world.

One can only act in a world she can see, and one can only see by learning to say. The church’s language is a language that requires the self to be transformed to be part of that language. The presence of the American flag in our church is not a sign of transformation or of understanding the true enemy of the cross. It is not a commitment to the peculiarity of our story, and does not explain that it is through that story that we see the world for what it really is. It is a sign of defeat, sicne we have been domesticated and convinced that the nation we live in is really not all that different from the Kingdom of Heaven, and that they both stand for the same values. This fails to acknowledge that honor, courage, fidelity, and love have no meaning apart from Christ.

I relate to the Native American activist. I have no real expectation that my request will be carried out or even given much attention. Yet I make the request nonetheless, knowing that my silence would be unfaithful to the story I align myself with.

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  • You know… I don’t really agree with this article at all. I think the Ideals presented are very selfish. I agree with being the Church, but what this suggests is separating from what so many non-believers cling to. A Nation. Something they can identify with. Something that a non-believer would consider a traitors thinking. To separate the fact that we are living in America from what we believe suggests that we don’t care where we came from. Separate the nation and the church and you cause a rift that you can’t repair.

    I think while this article is very well presented it suggests something that most believers can’t and won’t stand for. Not supporting our colors is called being a traitor to the Nation. The One Nation Under God. My dad served 20 years in the AF. I am pretty sure the person that wrote this article has not clue what that is like.

    The American flag confuses our commitment to that truthful Christian story… No, the American flag shows what was fought for. What people died to create. It was done in the name of seeking liberty from religion. There were a lot of things that were not done the right way, but to remove ourselves from the environment and our past…

    Highly disagree…

  • Hey Trav,
    I don’t think this guy knows what he’s talking about. Let me tell you why…

    The main problem with his argument is the sentence, “the only way the American empire has gained its power and its citizens’ allegience is through violence and war”.

    First, the only sense in which America is an empire today is in the sense of its importance in the world economy. And that “power” was not “gained” through violence or war but was gained – by offering goods and services to the world, and by acting as the world’s primary consumer of goods.

    Second, he says that the citizens’ allegiance was gained through violence and war? As if America was under a dictatorship? There are checks and balances in our government (which never uses the military against its own people like in Latin America to overthrow officials elected by the people’s vote), and we pride ourselves on being a free country. In what way does he think that “America” (whoever that is) has its “citizens allegiance” because of war or violence? It is a free country. No one comes to your house with a gun and says, “give your allegiance”.
    So I disagree that America has or got power or allegiance because of violence or war.

    But he also says, “Some of [our children] might take up the way of the American flag as the example they ought to follow”. But, according to him, “the way of the American flag” is violence and war. But he doesn’t bother to ask why free-thinking Americans (and many Christians) would join the army or fight in a war. He automatically assumes that war = pursuit of power. He asks “What if some of our children grew up thinking that violence is what brings true power?”

    So he’s assuming (1) that war is motivated by pursuit of power. He ignores other considerations like “fighting for freedom”, “fighting for the truth” and the aspects of war that involve “self-sacrifice” and “living for more than yourself”. Apparently he doesn’t want his kids to grow up to do any of those things (just kidding… but trying to make clear how he isn’t thinking clearly).

    Martin Luther had to wrestle with war and theology about it and he came to support it. Because “the gospel” has to do with our hearts, not with whether we continue to live on the earth. I also have a sermon by C. S. Lewis called, “Why I am Not a Pacifist.”

    Anyway….

    the real point of having an American flag in the past was because of the “ingrained values of America” – the only things that would make America work as a democracy with the kind of government and system that was set up . These were things like individual responsibility, freedom of speech and freedom to worship according to the dictates of your own conscience [rather than having religion dictated and imposed on you – and then you would be judged according to your own choices], to name a few.

    I do like this guy’s second to last paragraph (about kingdom of heaven vs. where we are now), but I still think he has the wrong idea about how the kingdom of heaven can be reflected or lived out on earth. And yes, the gospel is about individuals (and families, etc.) being born of God (by individual choice) – but to say, “this is a society that I love and I am a part of because I value the values that this society was based on (i.e. biblical values – justice, truth and so on).

    Interesting topic, though. I can see how the flag means something to him that it definitely wouldn’t have to the founding fathers (or the people of our grandparents’ generation even, probably).
    I’ll stop talking now.

  • http://jazimomo.wordpress.com

    A few things.

    First, thank you Travis for resposting this! I consider it an honor.

    Second, sorry about the late response– it took me a while to realize that there were comments on this blog post since I was not directly notified about it. Thank you so much for your responses, however, I am very happy you took the time to think through this issue instead of just reading passively.

    Third, I’m going to have to respond to “A Critical Response” for a second, just to clarify that I am a woman, not a man. Hopefully that knowledge would not change your responses at all except to include an “s” in front of all the “he”s, but I thought you should know.

    Now, back to Brandon. Question: You say the ideals presented are very selfish. Can you explain what you mean a bit more?

    Regarding separating from “a nation” that so many non-believers cling to. Your response reminds me of Paul’s comment of being everything to every person, so I understand your desire to connect with non-believers in this way. However, although Paul used his Roman citizenship when it suited him (to get him out of tough spots), I don’t think that was the _chief_ identity that he held. I can understand how this might have been confusing in my blog post– although I agree with it still, my thinking has changed a bit in the last three years. I wouldn’t want to deny the fact that we are part of the United States and its culture. That culture undoubtedly impacts our identity. However, what I am arguing is that it should not be where our allegiance lies. You seem to imply that my train of thought would be called “traitorous” by others in the nation. That may be true, but why was Jesus killed on the cross, if it wasn’t for being a traitor of the Empire he lived in?

    If that last point needs further explanation, let me know. I really appreciate what you said about understanding where we came from. But there is a difference between being from a nation and being a nationalist. I hope that makes sense. And where we came from is so much more than just the nation– it is our family, our race, our place in the earth, etc. You say that non-believers cling to the state. But why do they do this? Is it not because they desire community? They desire peace? They desire salvation? They think the state can bring that to them. Don’t many Christians feel that it is because of the nation-state and how great the United States is that we even be Christians in this nation? That we can be free? I disagree. It is not the nation-state that gives us true community, peace, salvation and freedom. That comes only through the cross and being engrafted into a community of believers. The “freedom” that the United States provides us with is a negative freedom, that is, a freedom _from_ restrictions. But in Christ, we have a positive freedom, a freedom that is pointed _toward_ a goal, that is, The Kingdom of Heaven, in which we actually are a slave to Christ. Bondage to Christ is the true freedom.

    Brandon, a few more things… I don’t quite know what you mean when you say that to separate the nation and the church is to cause a rift that can’t be repaired. Are you saying the separation between church and state is a bad thing? I think the phrase has changed… originally, it was meant to protect the church from the state. But now, it is really to protect the state from the church, in the minds of most people in the United States. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority is not really gaining much steam these days. But I think that’s good! We can’t force everyone in the United States to become Christians in action only, because we make laws that order them to. It is through the church’s working in people’s hearts that true Christians are made.

    Okay, finally, “A Critical Response.” Oh, I should say to both of you, you’re right, I really don’t know what I am talking about, in some senses. I have never fought in a war myself, and I have not known anyone close to me who has. Let me stress that I do not want to devalue the individual character of the many soldiers who have given their lives for our country. I think the things they fought for, as I said earlier, freedom in particular, are worthy things to fight for. I just think they fought for the wrong “person” so to speak, if we were to speak of the nation-state as one entity.

    Let me also explain why I think the nation-state of the United States was formed through violence and war. I do not mean to say that citizens are scared into allegiance for fear of violence from their own country. Instead, citizens are scared into allegiance (and maybe that’s a harsh way of putting it) for fear of other countries. Take, for instance, the “war on terror.” What are citizens afraid of? A horrific event like 9-11, which changed the world, because of earthly forces of power and violence. We don’t want that sort of violence to hurt us or are families, so we pledge allegiance to a country with the largest military force in the world so that they will keep us safe. Give us peace. But a country that trains its soldiers (and its citizens) to relate more with others of their own skin color, their own geographic location, over and above our faith commitments… this means that if I were to enlist and go fight in another country, I would be trained to potentially kill other Christians, in the name of my nation-state. That is an allegiance I cannot take. And the interesting thing is, that “terror” is a force that will never end, thereby justifying our country’s constant warfare for the rest of time, really. Even Obama, as a democrat, more peaceful in his proposed actions than McCain in the presidential debates, still needed to send more troops for the sake of our national security. I trust my security in God’s hands, not the nation’s.

    There is an essay by Stanley Hauerwas called “Why Gays (as a group) are morally superior to Christians (as a group)”. I sort of hesitate to bring this up because I know homosexuality is a harsh topic, but its actually not about homosexuality at all, really, but about Christian pacifism. Hauerwas satirically says that the military is afraid to put homosexual people in the military, and by doing this, homosexuals have done a great thing for themselves! Why haven’t Christians made a similar worry present in the mind of the military? Christians engage in practices that should be troublesome to the military. They “pass the peace” with one another. They “pray for their enemies.” How can someone who is praying for the people they are about to kill really kill them, if they were praying well? War is about dehumanizing “the other.” Christianity is about including “the other” and loving the marginalized. Now I’m not extremely proficient in “just war” theory, and I know some pacifists do consider violence– take Bonhoeffer’s assassination attempt on Hilter as an example.

    I hope this makes sense. If you wish to further this conversation, I do request that you continue the conversation on my personal blog “jazimomo.wordpress.com.” I will repost your comments and my response there. Thanks again for your comments.