When I first graduated from seminary and began to preach, I barely noticed the flag that stands by most pulpits in the U.S. If we see a flag on a ship at sea, or on the car of a diplomat, we understand those vehicles are set aside to represent the United States. It did not occur to me that the flag by the pulpit bore the same meaning.
If a Roman emperor required a statue of himself to be placed in an early church, everyone would understand what that statue really meant. The statue would be a reminder that people could worship however they wished, so long as their first loyalty was to the empire. The flag can also stand as a boundary that American preachers are not to cross. We may pray for our troops, but not for our enemy’s. We may pray for healing, but not for health care. We may pray for the poor, but we must never question the capitalist system that makes them poor.
What does it mean when we tell preachers not to be political, but place a flag by the pulpit as though the flag were not itself a political statement? Is the flag not a warning? Does the flag not bear a command? “You shall not speak of any other politics than that of the American Empire. You are not to worship a God who is bigger than your nation. You shall not hold the actions of your nation to a universal standard.”
The flag by the pulpit reminds us that the American Empire and the capitalism for which it now stands, lies in the background of everything the church can do, or even think, so long as nationalism is the context from within which we try to be ethical. Knowing this, who would not take the flag down? We should take down very cross itself, if it ever prevented us from showing the love of Christ to those who are not Christian. There is one universal love to which every other lesser loyalty must submit. We do not love America less, for loving humankind more.
Thanks for your thoughts on the flag. I don’t feel like I am required by the state/emperor to place the flag in our sanctuary. It also does not keep me from preaching anything that the Spirit moves me to preach. Whether it be for or against the United States and its policies or practices. Its presence does not keep me or my congregation from praying for folks who are from other countries, or even our enemies. It does not keep me from preaching on issues of torture or health care or poverty or anything. The flag really is not the object of our worship…Jesus is. If anything, the flag reminds us that we are free in our country to disagree with the state and one another; it is a reminder that folks have given their lives to protect that freedom; it is a reminder that peace is something we are working toward so that no more lives will be lost in our country or the countries we may be at war with.
Don’t get me wrong, if you and your congregation are concerned with having a flag in the sanctuary, then by all means, remove it. Please do not presume that our particular church holds the assumptions about the flag that you have made in this reflection.
Good point, Scooter. I shouldn’t say what the symbol means to someone else. At the same time we have to remind each other how quickly icons become idols. We don’t always know the bad things that are sneaking in with the good. Still, I’m very glad you commented, and can see the wisdom in your words.
Thank you for this wise observation. We have become a theocracy and it is not a loving God we worship. Certainly Christ would be seen as an up start 99% type.
Very cogently stated. Thanks for your thoughtful and gentle words on this important subject.
Fantastic article. Similar lessons apply to how the flag was used in churches in the Balkans and in the Middle East to fan sectarian conflicts.
Wael, that sounds fascinating. Say more.