God, we’re grateful for your call, and we’re grateful to those you’ve sent. We’re grateful for the prophets of old. We’re grateful for their words of warning and comfort. We’re grateful for healers and teachers, care-givers and protectors, warriors for justice, makers of peace. We’re grateful for all who gave the full measure of their devotion in service to this country and our world. Make us worthy of their sacrifice. Amen.
Growing up I attended Christian schools. Every morning we would stand by our desks, face the American flag hanging from a bracket on the wall, put our hands over our hearts, and recite the pledge of allegiance. I’m sure there were other morning rituals–taking of attendance, prayer, announcements over the intercom–but I remember most clearly reciting the pledge while facing the flag.
My education was intended to reflect a Christian worldview. English, math, social studies, science, phys ed–none of these subjects were beyond the purview of God, and, therefore, of the Christian faith. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we looked for hidden spiritual meanings in times tables or the condensation cycle. At times there were explicit Christian connections, for example, in learning about evolution as a “theory” incompatible with the Biblical teaching of creation, but most of the time the teaching was implicit: the logical beauty of math reflects the order of God’s good creation, the creation of art is humanity’s appropriate response to our Creator, history is the story of God’s hidden plan of redemption. What was the implicit Christian teaching behind our unquestioned ritual of honoring the American flag every morning?
Looking back as an adult, I would say the teaching around the flag was twofold: 1) that one can be both a patriotic citizen and a faithful Christian; and 2) a Christian’s highest loyalty is to Jesus and his teachings. Full stop. The practical result is an approach that honors every single one of my fellow American citizens as a child of God no matter our disgreements while at the same time critically assessing our nation’s history and current policies in the light of Jesus’ one commandment: love.
Many years of theological education at some of the finest learning institutions in the world have taught me to call this stance critical or “prophetic” engagement in public life. While I have left behind many of the beliefs of my childhood–denial of evolution, uncritical acceptance of whitewashed U.S. history, nearly complete obliviousness to subversive themes in art and literature–I carry with me the prophetic engagement that I was (perhaps accidentally) taught in my Christian upbrining.
Which brings me to the issue of the American flag and it’s place in church. Personally, I don’t need to have the American flag in church. It’s my view that we Christians show our faithfulness to our fellow Americans by being the kindest, most loving people we can be. No other expressions of patriotism are needed. Nevertheless, I take seriously the feelings some of my fellow Christians and fellow citizens have about the flag as a symbol of the sacrifice they and others have made in military service to our country. I also take seriously the feelings of those for whom the America flag is an irredeemable of symbol of colonialism and oppression. This seems to be how symbols in general function: they have the potential both to draw us together and tear us apart.
So at FCC Granby we have done a very church-like thing: strike a compromise. On Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day we will display the flag in the meetinghouse. The rest of the year it will be displayed in the narthex along with the Christian flag (which is another article for another time.)
Despite the attempts of some to weaponize the flag for culture wars, I continue to humbly respect the sacred sacrifce of those who have served while unflinchingly examining with clear eyes the full range of our past and present as a nation–from racism, slavery, and genocide to dignity, equality, and human rights. My faith tells me three things about America: 1) We are a a human creation and therefore temporary. We had a beginning in 1776, and we will have an end; 2) Like most human creations we are a mix of good and bad; 3) Like all things on this earth we are not beyond the healing power of God’s love.