Like many churches we have an American flag in our worship space. On the other side of the sanctuary is a Christian flag. It features the same colors and similar shape as the American flag. Instead of stars in the upper left blue quadrant there is a red cross. The remainder of the flag is white.
Occasionally I find myself engaged in a conversation about why we have an American flag in our place of worship. It is clear that in this nation, our right to worship without political interference was fought for and defended by men and women loyal to this flag. For many of us the American flag represents a vision of freedom and justice to which we may rightly aspire. It may also evoke memories of loved ones who made profound sacrifices, even lost their lives while in military service. Yet it would be a mistake to make our flag an object of worship — moving from patriotism to nationalism.
It is not my wish to debate whether we should have two flags in our church. More important is what happens when our allegiance to one flag may put us at odds with our allegiance to the other. It would be dangerous to assume that the institutions for which they stand are always congruous in their vision and policy and practice! Consider the difference in meaning between burning an American flag and burning a cross. Which has greater emotional impact for you: the desecration of the cross or the American flag? In Matthew’s gospel Jesus addresses split loyalties: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24 NIV). In Jesus’ story the two masters are named as God and money but it could as easily be God and country. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany was executed for his loyalty to the gospel, which called him to oppose the nation.
But the presence of the American flag in our church may be instructive. I believe it invites those who are Christians into dialogue with our political leaders. In fact, we are duty-bound to examine the spirit and direction of our local and national policies. From time to time we may be called to speak out on issues of social justice. If you look over the life and teachings of Jesus, you’ll find that he spends much more time on healing the broken world (feeding the hungry, healing the sick, caring for those in need) than he does on policing sin. So on this Fourth of July holiday, we who also pledge allegiance to the Christian flag might consider what prophetic voice we might offer to those who lead our nation. Having an American flag in our worship space reminds us that our faith calls us to responsible and compassionately engaged citizenship. Most of the churches in our community claim to follow Jesus who purposely reached out to the most vulnerable of society. Jesus lifted up the children, welcomed the stranger, embraced the outcast and cared for the sick. Communicating with and sometimes challenging our leaders on such issues is not only patriotic, it is faithful.
Rev. Nathan Miller
Minister - Head of Staff
First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ