A few weeks ago a couple of concerned church members approached a minister on staff about the “shameful” state of the tattered American flag that flies near the entrance to the church building. They were kind enough to purchase a replacement, though they were not happy to see the flag in such disrepair.
Typically I would be oblivious to the whole situation, but the Senior Adults Minister asked me to help him change the flag. I am more than willing to help with chores here and there around the church, but this raised a theological dilemma. I have serious doubts that an American flag, or any nation’s flag for that matter, should be flown by a church.
The flag was going to go up anyway and the other pastor needed my help, so I consented. As we went about our work I was instructed that the flag cannot touch the ground lest it be defiled. I was also informed that the worn out flag would be given to some veterans to be “properly disposed of” – whatever that means. As we pulled down the old flag, carefully wrapping it up, I felt like I was doing something wrong.
I’ve been lambasted for opposing nationalism at a previous church so I was hesitant to say anything. With much trepidation, I casually began to talk about my issue with the flag flown by a church. It’s not that I’m anti-American. I cheer for America in the Olympics, eat apple pie and enjoy a good football game. I just don’t think the American flag has any place in the church. I would feel the same about an English, Chinese, Australian, or South African flag.
The problem is not separating Church and State. The idea of separating Church and State is an invention of the modern world. It assumes that the church does not have much to do with everyday life—a foreign concept to Jesus. My problem with flying an American flag is that it is a symbol of allegiance to a nation. The allegiance of believers belongs to God. St. John described the Roman Empire as a “beast” that blasphemes God and arrogantly demands allegiance that belongs to the Almighty (Rev 13:1-9). John reminds us that often nations compete for allegiance that belongs to God.
To my surprise the Senior’s Minister responded gracefully, “Well, I can certainly understand what you mean. I served a church that was near a military base once. They had difficulty distinguishing between God’s work and America.”
I was thankful for his response, but my dilemma is more significant. The Senior’s Minister reminded me that none of these concerned members would say that she actually worships America or that he would place his national allegiance before loyalty to God. Of course not, but sin is deceptive. I fear that we have already begun to worship America when we think the flag ought to be in a church. Why else place a symbol of allegiance in a place of worship?
Compare, for example, how we treat the American flag to the elements of the Eucharist – both symbols of allegiance to political entities. The flag cannot touch the ground and must be disposed of appropriately by its guardians. The bread of the body of Christ is thrown into the trash can in the kitchen along with dirty paper towels and rotten leftovers. The juice of his blood is poured down the drain along with soap suds and crumby remnants rinsed off plates and greasy pans. What does that say about our allegiance?
Yes, I have read Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ loaded question about taxation (Mt 22:15-22 || Mk 12:13-17 || Lk 20.20-26). The crux of his response is the pithy statement, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the things of God to God” (Mt 22:21). However this passage might be interpreted, it is abundantly clear that Jesus is not suggesting that Caesar needs to be represented in worship. If anything, Jesus’ response prompts reflection about the limits of what ought to be given to Caesar in a world that belongs to God.
I recommend that you read the ensuing comment thread at stake.