Flags in the Sanctuary

By Bill Mefford

I was asked by a friend quite a while ago to address whether a church should have a US flag in the sanctuary. I have been delinquent in writing about this for a number of reasons. One of which is that I am not real big on issuing a bunch of absolutes and this is one of those issues that very much belongs in local contexts. A church that serves folks near a military base will necessarily approach this issue much differently than a church near a state university with a large international student population. 

Further, whether a church has a US flag in the sanctuary or not does not address some of the deeper issues associated with nationalism and service to the state. I do not want to give too much credit to churches that do the simple (remove a US flag from the sanctuary) and virtually ignore the more difficult task of addressing our essential loyalties and allegiances which can either buttress or undermine the sin of nationalism. Thus, removing a US flag from a sanctuary and claiming you have repented of nationalism is kind of like die-hard conservatives getting City Hall to have a Nativity scene on its grounds. What exactly have you accomplished in either case? Just because no one sees a US flag in a church sanctuary does not mean you have shifted core allegiances in the lives of your congregants, and just because you have a Nativity on the front lawn of City Hall does not mean a single person will experience anew the birth of the Messiah. 

Evangelicalism has become overwhelmed with focusing on such petty issues like putting Nativity scenes on public buildings and I am afraid fighting about removing a US flag from a sanctuary can easily devolve into something similar for progressives. As with anything having to do collective decisions by congregations this is as much a matter of pastoral care as it is about theological or political statements. Don't get me wrong, I truly do believe that sanctuaries should be emptied of nationalistic symbols, but I am so much more interested in the process - that it be part of a larger movement by the congregation to address and root out nationalism in all of its forms - than just yet another knee-jerk reaction in a series of knee-jerk reactions that occur in the endless culture wars that fill the church with a lot of sound and fury signifying (and accomplishing) nothing. 

Still, all of this to say, I strongly believe US flags do not belong in the sanctuaries of US churches and here are a few passages that help shape my view on this. 

One passage I am constantly reminded of these days for a number of reasons is in Micah 4:1-4 when, in the last days, all of the nations of the world will come to the Mountain of the Lord to have their disputes settled by God. It is one of the most powerful images in all of Scripture as peace and security are not established through nationalistic vengeance (for their disputes will be settled fairly), or through an international arms race (for they will beat their weapons of war into instruments that provide for the welfare of all people).

Most significant for this discussion is the fact people are identified with their nations only as they approach the mountain - not after their disputes are settled nor after they are given fig trees to provide for their sustenance. Further, once given their fig trees and vines people will be "delivered from fear." Thus freedom from fear seems to be tied directly with the time before weapons are transformed, the international disputes settled, and nationalistic identification. The lesson for me is simple: nationalism breeds violence and war, and peace and security is found once violence and the underpinning nationalism no longer exists. 

Jumping ahead to what for me is the most important biblical text in addressing issues of nationalism is the founding of the New Testament church in Acts. In Acts 1, before Jesus ascends back into heaven he meets with his disciples for forty days teaching them (or actually reminding them of all he had taught them previously) about the Kingdom of God. Just before he ascends he is asked one final question by his disciples who stunningly inquire, "Is this the time when you are going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?" 

Now, think about that. Jesus has literally gone through hell and back and the one thing on their minds is a selfish grab for power. It is selfish because they know that if the Kingdom is about the restoration of Israel to its Davidic greatness then they will likely be the heads of the twelve tribes. Nationalism is simply the collective form of selfishness, which is why trump uses nationalistic themes so often. They appeal to him first and foremost and to his followers. This is also what is part of the crux when addressing US flags in sanctuaries. US flags remind us where we are and to what our nationality is directed. US flags are about us as US citizens. This is why nationalism is so political powerful and so antithetical to the basic tenet of the gospel which is essentially about loving God and loving others fully. 

But look at how Jesus responds to this bone-headed question by his disciples. He does not berate the disciples (as you can tell I would likely do). Instead, Jesus reminds them that they are actually called to be witnesses "in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." They want to go backwards and Jesus calls them forward. They want to go inward and he calls them out of themselves to the entire world around them. They want to protect and he calls them to sacrificially serve. 

Removing US flags from the sanctuary will not deliver you or your congregation from nationalism, but it will be a sign that you, like the disciples, are being governed more by the values of the Kingdom than ones dictated to us by failure-prone elected leaders of government. 

The last passage I go to is not so much about nationalism as it is about culture. I refer to it because so many who are passionate about having US flags in church sanctuaries do so from a belief that there is a unified US culture. This belief is mythical at best, but even more mystifying is the belief that this US culture is largely legitimized by Christianity which functions as the glue to holding the US culture together. Thus, to be Christian is to be American and to spread Christianity is to further the goals of the "American Empire" (my term, not theirs). 

So, I look to the first church council in Acts 15 when there was tremendous conflict among Jesus' followers as to who the gospel of Jesus was meant for and who could join this fledgling but very vibrant and growing movement. One side wanted any Gentile converts to adopt not only the teachings of Jesus, but the entirety of Jewish law and culture as well. Gentile converts needed to become Jewish, in other words The other side, with the likes of Paul and Peter leading the way, saw Christianity as a universal movement, not tied to any nation or culture. Therefore, Jesus' love and grace were available to all people, no matter their race or ethnicity. 

Thankfully, the latter won the day and Gentiles were allowed into the church, again, ensuring that the earliest Christians viewed the movement of Jesus as being essentially transnational and transcultural.

While having a US flag in the sanctuary will not necessarily stop the work of the church here is a question that I always find myself asking when I am in sanctuaries where a US flag is present. The question is, "why?" Why is it necessary? If our allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, our deepest loyalties are not bound by any national boundaries or someone's foreign or economic policy interests. Therefore, having a US flag just seems distracting from both the local community focus of our mission as well as the global nature of our missional vision. 

There are other battles to fight that are simply of greater importance and the flag debate is one we need to put behind us. 

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