Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog

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July 3, 2012

Jim Dant: It's Independence Day. Do you know where your church's flag is?

Tomorrow is Independence Day, and many pastors across the country will face the dilemma of what to do with the U.S. flag in their worship space.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, brought this issue to the surface in a church I pastored in Macon, Ga., and a solution presented itself that reflected our community’s values.

DantBut it wasn’t easy. We all had strong points-of-view.

The people’s arguments were fraught with errors. The weeks after Sept. 11 held an abundance of arguments.

“You took the flag out of the sanctuary.”

“If ‘In God We Trust’ has always been on our money, then the flag should fly in our churches.”

“The only reason we are able to gather to worship is because that flag grants us the freedom.”

The most personal, argumentative attack? “You aren’t patriotic.”

The most ridiculous? “It wouldn’t hurt anything to move the processional cross and place the flag by the pulpit. We all know we are Christians.”

From a foundation of factual authority, I reminded them that the flags had never been ‘in’ the sanctuary. ‘In God We Trust’ is a relatively recent addition to our currency.

With the faith of our persecuted forebears, we would gather to worship whether we were free to do so or not. I put my hand over my heart and tear up every time I hear our national anthem played. And it made absolutely no sense to move the cross away from the pulpit -- in a house of prayer for all people -- so that a national flag could be displayed.

My arguments were void of experience. I had never stormed a beach and faced the bayonets of an enemy battalion. I had never jumped from an airplane amid the peppering upward spray of ground fire. I had never zipped a buddy into a body bag.

My friend’s arguments were peace-full and biblical.

Two years -- and a lot of conflict -- after 9/11, a friend invited me to share lunch at the Acapulco Mexican Restaurant in downtown Macon. Having observed the ongoing tension within our church concerning the display of the flag (or lack thereof), he offered a solution based not on fact or feeling or even compromise but on community.

Or maybe I should say “communities.”

From his perspective, the larger community of the church often comprises smaller subcultures and communities. He observed that I was part of a theological community and my antagonists part of a military community.

These smaller communities experience and express faith differently.

It is reflective of the conflict discussed in Acts 15 concerning the necessary or unnecessary circumcision of Gentile believers. And to make that situation even more confusing, circumcision was deemed unnecessary, but the Gentiles were asked to eat kosher! Why? Probably because circumcision was a privately held and expressed belief, but eating kosher was a means of ensuring that all could sit at the table together. Facts and feelings both gave way to the priority of community.

Our church’s solution was to display the flags on the Sunday closest to the three major national holidays -- Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day.

No one was completely satisfied and no one relinquished their convictions, but we celebrated and affirmed community.

A frequent speaker and retreat leader, Jim Dant has authored four books and pastored four churches in Georgia. He is currently a principal in the consulting and creative services company, Faith Lab, and he maintains a blog that deals with “Spotting God.”


The dividing line

It does seem that patriotism within the church body is such a fine line and often a dividing line. I am of the Hauerwasian persuasian that many Christians in America have confused their faith with being American.

But how do pastors (or lay leaders) approach the subject without disrespecting and/or distancing those who did/do serve the military or just hold strong convictions about the union of faith and flag?

Every church I have pastored

Every church I have pastored has displayed both the U.S. flag and the Christian flag in the sanctuary. I personally have several issues with it, including (1) the too easy blurring of the line between worship of Jesus and worship of one's country and (2) the fact that U.S. flag protocol requires that any other flag, including the Christian flag, take a subsidiary place when displayed with the American flag. I have, however, learned to live with it. In the communities in which I have pastored and do pastor, we are, I think, better served if I from time to time make the point that our true and ultimate allegiance is to God and not country without creating a controversy by trying to remove them. For myself, I take the presence of the U.S. flag as a reminder to pray for our country and its leaders...

Flags & Wars & New Creation

It seems to me that it has never been more important to NOT have the national flag displayed in the chancel, near the pulpit, or anywhere in the front of the church. It is not a sacred symbol for Christians, nor a needed point of focus during Christian worship.
We remain in the longest war in American history (in Afghanistan). War games for our are children and youth, electronic and otherwise, are everywhere. We teach war through paintball and laser tag at our church camps. Can not worship be a reprieve from patriotism and that which, without question, glorfies war?
In Christian worship, may we celebrate the rule of God seen in New Creation breaking forth in creation, relationships and history. May we see yet again that the brutalities of nation states do not represent the rule of our loving, creating, and redeeming God.

wish it was that easy...

Robert, it's not that I don't agree with you, for the most part. Even as a veteran, I have a problem with the display of national flags in churches. However, having survived the angry reaction of a congregation last year (during a field ed. placement) over just having the flags moved OVER, away from the communion table and pulpit, I think it's a whole lot more difficult than many seem to believe. Yes, there's sometimes when a pastor has to stand and say "this is the way it has to be." However, this has to be something that the congregation buys into, or all else will be forgotten as angry parishioners fight for what they believe to be right. I've seen some changes in places where pastors have worked over the long haul to teach and change opinions. But it's never easy...

Flags in sanctuaries

I am a veteran. I did not fight to defend "the flag". I raised my hand and pledged to defend "the Constitution." You don't honor veterans by displaying the flag.

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