This article was printed as the “Keep the Faith” column for the Saturday, May 25, 2019 edition of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. The photo is from December 2018 when Trinity’s American Flag flew at half staff in observance of the death of President George H.W. Bush. I post the article here in honor of Flag Day.
What is the relationship between the Church and the American flag?
That’s the question on my mind this Memorial Day Weekend as we see a proliferation of American flags in cemeteries and other places honoring men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military. The question is often on my mind as I look out my office window and see the American flag flying on the lawn of Trinity Church. It was on my mind last December as Trinity’s American flag flew at half-staff as we joined Americans in mourning the death of President George H.W. Bush. I was particularly moved those days by the mournful nature of the flag hanging half way up the flag pole in the fading late afternoon sun against the backdrop of the church steeple rising high above it.
Again, the question … what is the relationship between the Church and the American flag, especially in a country that prizes the separation of church and state? Two thoughts.
First, we do not fly the flag as a Christian congregation “of” the United States. What this means, is that flying the American flag is not our unqualified and uncritical support of our country and decisions made by the three branches of the Federal Government. Because we are not “of” the U.S., we do not derive our understanding of theology, or God, or Christian ethics from what politicians, news organizations, or pundits tell us (a concern with flying the flag inside the church in worship spaces). Because we are not “of” the U.S., we are not cheerleaders for one political party over another. Because we are not “of” the U.S. we do not fly the flag as an expression of Christian nationalism in which we believe God has poured out special treatment and blessing on the U.S. different from, or at the expense of, other countries of the world (another concern with flying the flag in worship spaces).
Instead, we fly the flag as a Christian congregation “in” the United States. What this means, is that we are disciples of Jesus first and Americans second. Because we are “in” the U.S., it is here, having been nurtured by God’s love inside the walls of the church, we live out God’s love outside the walls of the church. Because we are “in” the U.S., it is here we live out our baptismal calling to serve our neighbors, following the example of Jesus. Because we are “in” the U.S., it is here we live as disciples by being good neighbors, responsible citizens, smart voters, engaged legislators, and by serving as members of the United States military willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for this country.
This distinction between “of” and “in” is an important way to remain rooted in faith in God “who so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). God does not love some countries and exclude others. God loves the world. As Christians, as an act of discipleship, we live, serve, and publicly advocate in ways which ensure that the American flag we fly represents a country of honor, dignity, and generosity reflecting God’s mercy and grace for the entire world that God loves.
For these reasons, I invite you to join me in seeing the American flag flown by Trinity Church, and perhaps someday soon below it the flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the City of Worcester, as our pledge of neighborliness and responsible citizenship. See the American flag as a symbol of our readiness to work with our fellow citizens in striving for peace and justice for all peoples of the world. Know that we do this as an expression of our faith, loving the world because God has first loved us.
May God bless the memory and sacrifice of all who have served and died for this country.