As is my usual way, I’m sitting in my chair playing Monday Morning Quarterback. Often I rehearse in my mind how the worship service went the day before: who was there and who wasn’t, how my sermon was and if I thought it left an impact, how the music was and what we can do to create a more worshipful environment, and so on. Today is Memorial Day, which means that yesterday was Memorial Sunday…a time in church that is typically portrayed with hymns of a patriotic nature. Battle Hymn of the Republic and America the Beautiful are among the usual favorites. Sometimes someone will even belt an enthusiastic God Bless America for the “special music.” The American flag is front and center, usually, as well as some sort of red-white-and-blue adornment on the altar. None of this, mind you, was present in my church yesterday morning…but that’s not what I did wrong.
WHAT’S THAT BEHIND THE FLAG? OH, IT’S A CROSS
Let me explain. Memorial Day is a wonderful national holiday. We ought to be patriotic, to honor those who gave their lives in battle, and to celebrate freedom…freedom that I very much recognize allows me to practice my faith openly. But patriotism has taken on a very unique flavor here in the US. In many ways Christianity and patriotism have taken on a syncretistic relationship, where to be patriotic looks like religious expression and to be a faithful Christian is to be patriotic. Perhaps it stems from an age where war brought a vivid threat upon American civilization, combined with a Christianity that was still a major part of the cultural framework…I don’t know. But for some reason the love for our country has gained so much fervor to the point that in our churches we sometimes find symbols of nationality covering the sign of the cross (like in the picture above), or sing songs of a blessed country rather than singing songs of praise to God. If a worship service is the time for worshiping God, and God has no nationality, then it stands to reason that it is not proper to portray such patriotism in church…especially not front and center and most certainly not covering the cross.
I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Let me admit that much of this is done very innocently. There is very little ill-intended meaning when such worship services are conducted on Memorial Weekend. But symbols are important because they say a lot about what we care about, what we believe, and what our values are. What does it mean when an American flag is at the front of the worship space? I believe this sort of patriotism can lead us down a path that is dangerous, because it can prevent the church from being the prophetic voice that it is called to be. Our primary nationality is to the kingdom of God; and bringing “thy kingdom come” must not take on national bias in the real case that God calls the church to speak out against what “the US” may be doing on the world stage and in our own communities. Is it possible to be patriotic and be that prophetic voice? Yes, but it is much more difficult under the type of “religious patriotism” that continues in our culture. (I should note at this point that there are also scriptural and theological difficulties with this type of patriotism that I will not address in this post.)
FAITH INTO LIFE
So what did I do wrong? Church is the gathering of a faith community to address how the faith can speak into our lives…not the other way around. And I think the Christian faith can speak volumes on the themes addressed in our culture on Memorial Day: freedom, peace, war, loss, tragedy, sacrifice, etc. And I did preach about peace as part of a series called Missio Dei, which is Latin for “The Mission of God.” But there is a little insert in our bulletin that has all of our prayer needs. I highlighted the prayer list to the congregation as a reminder to pray for others, but I failed to highlight a very important section on that list: those in military service. Whether one agrees with a war or not, I believe soldiers need to be prayed for. So today on Memorial Day I lift up in prayer those who have fought in battle and those who are serving currently.
May God bless you and keep you safe. May you experience the close and calming presence of God in all times, especially in times of chaos and strife. And may God bring peace in this world and in our hearts. Amen.