American or Christian?
The recent controversy over the confederate flag reminded me of a more personal debate about an American flag in the sanctuary of the church. (along with the related issue of the Christian flag). The flags were already a fixture when I was called as pastor. I ignored them, as much as possible. But two WWII veterans kept bickering about the proper location of the two flags. I told them that if they kept arguing, I was going to remove the flags, because they introduced images of nationalism and idolatry into our sacred space.
Inspired by a story about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance to the third Reich, I preached a sermon asking the question, “American or Christian?” A radio drama about Bonhoeffer introduces a conversation with classmates at Union Seminary in New York. Friends are teasing him about the close relationship between church and state in Germany. They prodded, “What will you do, Dietrich, if you have to choose between being a German or a Christian?” Bonhoeffer replied, “I’ll never have to make that choice.” We know how that story turned out.
Another resource for my sermon was a book by Moody Press titled, Hitler’s Cross, by Erwin W. Lutzer. Reinforced with period photos of Swastika draped altars, the book details the German church’s capitulation to the seduction of Hitler’s nationalistic pride. When I preached, I talked about the many congregations that shared our worship space – Korean Seventh Day Adventists, Brazilian Pentecostals, Egyptian Coptics, Korean Presbyterian. I asked why we expected them to worship in a space that celebrated our country. I told them that I was proud to be an American, and loved our country. But I was also well aware of American sins of colonialism and conquest. I asked the church members about their loyalties. What is your highest priority? Are you Christian because you are an American? Or do you support the American values of honesty, community, and freedom because you are a Christian? American or Christian? When I shared a copy my sermon with one of my quibbling veterans, he glanced at the title and responded, “I don’t have to read this. I’m an American!”
I didn’t follow through on my threat to remove the flags from the sanctuary, but circumstances brought the issue to a head. Sometime in the winter of 2000, an outside wedding party renting the sanctuary removed the flags. When no one seemed to notice, I left the flags in the closet. Then came 9-11! The Sunday after the Twin Towers fell, a handful of worshippers angrily asked why the American flag was missing. I calmly responded that it had been gone from the sanctuary for almost a year. I further stated, that if they wanted the flags in the sanctuary, they should submit a petition to the Church Council. It only took a few days before the petition went to the Council and a Congregational Meeting was scheduled.
On the day of the meeting, I sat quietly in the back of the church. I had already shared my opinion. The debate took more than an hour, with members speaking passionately on both sides of the issue. Many tearfully spoke of the war sacrifices made by family members who served in the military. Others pointed out the dangers of intertwining religion and patriotism. When the ballot vote was finally taken, the flags were returned to the sanctuary by a vote of 42-36.
An interesting footnote – two weeks later we gathered for another Congregational Meeting, to consider an “Opening and Affirming” statement after a year of study. After a motion to approve the ONA document, there was NO debate! A ballot vote was again taken. The statement was approved, with zero “no” votes and two abstentions. I laughed when I hear the vote, and quipped, “If we traded the flags for the ONA vote, so be it!”
I heard the daughters and sons of the South defend the confederate flag with family pride and the historic justification of the struggle for states’ rights. I heard them claim that the stars and bars had nothing to do with racism. I listened to them deny the feelings of neighbors who feel the daily oppression of a history of slavery, segregation, and bigotry. I thought about those proud Church members who defended the presence of the American flag as a symbol of truth and freedom, while failing to see that it could also be perceived as an oppressive symbol of nationalism and manifest destiny. Sometimes (too often) we are so busy justifying ourselves, that we fail to listen.
So…. as you follow Jesus On the Way, I ask you, “Are you American or Christian?”
Yours in Christ, walter john