Monday, July 07, 2008

Flags in Church

Continuing along on the blog train this morning I came across some lively discussion about flags in church. The discussion came in response to this quote by Stanley Hauerwas:
I assume most of you are here because you think you are Christians, but it is not all clear to me that the Christianity that has made you Christians is Christianity. For example: How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt. How many of you worship in a church in which the fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
Hauerwas teaches at Duke Divinity School and at the Duke University School of Law. He has an affinity for anabaptist theology and promotes a form of virtue ethics. He is very popular in Church of the Brethren and Mennonite circles. Many are part of the Hauerwas Mafia.

Jim West posted this comment on his blog:

What Hauerwas has forgotten, or perhaps doesn’t know, is that salvation is by faith, through grace, and not by anything that we do or leave undone. Flying or not flying a flag; sitting in a sanctuary with or without a flag; these are things which have no bearing on salvation at all.

If H. believes that the presence of the flag in a Church is an idol and that it leads to idolatry- which it may well do for some - then he must also insist that every Christian sitting in any Church with any sort of money at all in their pockets must too be an unbeliever, since money is an idol far more frequently worshiped than a flag.

Hauerwas wishes to make Christianity a-political. But that is an impossibility since we live in a world in which politics is a reality. He may believe that his intention is good- but it is shortsighted, narrow minded, bigoted, biased, and evil. His demonization of a group of seminary students by implication is as wrong as calling all blacks by the n-word or all Jews by a slur. H. may imagine, in his somewhat gifted mind, that he is on the side of right- but he is on the side of darkness precisely because he has striven to make salvation a work. For that reason he deserves all the scorn and mockery we children of the Reformation can hurl at him. Sola fide, thou unbeliever.

I think West is wrong to say that Hauerwas wishes to make Christianity a-political. I think he wants to make it more political, but from what he argues is a truer pre-Constantinian-Christian, not liberal and not American, perspective.

I also think he is vastly oversimplifying the faith-works dichotomy. The louder you shout that Christianity is all about faith not works, the more you turn it into a work. It is always both; it can't be any other way.

But to the flags. Here is where I realize that I am a child of the Radical Reformation. Too much time spent learning about the dangers of cozy church-state relationships and persecution of my Anabaptist ancestors at the hands of Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed, all in the name of God and with the help of Caesar's sword.

The flag is a symbol of allegiance to a country. It belongs in lots of places but never in church. There is room for only one allegiance there. It is certainly true that we don't experience church-state coercion in the United States, but there is already far too much mistaking of the will of God with the might of America. Church should stand as one place where it is clear that the two do not go together.

My first experience with a flag in worship came as a seminarian in Chicago when I spent a year working at Wheaton First Presbyterian Church. What an education! It was the largest church I had ever been in and the Jr. High youth group I was hired to be "in charge" of was larger than almost all Church of the Brethren congregations. The flag was conspicuously present on Sundays. What is more on American holidays like Memorial Day and the 4th of July, the flag was processed in along with the Bible to patriotic hymns. Talk about culture shock.

My second flag in church experience came while serving as pastor at my first church in Youngstown, OH. One Sunday an American flag "appeared" in the front of the sanctuary, donated in memory of someone in the church who had died. What a brouhaha ensued. People threatened to quit the church if it stayed; people threatened to quit the church if it left. A negotiated settlement was reached where the flag was moved into the fellowship area, which also served as home to some other civic groups who used the church as well as a precinct voting location during election years. Some still left the church over the presence of the flags.

It's totally unrelated, but the same family that donated the flag in honor of one deceased relative later donated clocks with the face of Jesus on them after another relative died. What fun I had at that church!

No comments: