The Common Good
August 2010

No Other Gods

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | August 2010

Why national flags don't belong in church.

When I first heard the announcement to rise for “the presentation of the colors,” I didn’t understand what that was. We were getting ready to begin a worship service for Christian journalists attending the annual meeting of the Associated Church Press, and we were anticipating the arrival of the speaker, retired Rear Adm. Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

I had previously seen color guards in secular settings, but had not heard that name for the display. And I had never seen a procession with the U.S. flag in church before. I certainly wasn’t expecting four uniformed members of the military, two with U.S. flags and two with rifles, to come in the door and process to the front of the church.
During the presentation of the guns and flags, one person walked out in protest. Others said afterward that, even though they stood during the presentation of the colors, the display made them uncomfortable or offended them. After I saw what the presentation involved, I sat down, closed my eyes, and prayed. I prayed for each person in the sanctuary, especially for the four members of the armed services, and for the United States. When I opened my eyes, the men and woman bearing flags and rifles were processing out of the church.
I sat because I didn’t want to participate in revering these national symbols—especially in a church sanctuary, where God alone is to be given glory and honor. The addition of rifles to the flags especially emphasized military might. Yet even without guns, to present a U.S. flag during worship—or to have it hanging in the sanctuary—shows devotion to country in a place dedicated to devotion to God. As Jesus said in a different context, no one can serve two masters.
In a nation where many gods vie for our allegiance, we should be clear about which one we serve. During Communion, often in the front of a sanctuary, we remember a Christ who allowed his body to be broken and blood to be shed rather than raise arms against his enemies. To exalt a national symbol in that same space is to challenge the lordship of Christ.
There’s nothing wrong with loving one’s country, in the sense of appreciating the good in its people and the beauty in its landscape. Yet rather than displaying a national flag in church, we show that love more appropriately when we feed the hungry, tend the sick, and care for creation.
Even using the U.S. flag as a symbol of the highest ideals of the United States muddies our theological and political declarations. Many citizens of this country—including, of course, many Christians—are in stark disagreement on what the flag means and what our nation’s highest ideals actually are.
Christians should be clear that to love a country is not the same as to honor its government or military, represented by the national flag. In Romans 13, Paul writes, “there is no authority except from God”—which doesn’t necessarily mean “authorities” always do God’s work in the world. (Jesus’ comment to Pontius Pilate in John 19 is related: "You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given you from above.”) Governments can be good or bad, or both, but they are not holy. The U.S. government, which through the Constitution allows more freedom of religious expression than do most governments, is still a human institution. We should not confuse what we are to render to Caesar with the complete reverence and submission we owe to God.
God alone is holy and deserves our undivided allegiance. When we gather as Christians, we join our voices in praise and lament with our brothers and sisters in every nation, under every kind of government. Let’s not confuse or forget whom we are worshipping when we come before our God.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a Sojourners contributing writer.
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