I don’t like to preach on Memorial Day and Independence Day weekends. By some twist of fate or scrawl of the head pastor’s pen as he assigned Sundays, I’ve escaped both this year. Last year, I was assigned both.
My tactic is to ignore the holidays almost completely in the sermon, and pay tribute in the pastoral prayer (with a heavy note about the dangers of sentiments for country over and above love of God). But, sometimes (July 4 weekend last year being one) I can’t help myself and the sermon is about the appropriate place of God in the context of patriotism. This often astounds a member or two who can’t fathom how my theology can be so conservative, and my sense of “patriotism” so suspect.
The truth is that the American flag flying in front of a church–outside or in the sanctuary–bothers me. I prayed like crazy for our church member who was in Afghanistan last year, but I cannot stomach praying for the military as an institution. It irks me when denominations (my own included) have a section of “National Songs” in the hymnal. In seminary, at a lunchtime conversation, I was voted “least likely to be a military chaplain”.
“God and country” has never exactly worked for me. This is probably because I was raised by recovering hippies. But I like to think it’s a more complex cocktail of my heredity, both genetic and ecclesiastical. It’s probably the flag-in-Church thing that illustrates this best.
I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church. I, like that denomination, am descended from Dutch Calvinists. And not the state-approved-Calvinist-church kind. The kind who had to meet in barns and secret rooms when they thought the state church was getting just a bit too liberal (among other things, government control of the hymnal bothered them). A little suspicion of the government when it comes to religion is in my DNA.
You would think the ancestors of those barn-gathering Dutch farmers would have nothing to do with flags in their churches. But the truth is more complicated. Many of them do because, way back during the First and Second World Wars, the English-speaking neighbors mistook the Dutch-singing and preaching churches for Germans. Some churches even had “observers” present at services to make certain they weren’t planning any espionage in their worship. The flag in church became a way of easing the fears of suspicious neighbors. And for several generations, the flag has stayed. It bugs me when I see it, but when I think about the people who felt pressured to fly it out of fear, I at least understand.
I’m a little less forgiving when Presbyterians (that’s what I am now) have flags in their churches. Back in 1940, they were the suspicious English-speaking neighbors, the establishment, while my ancestors, the slightly-opressed, were just trying to keep the powers that be off their backs.
All that’s history, though, right? I don’t know. I used to swear that any church I served would never have a flag up front. If so, I would do everything to get rid of it. I’ve yet to face that issue. But it’s hard to do away with history, my own history or the history of a congregation. And sometimes the truth of history is more complicated than easy to condemn jingoism.
And then there’s recent history. You just heard the distant past of my history. But the recent past of it is that I’m not (officially) one of those Dutch-Calvinists anymore. I’m part of the mainline-mainstream-establishment now. And my now-ecclesiastical cousins in the Christian Reformed Church are not the outsiders they once were.
I might be ready to revise that ultimatum to my future congregation: “The flag goes, or I go.” Maybe it would be better to say, “Tell me the story.” And then say a prayer thanking God for everything that is good about the place where we live, who we were in the past, and who we are today, and asking for everything to get better and better throughout the whole wide world.