There’s a Dutch flag hanging in the front of our home this week! It’s the start of the high, holy days of Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan. Additionally fueling our Dutch pride this past week, April 30 was a momentousness Queen’s Day in the Netherlands (that’s the Homeland for you non-Dutch folks). My grandmother, an immigrant from “the north“ of the Netherlands (Groningen), was also born on April 30, so our family has always had more than one “queen” to honor on this special day. But Queen Beatrix has now abdicated to her son, Willem-Alexander. Because Willem’s birthday is April 27 we’ll now celebrate King’s Day on April 27, instead of Queen’s day on April.
Usually we have an American flag flying out front as well for most of the summer. Winter is just more difficult in West Michigan; so I guess you could say I’m a fair weather flag-flyer (but I’m also quite pragmatic).
There is an American flag in my home church as well. But I’m very much aware that we do not display the American flag in the sanctuary of Hope Church. We do display it in the narthex or gathering area at various seasons of the year, like Memorial Day weekend, and Independence Day. The worship committee at Hope Church regularly gets correspondence about this, of course. People have very strong yet differing ideas about that American flag; and they often have very little reticence in sharing those views.
I have on more than one occasion heard a former church attender (not limited to just Hope Church, mind you) explain with much vigor why they will no longer attend services at a church that won’t display the American flag in the sanctuary. The line of thinking is this: Men and women have fought for our freedoms, including our religious freedom. These people served the US military and placed their lives on the line for our country. So the flag should be displayed in sanctuaries because we wouldn’t have the same freedom to worship if it weren’t for the service and sacrifice made by our military men and women.
My family is full of men and women who have served our country: My dad, a brother, a sister, my brother-in-law, my uncles. My life has also been touched by friends, chaplain colleagues, patients, hospital workers, and neighbors who have all served in the military. I wish I could fully convey the tremendous respect I have for their willingness (or duty) to serve and the deep empathy I have for the burdens they carry. Chaplains who serve in military are folks with whom I occasionally get to rub shoulders. I love them, not just for what they do, but for who they are and how they represent God’s presence in troubling places and among vulnerable people.
I have no doubt that military service changes people’s lives. The commitment, sacrifice, and dedication are highly, seriously, and deeply commendable. The injuries—physical, mental, spiritual, are awful. The demands of leaving family, friends, and all things fair behind are unmatched. I suspect that for most people , their two or three years of service has permanently affected them. I think that 2 minutes of combat would change my life forever.
Furthermore, I have been part of more honor guard moments in funerals and memorial services than I’ve ever counted. Honor guards crystallize the pride and respect we pay to those who served in the military. These are deeply moving, respectful, symbolic rituals. For many of the people I’ve been privileged to honor and bless in occasions such as this, it can sometimes seem that their love one’s military service has become their solitary contribution of any good to the world. I will often urge families to share ways their loved one gave of self, or engaged in meaningful activity and service other than militarily. But it sometimes seems that once someone serves in the military we are not accustomed to thinking of any of the other ways they have served God, neighbor, country, or church.
Again, I deeply appreciate their service to our country, just as I appreciate the service of my family members and colleagues. However, (you knew this was coming…right?) my loyalty to the practice of my faith is not dependent on anyone’s military service. My ability to worship doesn’t depend on the freedom of this country. I would hope that most people of faith would worship no matter the nature of freedom or oppression (remember, the church has often thrived under oppression). Please do not misunderstand me! I cherish my freedom – which takes intention, by the way, because freedom is incredibly easy to take for granted. But having the American flag in a sanctuary does not contribute to the worship of God, the ruler of the heavens and the earth and of all nations upon the earth. So I won’t sugarcoat it, I get an almost-sick-to-my-stomach uneasiness with the equation of an American flag as the foundation of my ability to worship. Please allow me to explain.
I highly value public worship. It brings the people of God together to join in focusing our attention on God’s work in us, and offering our praise to God. I appreciate when worship is done well, respectfully, creatively, and when it reflects the range of human emotion as we direct our worship to God. I also care deeply about the symbols we use in worship. I come from a Dutch-Reformed heritage that has a strong suspicion of symbols (just take a look inside of John Calvin’s church in Geneva: it’s almost naked). The church where I grew up was known as “The Plain Church.” Again, there was a skepticism of symbols becoming items of worship rather than tools to direct our worship.
The Church (universal) is not limited to one country, thankfully. Such strong identification between “Christian” and “American” seems very dangerous to me. For one thing, too closely equating “American” with “Christian” can lead to a very short view of church history. The Church has been around a lot longer in other parts of the world than it has been in the US. Perhaps that should be obvious. But when we get too narrow in our thinking we sometimes forget what a wide and deep and diverse fellowship we are a part of as Christians.
Consider with me a non-Christian’s point of view for a moment. If being American means being Christian (that could be a year’s worth of blogs in itself, especially in our current political atmosphere), and Christians claim for themselves the American flag, then what happens to Jewish people? Muslim Americans? Native Americans (First people)? The very freedom that the flag represents – especially religious freedom – is intended to honor the faiths of many, not just Christians.
What do others see when we too closely affiliate the American flag with the Christian faith? I have several friends from other countries who have commented on how obsessed Americans tend to be with our flag. These friends note that while they are very proud of their home country, they have far fewer flags flying. They wonder about the desire of Americans to have the US flag everywhere. Have you ever been an American tourist abroad somewhere and cringed to see how other Americans are representing you in a foreign land? If we really want to be concerned about what represents America abroad, you’d think we’d want to be a bit more aware of how we present ourselves here on our own soil.
Obviously, when questions about the American flag in a sanctuary arise there is a lot to consider. It will probably always be a loaded the issue. In one family’s view, their loved one suffered serious injury, engaged in amazing bravery, and was able to seek help despite those injuries as he served in the US military. They associate the church’s unwillingness to display the American flag in the sanctuary as a dismissal of the ways they honor their father.
That particular family’s strong association of father+flag+faith represents to me a very limited scope of family, faith, and patriotism, and it seems unfortunate. My wish for them is to see their father in a much broader spectrum of service; to practice their own faith in a wider range of expression, and to live out their patriotism beyond reciting the stories about their father. What about their own acts of service, citizenship, and community involvement? How might they live out the freedom they so strongly cherish, so that they can be symbols of gracious followers of Jesus?
Unfortunately, most conversations about the US flag are so full of emotion that getting to these other issues (or unpacking the emotionally-laden issues) is almost impossible. So, I would invite you to dialogue with me about how we can open up the conversation? How can we hold nationalism in check with a faith that is much deeper, wider, broader, and higher than all of the countries of our little world?
Until next time,
Cindi Veldheer DeYoung