Monday, May 28, 2018

Flags in church

Should churches have the American flag in the sanctuary? I don't think that's a hill to die on. If, say, a minister takes a pastorate in a preexisting church which has the custom of displaying Old Glory in the sanctuary, even if he personally disapproves, it would be a mistake to remove the flag. That would foment needless offense, and a pastor should  pick his battles. There are lots of things we disapprove of, but we let them slide because we have priorities. My personal view is that sanctuary flags are adiaphoric. 

One cliche objection is the clashing symbolism of God and country. A sanctuary shouldn't contain a patriotic statement.

A problem with that objection is the notion that a sanctuary represents sacred space. That's why it's called a "sanctuary". And that was valid in reference to the OT tabernacle and Solomonic temple. 

But under the new covenant, having a sanctuary is just a convention. The symbolism is something we assign to that particular place. In some cases the sanctuary has traditional church architecture and furniture, while in other cases it's just an auditorium. 

I don't think there's anything wrong with sanctuaries. I like traditional church architecture. But that's permissible rather than obligatory. An optional tradition. An aesthetic projection. 

The concept of a sanctuary is just as symbolic and conventional as having an American flag in the sanctuary. If you can dispense with one, you can dispense with the other.

Some sanctuaries have altars, some don't. Some have a cruciform design, some don't. Some have stained glass, some don't. Candles. Banners. Altar flowers. So the notion of what's fitting or unfitting in the sanctuary is often fairly arbitrary and culturebound. 

Not that symbolism is unimportant. Having the Muslim star and crescent moon in a Christian sanctuary would be highly inappropriate. 

Some churches solve the problem by having a Christian flag alongside the American flag to dilute the patriotic symbol. That's a kind of pragmatic compromise. The Christian flag kind of cancels out the American flag. I don't object to having two different flags in church, but it illustrates that this is all pretty token. 

One objection I've run across is that foreign visitors might feel unwelcome or excluded to see an American flag. To begin with, I don't know how often that's actually the case. Seems more like an American writer presumes to speak on behalf of foreigners. But the logic is reversible. If I went abroad, I wouldn't be offended to see the national flag of their country in the sanctuary. 

It's common for critics of flags in sanctuaries to claim that people can idolize patriotism. And that's true. However, just to say patriotism can be an idolatrous substitute for piety doesn't change minds. And many people find that irritating. A better approach is to consider the appeal of patriotism, and consider how that can be contextualized in Christianity. 

Patriotism can mean different things to different people. And in many cases it may be an inarticulate combination of things.

It can include a sense of affinity and solidarity with the people we grew up with, played with, work with, went to school with. And while that's a tiny sample of the totality of Americans, it can be a representative sample. A sense of community. 

It can include a sense of shared history. A connection with generations that have gone before, in this same part of the world. They've passed on. We will pass on. A continuum. A sense of community. 

It can include a sense of gratitude for those who made the "ultimate sacrifice". "Freedom isn't free". 

And these are good sentiments. If, however, this life is all there is, then the good things about patriotism have no basis. What makes them good? If we're just stimulus-response organisms, if we're just temporary replaceable biological units, then patriotism is a mist.

The value of patriotism can only be secured and refined if that's transposed to a higher key. If we're creatures who exist for a reason. If our existence isn't a blip. 

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