The cross or the flag

September 7th, 2016

As we approach the fifteenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, a date that happens to fall on a Sunday this year, I am sure many churches are preparing to address this confluence of events in their worship services. Perhaps your church has an American flag somewhere in the sanctuary or you regularly sing patriotic hymns around Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. But where do we cross the line from worshipping Jesus, who came to reconcile all nations to God, to worshipping the United States of America and her signs and symbols?

The religious significance we attribute to our flag and other symbols of the United States of America came to the forefront of the news cycle when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality and other racial injustices. During the Olympics, USA gymnast Gabby Douglas received criticism for not putting her hand over her heart at the playing of the anthem, despite other athletes adopting the same stance without public censure. More and more, our national liturgies take place at sporting events — caps are doffed during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” military planes fly over packed football stadiums and local military personnel are recognized during breaks in the action. It was no accident that the US Department of Defense paid fourteen NFL teams millions of dollars to honor soldiers. Like our Christian liturgies shape and inform our theology, our national liturgies reinforce our patriotic obligations.

Last week, a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of a “USA Rosary,” a rosary particularly for American Catholics that features Jesus crucified on beams of red and white stripes and stars on a blue background with a line from the Pledge of Allegiance on the back. The Hail Mary beads feature the two-letter abbreviations of the individual states, and the centerpiece is a map of the United States. There is no doubt we should pray for our nation, for justice and peace, for the wisdom of our leaders, but some of this imagery goes too far.

Even in church, the line between worshipping God and worshipping the United States of America, particularly her military power, has been so blurred that they appear to be the same thing. Our practice of American civil religion has formed us more thoroughly than our Christian practice. As Christians, we must remember that we are not ultimately citizens of the United States of America but of a heavenly kingdom. Our family members are not those with whom we share a national identity but all members through baptism of Christ’s Body, the Church. Our salvation is not the US Constitution or the military or the president but in Jesus Christ who submitted to the violent, destructive power of the Roman Empire so that the Kingdom of God could be inaugurated through him.

I am proud to be an American, but I am first and foremost a Christian. My identity in Christ compels me to address injustice and violence wherever it occurs. My faith demands that I pray for my enemies and those who seek to persecute me. Many churches pray for and remember those serving in the military, but we should also pray for and remember the unjust civilian casualties of drone strikes and those held in prison in Guantanamo Bay. This Sunday, we will pray for the souls of those who died in the events on September 11, 2001 and all of those who still relive the pain and horror of that day. But we will also pray for our enemies, for the perpetrators of terrorist actions. It might go against our American civil religion, but it’s what Jesus would have us do.  

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