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On Flags, Allegiance and Idolatry

With the recent hubbub over our National Anthem and respect for the flag of the United States, other discussions have sprouted up, some about the presence of the national flag in places of worship which have often  led to conversations about perceived empire worship or misplaced allegiances. I’ve appreciated the discussions I have read about these topics and want to add my thoughts to the conversation.

Cross on uniformI’ve worn the uniform of an Army chaplain for about 15 years now, with the American flag on my right shoulder but with a cross on my chest. As with many others, I’ve gone to war. I’ve nurtured the living. I’ve cared for the wounded. I’ve honored the dead. I’ve tried through my career to bring God to Soldiers and Soldiers to God.

I have a deep respect for my country, represented by the flag. But I don’t see the flag as a symbol of the military any more than it’s a symbol of oppression or a symbol of privilege. I see it as a symbol of my country,  but more than that, as a symbol of what’s good in the American people. When I see the American flag, I’m reminded that the United States has given me (and others around the world) freedom. It’s not a perfect country and certainly not one that can compare to the Kingdom of God, but it’s a country that I believe still seeks the best for its people and people around the world. I have pledged my allegiance to this country and have pledged to defend its Constitution.

But my allegiance to my country is secondary to my allegiance to God and His Kingdom. My commitment to defend the Constitution is secondary to my commitment to live by God’s Word. If ever those two allegiances come into conflict, the Kingdom of God will always win out. If ever my defense of the the Constitution comes into conflict with God’s Word, God’s Word will always win out.

IMG_20170618_134503710 (2)-40With that said (and if anyone is still reading this monologue), I’m still ambivalent toward the presence of national flags in the sanctuary. Obviously, in the sanctuaries of military chapels, the American flag is prominent, but no more prominent than the Christian Chaplain flag (or whichever faith group is using the chapel at the time). It’s only natural to see both flags when at worship in the military. But in all my years, I’ve never heard, seen or sensed anything more than a healthy respect for the national flag. I’ve never suspected anyone was raising it above the Christian flag or putting it before God. I’ve never gotten the impression that it was the nation the people were worshiping instead of the God of the nations. I’ve never had any need to question the motives of worshipers who are grateful to their nation and its service members for the freedom to worship while praising God, the true giver of freedom, for the freedoms they have as Americans.

I believe that military members, more than most other people, have seen the filthy underside of the world and the oppression that many around the world are under, so they appreciate all the more the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans causing them to give a greater degree of respect to the symbol of our nation: the flag. But I emphasize, a high degree of respect, even devotion, but not rising to the level of worship or idolatry.

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