The Banners We Raise
It was Memorial Day, 2007. The custom of my church at the time was to include patriotic music on the secular holidays (Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day). Our priest was well-aware of my opinion on the subject, which was not favorable. Still, once again, I processed the Gospel book to the back of the church to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner. Once again, as I do every Sunday, I turned and took a breath to give the dismissal. And in that brief moment, as the final notes of the National Anthem faded away, our priest leaned in close and stage-whispered in my ear: “Play Ball!”
Of course, I had to stifle a guffaw in order to give the dismissal, but that moment brought the question into living color: What is the appropriate relationship between the things of State and the things of Church? Do the secular rituals belong in the nave on a Sunday or is the National Anthem best left for the ballpark and patriotic parades? Our priest, a dear friend, knew that I found the disconnect disturbing and chose to exploit it for a humorous moment. But in many churches, we fail to acknowledge this disconnect at all.
Since then, I have been either solely or partly responsible for removing secular flags from the naves of most of the churches in which I have served. This is not, as one might claim, unpatriotic. It is not a condemnation of the State, but simply an acknowledgement that the Church is a foreign embassy of a kingdom not of this world. As a friend, who at the time was serving both as a priest and a military chaplain, explained it: A flag in church makes it look as if we need the State’s permission to be there.
State endorsement of Christianity (or any religion) is naturally temporary. Trends come and go, and with them all forms of tolerance—or intolerance. Yet Christians today seem to take comfort in perceiving ourselves to be in (secular) power; we should not.
This is especially true for those of us in the pro-life movement, who see State legislation as necessary to prevent the injustice of abortion. Yes, protection of our most vulnerable citizens is truly a legislative issue. However it cannot be our excuse for sacrificing our identity as Christians—who have a call to care for the poor and vulnerable, personally and sacrificially—on the altar of a State-sponsored salvation.
While the pro-life movement is on the front lines of the abortion issue, the instinct to turn to the government to answer human need is also common among those who advocate for other life issues: health care, immigrants, racial equality, global peace, an end to sex trafficking, and the relief of the poor. These are all areas where the government can be effective; but more importantly they are areas for the faithful to lace up our boots and march behind the standard of Christ. The government may not help us, or it may, yet not in the way we had envisioned. This is no excuse for putting our faith in earthly princes, wasting time denouncing governments that are not to our liking, or selling the Gospel for the price of the government’s pottage.
This does not mean we cannot honor our country. As Independence Day approaches, we can join the throng and wave the flag. We can celebrate our freedom of speech, though we also must color our speech with Christ. We can celebrate our free exercise of religion, but we cannot fool ourselves into depending on it. We can celebrate our right to peacefully protest, but we cannot ask of the government that which we ourselves are not willing to work sacrificially toward in Jesus’s name.
While we celebrate, we can acknowledge that some Americans don’t have as much to celebrate as we do. We can call out injustice and the exploitation of the vulnerable. We can acknowledge that earthly governments, all earthly governments, are temporary and broken solutions to the problems of sin and evil we face in this world. Finally, we can and must acknowledge that we have another Ruler whose authority is perfect, whose rule is eternal, and whose changelessness protects us from the whims of any human will. Our Lord rules not by the toleration of an earthly government; rather he allows earthly governments to rule as a concession to the hardness of our hearts and by the tolerance of his grace.
In 1 Timothy 2:1-6 Paul commands the Church to pray for our earthly governments, and thus we do. This is a sacred duty, even when our rulers are evil or displeasing. Paul, however, does not stop with the order to pray, but says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (ESV)
Pray for the ones who rule on this earth, because Jesus rules over everything. Celebrate your secular story but know that your sacred story is more powerful. Give thanks for just judges and rulers and correct those who are unjust, because they are—as we are—frail, fallen souls who will one day come before the great judgment seat of Christ.
 Christianity Today recently ran a commendable article on why government toleration is quite detrimental to the Church, found here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/may-web-only/christian-persecution-political-privilege-growth-decline.html