Tuesday, July 01, 2008

As We Near "The 4th"

As we approach the 4th of July, listservs are all atwitter with conversation about how appropriately or whether to mark the occasion in church on Sunday. (I am reminded that in the year of my graduation from Seminary and of my ordination, 1976, the 4th of July in the Bicenntenial Year fell on a Sunday. I still don’t know whether that was an act of God’s prophetic power or a sign of his sense of irony.) Those conversations are rather more intense this year, I expect, for various reasons: The debate about whether the “religious right” is in decline, the notoriety of parsons of particularly poor sense lined up with presidential candidates, the fact that it is a presidential election year and that the Democratic candidate seems more comfortable talking about his Christian faith than does the Republican. Nothing like a good dose of caesaropapism to get people stewing: What is the proper balance between our loyalties and commitments as “American citizens” and our baptismal rebirth. (If that doesn’t cause the Lutherans out there to begin salivating over two-kingdoms theories, nothing will.)

I personally accept no second place to anyone when it comes to disdain for formalistic displays of "patriotism" -- and no more so than in church. I totally agree with those who argue that we are citizens of heaven and that our "allegiance" is to the One Lord, not to a flag or a President or a country (which is a social construct, not a "reality," anyway). I don’t “believe” in allegiances to things or to constructs: I invest my allegiance in people. So, in what has become a related issue, I don’t care a whit about “the family”: I am committed to my family members and our relationships; I will do what I can to support our friends in theirs. But my graduate degree in family “ecology” makes me skittish about generalities about the “institution” of marriage, family, or anything else.

At the same time (and here I may betray a subconscious Lutheranism that I am often accused of trying to leave behind), it seems to be most appropriate to pray for all of creation -- in thanksgiving for and for vindication of what is good; for amendment and redemption of what is not. And so I pray for clement weather -- thanking God, e.g., for beautiful days. (I've never done so in a Sunday liturgy for which I’ve composed prayers, but others have and I have not been the slightly offended). Conversely, I pray for the amelioration of "natural disasters" (which is a common issue in Sunday prayers at our place). Just so, and by the same logic, for the blessings of liberty, I think it appropriate to give thanks; for the ability of governments to meld the individual efforts of many into service to a common weal I think it appropriate to ask. And just so, it is appropriate to pray for the repentance of all in positions power so that they use their powers in ways consonant with the will of God.

The key, for me, is to allow the liturgical heritage of the Church to lead us. The secular calendar will most often be put to good use by being ignored: We do not look to the secular calendar to tell us for what to pray; we take our leadership from the Scriptures and the liturgical year. Thus, we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day in May, but in August, when we commemorate Mary, the Theotokos; we have a Father's Day – if at no other time then at Christmas, though the festival of Joseph, Guardian of our Lord, provides similar opportunities to learn about fatherhood; we have a day for prayers for our particular governments which is the Sunday when the Gospel text is "render to Ceasar" (the chief point of which lection seems to be that ultimately NOTHING belongs to Caesar, and that may be just the tone we wish to sound in church-state relations).

And the related issue of how flags relate to this, my thinking is quite clear: They don't belong anywhere near a Christian church building, longstanding traditions notwithstanding (and here I include the most elegant justifications that exist for the cozy church-state relationship that have arisen in and out of Anglicanism). Flags are symbols of division -- of human-designed divisions, at that, which will ultimately be overcome. In Christ there is no American or Briton or Zimbabwean, and neither are there flags.

The so-called “Christian flag” is just as objectionable. The “standard” of the kingdom of God is the cross, not a blaze of fabric that parallels territorial banners. I think the deep structure of the “Christian flag” betrays the real meaning of the animal, too: It can’t be a mistake that the colors of the “Christian flag” are red, white, and blue – with no green, black, brown, orange, purple, or other colors that might underscore the variety of the creation. No, I suspect that the inspiration was the almost-natural human inclination toward triumphalism. Flags by their nature serve that impulse. And if for no other reason, that is reason enough to ban them from the premises.


Lora D. said...

I once witnessed a battle of wills between a particularly stubborn parishioner and the pastor of our previous church. Every Sunday morning the pastor would come early and move the American flag as far off to the side of the sanctuary as he could get it. And just before worship began, with the pastor safely ensconced in the back of the church waiting for the procession to begin, the parishioner would move it close to the altar steps. It would have been humorous if it hadn't been so pathetic.

-C said...

Pathetic, indeed.

It all comes down to the problem of pride, which as I have stated before, has no place in the church.

Dwight P. said...

C-, I was talking with my neighbor about Katherine Kersten's tizzy over St. Joan's problems with a "gay pride" service. And we were going back and forth, but her husband came right to it, I think. When she asked him if he wanted to read her letter to editor, he said no. And then he added, "I wonder if she's proud to be an American."

I think the issue of pride is pervasive and the number-one issue in need of repenting. We are "proud" to be what we are -- which means that we want to "invent" ourselves quite irrespective of what God wants us to be.

We are simply so much better at knowing what we are "against" than what we "are."