Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Patriotism in Church


Two weeks ago, we celebrated Flag Day (June 14), and by "we" I mean Steve Pankey, me, and something like seven other people across the country. I jest, of course, but Flag Day isn't a huge celebration, which is why I like it so much. It is a chance to commemorate the adoption of the flag by the Second Continental Congress in 1777 and, more subtly, to celebrate our love of our country in a peculiarly American way. We, after all, are the only ones in the world who pledge our allegiance first to a flag and then to the republic for which it stands. When Steve posted about Flag Day, I encouraged him to take that opportunity to write a blog post about why the flag of the United States belongs in church. He responded with something like, "I am not THAT stupid." For a multitude of reasons, displaying the flag in a place of worship is controversial, and, although Steve was smart enough to steer clear of that, I'm just stupid enough to take it on.

This Sunday is July 2, which means that, although Monday is not a federal holiday, many of us will already have our July 4 plans lined up. We will come to church (or not) thinking about Independence Day. I doubt that many of us will spend much time really pondering what it means to have declared our independence from a imperialistic European power, and I am certain even fewer of us will have considered what implications that has for the way we worship and exist more broadly as a church, but, call me crazy or old-fashioned, I think it's ok for church and country to intersect every now and again...despite all the challenges that brings with it.

We will sing (gasp!) a patriotic hymn. If we have enough acolytes, we will (double-gasp!) process the flags of both the United States and the Episcopal Church in the procession and display them in the chancel throughout the service. We will (apoplectic fit!) pray the prayer "For Our Country" as part of the Prayers of the People. And I believe that we can do all of those things without confusing love of country with love of God. There's a reason that patriotic hymns are included in Hymnal 1982, and I don't think singing one of them will lead the congregation to believe that we have replaced the "kingdom of God" with a kingdom of this world.

We will not contact the bishop and ask for permission to use the propers for Independence Day because it should not take precedence over the propers for a Sunday. Instead, we'll wait until July 4 to observe that major feast in our usual Tuesday midday service. We will not replace the cross and torches with the flag, nor will we process them into church in front of the cross, and we will only carry them if there are enough acolytes to do all of that (doubtful on a holiday weekend). The patriotic hymn we sing will not be a hymn of praise in substitute for the Gloria. Instead, (contrary to the rubrics, yes I know) we will sing National Hymn ("Faith of our fathers") as we process out of church into the world, beseeching God "thy true religion in our hearts increase." In other words, our principal allegiance is to God, and our principal duty is to submit our lives to the further establishment of God's reign as disciples of Jesus. But our godly allegiance and godly work are not isolated from our participation in our civic, national life. Instead, we must work within this nation--as citizens, as voters, as advocates, as demonstrators, as protesters, as patriots--to use its vast resources for God's work. Freedom, after all, is not an American invention.

No, our national identity is not always aligned with God's kingdom. In fact, quite often it is not. We pray every Sunday that our national leaders may be led in ways of righteousness and peace, and there's a reason we keep praying that every week. This Sunday isn't a time to lock our national identity out of the church. It is a chance to gently remind ourselves that being a patriot--being zealous for or strongly attached to one's homeland--does not mean, "America: like it or leave it." It means recognizing that this nation has an opportunity and a duty to serve the welfare of all people. It means acknowledging that the American Dream of universal opportunity is not a reality for many and that the freedom won in the American Revolution is still not guaranteed for all. We do not celebrate our country in church because we like it just the way it is. Like all of creation, we celebrate it for what it can be with God's help.

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