When I was a junior in college I stole the American flag out of the school dining hall. The flag (and the Christian flag) flanked a dais because the room also served as the school chapel. One evening, the room nearly empty, on impulse, I grabbed the flag, pole and stand, and walked out of the room with them. I carried them to a dorm building, and up the stairs that led to the roof. I left them there, out of sight of normal traffic.
A few nights later I was dining in the same place but with a good friend. “Have you noticed anything about the American flag?”
“What American flag?”
“The one that has always been in this room, standing next to the stage.”
“I don’t remember it being there. Anyway, it’s not there now.”
“Well, right. It isn’t there anymore.”
“What happened to it?”
“I stole it. Well, I guess you could say I borrowed it.”
“What did you do with it?”
“I hid it at the top of the stairs in the men’s dorm.”
“Why did you do that?”
I’m not sure what I told him at that time, but I took a few minutes to explain my motivation. He listened—didn’t seem convinced. “I see you left the Christian flag up there,” he observed.
“You planning on borrowing that one, too?”
“Yeah. I’m waiting for a good opportunity, I think.”
“Let’s take it now.”
“Sure. All we have to do is act like we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. If somebody asks, we just tell them we’re borrowing it for an important ceremony.”
“What ceremony would that be?”
“Who knows? We could have a ceremony at the top of the stairway. It becomes important if we have to do it in order to keep from lying.”
“True. Let’s go.”
So we took the second flag in broad daylight with dozens of people (potentially) watching us. We walked through the heart of campus. No one said a word. (It reminded me of how invisible a person can be in public.)
A few weeks later the case of the missing flags was brought before the assembled Resident Assistants of the school. As it happens, both my friend and I were R.A.s, so we were party to the announcement in all of its gravitas. We listened with understated astonishment, approximating what we thought our reaction would have been had we actually been surprised. We agreed with the rest of the group to keep our eyes and ears open for clues to the great heist.
I think a maintenance worker stumbled on the missing flags a couple months later. They were returned to their place. No explanation was ever provided.
Well, why would I do such a thing? For me, it was a bit of conscientious objecting. We hear a great deal about separation of church and state… mostly having to do with how Christian morality has no business disturbing the American political process; or that Christian faith concepts should be kept out of public schools; or how public money should not be used for religious education. What we don’t hear much about is the invasion of state culture into church activity. There is a phenomenon termed, the American civic religion, which refers to the mixing of church and state by people in the church. Flags in church is an example of this kind of syncretism. Identifying Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin as two of the many Christian patriots who formed America is another example. Missions that seek to not only evangelize but to Americanize other cultures is another.
The Christian Church belongs to God alone. It is governed by the revelation of Scripture and, to a lesser degree, church organizational structures. The rule of the United States, in contrast, is defined by its Constitution. While Christians have always had much to do with the formation of American government, the Constitution expressly serves the entire U.S. citizenry. This citizenry comes from a broad range of philosophies and theologies. The United States has never been a specifically Christian nation. Its organizers were as influenced by enlightenment humanism as they were Christian thought. In 21st century America, the perspectives of American citizens are even more numerous and more varied.
So, my concern at college was tied to the school being expressly Christian. Why should it venerate the United States when its clear purpose is to venerate God? The first commandment (of the Ten Commandments) is: “You shall have no other gods before me,” which can also be translated, “You shall have no other gods besides me.” Christianity clearly teaches that Christians are to be good citizens of whatever country they find themselves in, but that their true citizenship is in Heaven. Christians may not say, “God and country”; we must say, “God, then country.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with the American flag. To the contrary, Christians can and should look to it with honor and respect. The United States is in many ways flawed, but it also has been a place of bounty, of relative safety, and of freedom for millions of people for more than two centuries. It is clearly the world’s most powerful country. It is deserving of respect. Moreover, the country is in need of Christian support and Christian influence.
Christianity is not a subculture within the culture of America. Rather, America is a subculture within the international, everlasting culture of the Kingdom of the triune God. This means there are significant limits to how Christians will submit to any earthly government, the U.S. included.
But let’s be frank. There are probably very few Americans who would submit to every action taken by the federal government. While most individuals want to think of themselves as patriots, what they mean is they are loyal to their family and friends and culture, and the just system of government implied by the Constitution. They may not be willing to submit to government actions that are “off the rails”.
When the Nazis began taking power in Germany in the 30’s, no one realized what a catastrophe was about to hit Germany and the rest of the world. But many in Germany did push back against the increasingly disturbing behavior of the Nazi party. Those who pushed back were, technically, traitors. I suspect they were not happy in that role, but they recognized that the government had lost sight of its purpose of providing justice for the people. I suspect and hope that most Americans would stand up to its central government if, for example, the military started rounding up minorities for work camps and/or execution. You can be a patriot and still have limits. You might even argue that patriotism is to the ideals of a nation, not to those currently in power, who may be abusing their positions.
The American flag has recently received a lot of special attention. It is flying at half mast across America, even as I write, in recognition of the innocent victims of the Las Vegas gun massacre. It has also received a lot of attention from protesting athletes, particularly from the NFL
It’s a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, Americans feel that the flag should be given honor and respect. On the other hand, the American vision is about freedom from tyranny and freedom of expression. It’s no surprise that African American athletes have taken the opportunity to express frustration with America during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. While a significant minority of blacks have reached affluence in the U.S., poverty still weighs heavily on the African American community. Twenty seven percent of American blacks live in poverty; 46% of black children under 6 live in poverty. Poverty is a strong predictor of involvement in crime which, in turn, is a strong predictor of poverty.
There are plenty of statistics that suggest that American blacks suffer under prejudicial treatment. There are also plenty of statistics that suggest that American blacks are the primary cause of their own troubles. We could argue all day about who is at fault. But figuring out who is to blame is not really the answer to the problem, unless everyone takes a hard look at himself. There is no one without blame for this situation. The other question is, are we really interested in improving America for everyone, or are we really only interested in pointing fingers at everyone else? Everyone would be better off if there was less crime, better employment, better schools, more intact families, less substance abuse, less frivolous use of resources (such as on government Lotteries), affordable health care, etc.
John Donne wrote brilliantly, “No man is an island entire of itself…” In general, we possess what we possess, whether material, spiritual, or relational, because of the support system we were blessed (or cursed) with. Pick a good quality: rich, handsome, strong, healthy, smart, personable, honest, etc. The best strategy for having any of these qualities is to choose your parents carefully. In other words, we should be grateful for what we have, and we should be sympathetic and helpful to those who have less.
The flag-and-football drama is an opportunity. America needs sit down and have a long talk about it. What can we do to make our society a pleasant place for all its citizens?
Society is a big system with many moving parts, all of which need to be working together, like a fine clock. There are no easy answers, of course, but there are several key targets, I believe:
We need to reduce incarceration in this country by 75%. Jail should be for those who are violent and dangerous. This does not mean people should not be punished for crime, but punishment would better take place through service and restitution. The fewer people incarcerated, the better.
We need to create more jobs. People need to be able to make a living. This country needs to greatly increase its commitment through financial incentives to small businesses. That is where the vast majority of middle class jobs will come from in the coming years, particularly as the world functions more by computers and robots. There should be government work programs. All Americans should have opportunity for legal work.
We need to do everything possible to strengthen the nuclear family. The financial advantages of nuclear families are well documented. Social development is also greatly correlated to family stability. The sexual revolution has revealed itself to be like other wars…mostly about rotting carcasses and damaged survivors.
We need to focus more on character development in this country. Let’s get back to church. I strongly recommend Biblical, Christian churches, but virtually all the religions (excepting radical Islam) do a great deal of good teaching integrity and community support. Virtually anything is better than the current moral cacophonous brow-beating braying from talk shows, Facebook, and Tweet.
On the whole, I feel admiration for the protests put on by the football players. Yes, they are more privileged than most Americans, at least financially, so if they’re pointing fingers, they have missed their own point. But they are taking personal risk; they could be killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Their pursuit of justice in America is both appropriate and sorely needed. They may not have a clear idea of what to do to bring about that justice but I say, why don’t we all join in with them? Real justice is good for us all. Working for justice in America is a very fine way to honor the flag.