Rev. Daniel Haas is currently serving as a chaplain in hospice, hospital, and Army Reserve. Rev. Haas loves numbers, manages his own blog, and helps churches with their social media, website, and communications needs.
When I first migrated to the United States in 2008, I came to pastor a church in Provo, Utah. The altar was surrounded by flags: The Stars and Stripes on one side, the church flag on the other. The congregation threw me and my family a joyous welcome along with flags of my native country hung all over the fellowship hall. At first, I found all that repugnant. Coming up in Germany, churches would never ever display any flags. The reason is simply that during the Third Reich, the Führer dictated that the churches of the Reich had to fly swastika flags. The postwar response has been that Germans don’t do flags much, especially not around church.
Over the years I have come to appreciate that US history has evolved differently. Some churches have flags, some do not. Some are passionate about it, some are not. Some pastors are afraid to address the issue, some are not. Some think in terms of flag etiquette, some do not. Some provide theological reasons, some do not. The struggle is real and appropriate. Typically in the United Church of Christ, we value nuanced conversations. But somehow “the flag issue” is one of an up or down vote between right or wrong. It does not have to be that way.
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:16-18)
To be clear, the church does not derive its identity though flags, but it does express its ministry through them. When my congregation in Provo, Utah, ratified its Open and Affirming Covenant, a third flag went up: the rainbow flag. Winners get to write history and we did that loud and proud.
- Flying a rainbow flag at church is a loving ministry that says: your struggle is welcome here.
Flags are also a great way to exclude ideologies that simply do not belong. Churches across the UCC banning the confederate flag preach an important message:
- While your family may have lost loved ones in the Civil War, this expression of grief is not welcome here.
Church leaders continue to wrestle with important issues: What are our symbols? And how can we be faithful to God’s commandment to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)?
Here are a few ways that represent meaningful ministry with flags in churches:
- If your church has Scout Troops embrace their use of flags because the Scouting values get reinforced by practicing good flag etiquette.
- If your church has folks that grew up in the cold war afraid of the Communist threat, remember, they were the ones who placed the flag close to the altar over the grief and fear of the fifties. They lost loved ones left and right during WWII and Korea. They felt vulnerable even at home. They may get angry over “the flag issue” and they may be the ones that make you shy away from the conversation. I have had good conversations around our need to have Memorial and Veterans Day opportunities that are about vulnerability instead of national pride.
- If your church has Vietnam folks, they may be very adamant about keeping the flag. In most cases, they never received a proper welcome home. America has not embraced their service, so they need to see at least the flag as a symbol of embrace. Maybe church leaders can provide them the comfort they need by allowing them to share their grief of being called murderers. For the most part, they were forced into the service through the draft.
In most cases, those hardened veterans and military families in your church, they want the Stars and Stripes up there out of a sense of grief and insecurity. In their youth “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”. Now they need the reassurance to “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave?”
The Stars and Stripes have no business in church when they stand for an America First ideology, but they can be a meaningful ministry when they say: We see your pain, your insecurity, and weakness. The question of flags in churches in this country does not have to be one of yes or no. We are free to be more nuanced. Symbols provide ministry opportunities and we ought to use them. Because if the church fails to reinterpret symbols and elevate their meaning in our context, ideology will take over. And idols ought to be smashed!