When I was a seminarian in New York back in 1981, I took the train out to a suburb in New Jersey to meet an Episcopal priest who was thinking of taking me on as his intern. It was a fine, sunny day and as I approached the church, which was built in the glory days of the 1950’s, I noticed how impressive the steeple was, and how proud and bright it looked against the blue sky.
It wasn’t until I stepped inside the church that I saw some storm clouds. The church was empty, as far as I could tell – there was no receptionist to greet me, no one around except this older priest – well, he was probably younger than I am now - who was alone in his rather dark and dreary office. Right away I noticed the rings under his eyes and a tendency to sigh rather deeply, and often.
We were only a few minutes into our interview when he launched into a long story about the battle he had been having with his congregation for the past five years: which was over the fact that he had removed the American flag from the sanctuary.
His view was that there was no place for the flag in church. The battles over the Vietnam War were still fresh in his memory, and that experience had taught him that the mission of the church was to always stand ready to speak prophetically against its nation. He talked about St. Paul, about how in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. He said, “When we enter that sanctuary, we leave our national identity behind. Our only citizenship is in the kingdom of God.”
He spoke with this weary but still passionate conviction about the danger of becoming a cult of the nation, and of slipping into idolatry. He talked about patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel – and apparently there had been more than a few scoundrels in his parish, who, he said, were trying to use patriotism in order to suppress the prophetic voice of the church.
I found that I had great sympathy for his argument, but I also remember walking away from that church deciding two things: first, that I did not want to work for him; and second, that if I ever became a priest, I would try to find a more satisfying method of resolving conflicts in the parish. I just didn’t want to end up looking like him.
But the other thing I learned is just how powerful this issue can be for us – because we feel so strongly about our identities as Christians and as Americans – and because things with symbolic value – like flags – carry such power for us.