Growing up in the Midwest, it is not uncommon at all to see an American flag off to one of the sides of a stage in a church. The church I grew up in had one for the longest time, and for the most part, nobody paid any mind to it. It was only referenced a handful of times throughout the year, like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day amidst brief prayers. The most attention it got was on the Fourth of July when a colorful old man would play a medley of patriotic tunes on his harmonica as the offering plate was passed. It was mostly pretty innocent.
…or so I thought.
I was listening to Rob Bell’s most recent podcast episode this morning (posted 4/15/19, if you’re reading this later), and at one point he talks about his former life as a church pastor. He recalled that other fellow pastors would secretly talk behind closed doors that they were checking out this or that… but they would never be able to share that publicly with their congregations.
As the podcast continued, I spent time thinking about what Rob could have been talking about. Was it controversial views about hell? Maybe. Is it talking openly about the positive things found in other religions? That could be, too. At a point, Rob got onto politics, and then it clicked for me.
It isn’t the flag’s presence itself that has made me see things differently, nor is it the very brief times that patriotism is mentioned explicitly during service. Heck, I certainly have no problem with the old man and his harmonica. His medleys were great!
And truthfully, I don’t have a huge problem with America. I don’t things are necessarily perfect; we certainly have a lot of things we could be doing better. But I recognize that the incentive structures our capitalistic society has put in place has produced a lot of great and good things. If America was truly so bad, then why do people seek to flock to the U.S. all the time?
Actually… this post isn’t about politics at all. It’s about the structures that undergird our thinking and tilt our bias toward one way or another. I choose to point out the flag because of its concrete imagery and how prevalent it remains in many churches today.
The thing with these churches today is that they’ll let you talk about the Bible and Jesus and God all you want… so long as it doesn’t trample on the flag. The second you start getting political in the “wrong” direction… you’re out. Literally. They will fire you and replace you with somebody else who will promote their views.
And they’ll tell you that their view and reason for doing this is the biblical one. *wink*
This is why so many pastors put up and shut up, to put it colorfully. You’re talking about their livelihood here. Salary, benefits (if any), housing, putting food on the table. Heck, even their own family and friends. The second you start questioning it all… you risk losing it all. Don’t think that you can get a job selling shoes and stay buddies with your former congregants. They won’t want a single thing to do with you.
“People like us do things like this.”
Often stated by Seth Godin, this phrase is true even in the church. Especially in the church. The American church founded on American ideals chooses NOT to question its own roots because it threatens “people like us do things like this.” It threatens the way that community has operated for decades and generations.
And sure, we have some congregations that are a little more progressive when it comes to the American politics, but even there remains a prevalent “people like us do things like this.” They think they’re being progressive because the flag has disappeared from the stage… but how much have things really changed?
Again, I’m not talking politically here.
Would these congregants really welcome a Hindu? A Buddhist? A Muslim? Or would they tell them they need to change if they want to fit in with the crowd?
And why do they need to change? Is it because the Bible says so?
What is the Bible? Is it a book handed down from God himself, or is it the interpretation of many people throughout generations on how they understood this divine force?
What made the people of the Bible special that only they could experience this divine force? Are the divine interpretations of Hindus and Buddhist inferior?
Are we in our modern day able to empirically verify any of this at all? Is the “taking it on faith” argument too much of a cop out?
With all this questioning, you might think I’m a heretic who hates the Bible and everything to do with Christianity. Au contraire, my friend. The church is how I grew up, and I’m not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The thing we need to realize is that there is definitely some dirty bathwater we need to throw out. There’s no harm at least asking the questions. Even the Bible is pretty clear about this:
Test all things; hold fast to what is good. — 1 Thessalonians 5:21
Friends… we definitely don’t do enough testing or asking of the difficult questions. We let that flag stand off to the side of the stage and never ask why it got put there in the first place. Despite it rarely being explicitly referenced, it undergirds everything we stand for.
So ask yourself this: what is your flag? Is it the community you surround yourself with? Is it the worldview you grew up with? Is it the thing that seemingly makes you happy? Gives you purpose? Gets you up in the morning? Because one thing’s for sure…
You can’t set the flag next to the cross and tell me that one isn’t more important than the other.