On Flags, Athletes and Christian Reverence

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King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide,and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.  He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up.  So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it.

Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do:  As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”

Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the nations and peoples of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold,  and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king,  and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up?  Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

It seems to me that, for the Christian, there’s a tradition of refusing to give obeisance to the symbols set up by secular authority for the glorification of the state. If the head of state sets up an image of the state, such as Nebuchadnezzar’s idol to himself,  you’re not supposed to reverence that image. You’re supposed to politely excuse yourself and go on worshiping God alone, even if they try to kill you. This is the example passed down to us by the courageous Hebrew youths in the Book of Daniel and some of the early martyrs as well. If the state assigns a symbol of itself before which you’re supposed to pay homage, you decline.

Somewhere along the line, I feel, this has been forgotten.

I have seen, around social media today, many devout and serious Christians who are angry that a fellow Christian won’t perform a prescribed obeisance to the symbol of a country. The symbol of the country is not a tacky idol to the emperor because the country does not, at press time, have an emperor yet. It’s a symbol of the country as a whole. The symbol is a flag– a flag that I learned in school was named “Old Glory,” though I’ve never heard anyone call it that. The Stars and Stripes.

It’s always seemed a little odd to me, the way the United States demands people reverence its flag. I remember learning in Girl Scouts that you’re never supposed to let the flag touch the ground; you’re never supposed to throw an old tattered one away, but only bury or cremate it.  In my house, we had the same rule for blessed objects, Rosaries, holy cards and Bibles, and that made sense to me. Blessed objects, Rosaries, holy cards and Bibles are symbols of Jesus which draw our attention to prayer, so they should be treated with reverence. But the American Flag isn’t a symbol of Jesus. It’s a symbol of a country.

What is a Christian supposed to do with a country? Worship it? Never.

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