*Originally Published May 2014
A United States soldier processed the flag of the United States of America in to our sanctuary as we stood at attention singing “God Bless America.” The veterans in our midst were honored as we sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” proceeded the pastor’s fiery sermon on the coming destruction of our beloved nation if we “…did not turn from our wicked ways.” Somehow gays, abortion and popular culture always made it into these services…but that is another story. The service concluded with an invitation to salvation as the congregation sang “God of Our Fathers.” To say that the services of my Baptist youth were precariously wrapped in nationalism is an understatement…we believed that God’s military was the United States military. Despite the fact that we did so much else that was problematic, my mind remains focused on the United States flag on that gold stand up on the altar.
In many Memorial Day services throughout our nation, some of those who have fallen victim to our thirst for violence and power will be honored and celebrated. We will remember the soldiers and attempt to reconcile their sacrifice with our faith. Unfortunately, there will be little conversation about peace and preventing the deaths of any one else. There will be no conversation of the millions and millions of people who have died as a result of our failed foreign policies and military interventions. The words of Jesus will be forgotten amidst the words of patriotism and nationalism.
No one will recite Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:52, “…those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Matthew 5:44 and Jesus’ reminder to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” will not make an appearance. Least of all will we remember the millions and millions of people who have died in places with names like Hiroshima, Hanoi, Waziristan, Nagasaki, Kabul and Baghdad in the infernos created by our bombs…those “least of these” dead because we failed to see Jesus in their midst. No these words won’t be remembered… and I know most congregations won’t be talking beyond the soldiers who have died and will miss the opportunity to have a conversation about the wider call of Jesus to peace and justice.
My mind wonders back to that flag though. To put the United States flag on the altar of a church is to insinuate that somehow the United States has a claim to the grace of God that other nations and peoples do not. To put the United States flag at the front blurs that glorious declaration “For God so loved the world…” Can you imagine what someone from another country thinks when they see that United States flag up front at our churches? There is no nationality barrier to the altar of God. Jesus does not love the United States more than any other nation…to put a flag at the front and bless the atrocities committed by an incredibly powerful people in the name of Jesus is blasphemous.
A real conversation about the non-violent love of Jesus and our purpose as followers can only happen when we take down the United States flags in our sanctuaries that stand in the way. If we want to truly honor slain soldiers we will stop perpetuating the nationalism that killed them. So let’s toss out all the flags and have a real Memorial Day next year…one that memorializes and celebrates a time when we began to emulate Jesus’ love for all people and put to death the nationalism that fooled us into thinking that violence can bring about peace.