I was 32 years old before I had a personal relationship with an active duty military person. I knew guys who were in ROTC in college and my uncle was Navy reserve, but other than that, my life just didn’t intersect with military culture. At Burke United Methodist Church where I first served out of seminary, the backbone of the congregation was military families. And some of my best friends today are in the military.
This Memorial Day weekend, I’ve seen a lot of social media conversation in progressive Christian circles about the idolatry of patriotism and whether our churches should have American flags on the altar or offer specific worship services for Memorial Day. I understand the theological problems with mixing Christianity and the civil religion of American patriotism. All over my blog, you can find critiques of every form of idolatry in our culture.
But I can’t dis Memorial Day. Because I’m thinking about the photo my friend Ballard posted this weekend kneeling by his friend’s grave. I’m thinking about the excruciating pain my friend John still suffers in his shoulder because he had to dive into a concrete bunker to avoid an incoming mortar. I’m thinking about my brother Cary who’s deployed in the Middle East right now. I’m thinking about a Navy officer named Donald who is the most gentle, Christlike man I’ve ever met.
God keeps putting people in my life that complicate my theology, because they compel me to evaluate everything from a stance of solidarity with them. I’ve written a lot about the queer Christians who nurtured me and gave me the gospel I preach today. Well, God also changed my life through very compassionate, dedicated military service members. He showed me the way that military culture instills the discipline and loyalty that makes Christian discipleship much more intuitive. If it weren’t for our military families, the church would be so much more screwed than it is.
So I just can’t go along with people grumbling about American flags being on the altar and the church having special services to honor fallen military. It doesn’t matter whether I disagree with the merits of some of the wars we’ve fought in. I honor the very real sacrifices made by people I love. I wouldn’t want anything I say from the pulpit or on social media to insult or invalidate them.
To me, having an American flag in the sanctuary is like having a rainbow flag on the door of your church. I apologize for the offense that analogy may cause, but both flags are about radical hospitality. The American flag tells people who have watched close friends die in brutally horrible ways that we honor their grief and their sacrifice. It doesn’t have to be an object of worship; it can be a symbol of hospitality and solidarity.
I hate war. I don’t understand it. But I love the men and women I know who have had to fight in our wars. That cognitive dissonance will just have to remain unresolved. Thanks to everyone who has sacrificed their lives to defend our country.