This Sunday marks a holiday in the United States that is mostly forgotten–Flag Day. It commemorates the official adoption of The Stars and Stripes as our national flag on June 14, 1777. Before this there were many flags in use and so the adoption of one flag style was an act of unifying the colonial forces fighting during the Revolutionary War.
In many sanctuaries this flag is accompanied by another called the Christian flag. Did the Christian flag come to be as an act of unifying the forces during the Crusades? Was it designed by an ecumenical church council that drafted an accompanying creed or confession? No! Actually the origins of the Christian flag have a much more humble beginning during a Sunday School rally in Coney Island, New York in 1897. The speaker who was engaged to begin the church year with a rousing call to learning and growing in the faith did not show up. So the Sunday School Superintendent, Charles C. Overton, stood up to give an impromptu speech. In searching around the room for a possible topic, he saw the American flag and began talking about the necessity for a Christian flag, a symbol that would inspire the commitment to Christianity that the American flag may inspire toward patriotism. This unplanned speech later inspired Overton and others to create the flag, which we now know as the Christian flag with the same colors found in the Stars and Stripes that inspired the original talk.
There has been much debate around the placement of these flags in the sanctuary and if in the sanctuary where they should be placed in proximity to each other. Such debates raise issues of the relationship between church and state, faith and politics, the church’s place in speaking to issues of public concern. The symbols meant to unify us may also divide us. Flag Day can be a day to talk about these things, to reflect on why we do what we do or it can also be a day we ignore and place in the background of our church and life. I wonder how you will celebrate Flag Day this year.
Kathy Dawson, Associate Professor of Christian Education, Columbia Theological Seminary
One thought on “Flag Day”
Thanks, Kathy, for this. I have a long and sordid history (some of which you may remember from your time as intern and educator at SPC) with flags in the sanctuary, including youthful attachment to them and later distaste for them. As I reach my dotage, I have come to understand the presence of the flag in a Christian sanctuary in something of a symbol for the way Karl Barth understood the responsibility of the Christian to the state. Barth understood that a Christian is in no way excused by his or her faith from executing his or her civic responsibility. Rather, the highest service a Christian can render the state is respectful and faithful obedience to the gospel in the service of the state. A flag in the sanctuary now says to me: all things–including the life of the state–fall under both the blessing and the judgment of the God of grace and Lord of Life. The presence of the American flag in an American sanctuary ought never to suggest that the USA is in any way privileged above other nations in that blessing, nor should it intimate that the USA can by virtue of some notion of exclusivism escape from that judgment. The proclamation of the gospel’s condemnation of American injustice in the world ought to be done with the American flag in full view, no less than should an American congregation’s expression of gratitude for the providence of God upon this land.
I wonder what it would look like to put not only the American flag, but also the Russian flag, or the Iraqi or Iranian flag, side by side in the sanctuary.