Friday, October 30, 2009

Faith and Flags

In the last week, I've seen a British flag placed on the high altar at Westminster Abbey, and a host of Greek flags packed into a major Cypriot church for a liturgy. The context for the first was a celebratory vespers for some of the last surviving veterans of the Normandy invasion. The context for the second was a remembrance of Greek resistance to Nazi rule ("Oxi" day).

Aside from challenging the assertion that Christendom is over (cue the weeps and gnashes), these twin instances have something to teach American theologians and popular Christian writers who deplore the stars and stripes being placed in, or anywhere near, Christian churches. While such thinkers may sound savvy, they in fact betray a notable lack of theological and political imagination. The flag-near-altar move can be understood less as a religious endorsement of anything a country might do, and more as gratitude for the blessings a country has enjoyed, and as a plea for mercy - an entreaty to make the given country more virtuous by bringing its chief symbol into a holy place. In other words, the flag isn't there to give, but to receive.

Similarly, how unnecessary it is to protest one's child having to say the "pledge allegiance to the flag." Why not instead interpret the mandatory hand-on-heart as a cap on legitimate affections? The gesture can be understood as a reminder to keep proper patriotism in perspective, and to never let the heart get too attached to an inevitably imperfect homeland. Semiotic subtlety can go a long way.