The Kaepernick kerfuffle has reignited the chorus of demands that true patriots are measured by saluting a flag and singing an anthem. I couldn’t care much less about Kaepernick or his version of events, nor will I rehash what I’ve written here or here, except to emphasize one part of it: the true measure of national honor.
Before we get too emotionally attached for or against showing respect via some form of obeisance to a flag, we ought to consider whether Scripture speaks pro or con to that topic.
The Bible on flags
When we look at Scripture, we see flags (“banner,” “standard,” “signal”) used almost primarily for military organization and warfare (Num. 1–2, 10). The prophets often use the image of such battle standards as a threat of coming judgment (see Isa. 5:26; Jer. 4:6, 21; cp. Psa. 74:9). Flags are sometimes referenced in metaphorical ways, for example, as a sign of love in Song of Songs (2:4), but even here the metaphor is of the beloved’s “conquest” in romantic love.
What we do not see, however, is any mention of a flag for general national unity or as a symbol of a nation’s greatness. The few times the word is used metaphorically for reasons similar to these, it is said that God Himself, or the Messiah, is our banner (see Ex. 17:15; Isa. 11:10).
If we were simply to stop here—with a Scriptural study of the use of flags—we would have enough instruction to correct the behavior of many Christians today. Since Scripture does not openly forbid the use of a flag as a national symbol (in general), we should not demand it be removed. Yet, since Scripture does not command that people view national flags in any certain way (whether as a symbol of unity or as a symbol interpreted to represent any particular idea), then Christians sin the moment they demand others fall into any certain disposition to the flag—especially where there is an implied or expressed “or else.” Where Scripture is silent, we ought to be, too, and it is especially forbidden to impose extra-scriptural demands on someone else’s conscience. It really is that simple.
It should not be too difficult to see, then, that imposing extra-scriptural demands in the name of national unity and greatness has historically been the recipe of fascism—a recipe that has destroyed so many nations and empires in history.
Nevertheless, Scripture is not silent on the underlying value that many conservatives think they are protecting by demanding lock-step flag obeisance. That value is, of course, genuine national greatness. What really makes a nation great in the sight of all the others? As I wrote previously, Scripture does not leave us guessing:
When God through Moses constituted the Israelite nation, he said that the very thing that would commend the nation to international glory was her laws (Deut. 4:5–8). That is, the glory of a nation will be found in its ethics, not its symbols. When that nation forgot God’s Law, and yet gloried in their temple, God permanently destroyed the temple (AD 70) in judgment according to that Law. Ethics over symbol any day. It is high time that Christians in this country focus on the ethics and laws rather than the symbols.
This is why Scripture speaks of God Himself (Ex. 17:15) and the Messiah (Isa. 11:10) as our flag (“banner,” “signal,” “standard”). The measure of national greatness is her God-given rights, her laws, her ethics. Her symbols are meaningless at best, hypocrisy at worst, without godly laws.
It is also not surprising, then, that the early church adopted the term “symbols” to refer not to icons, flags, or pictures, etc., but to the early creeds—that is, to the objective beliefs of the church. The idea here is that the distinguishing marks of the church are, again, her ethics. The same should apply to the state and society.
The laws and ethics we live by and enforce are objective and real standards. They are either good or evil when compared to God’s laws. Flags, songs, and other symbols can be abstractions. Abstraction becomes a dangerous power in the hands of the state. Once people demand allegiance to the symbol, the state’s will can replace God’s will, the state can trample God’s law, and people will continue honoring the state virtually no matter what dishonor it does to God.
This turns God’s order on its head. The allegiance must go to God and His laws first, and only secondarily to the outward abstract symbols. The moment the laws depart from God’s, it is hardly wrong to acknowledge that her greatness, her goodness, has been tarnished.
But what about our fallen heroes?
The main argument I hear that made me contemplate this topic again is this: “Sure a person has the right not to stand for the pledge or the national anthem, but I think it’s disrespectful. Many people fought and died for that right, and by sitting we dishonor their sacrifice.”
The force of this argument evaporates the moment you consider it in the light of the scriptural standard just discussed: the laws. If the standard is some emotional attachment to an abstract symbol, then honoring the fallen can hardly ever be separated from it. Abstraction and emotion are powerful allies like that. But the moment the standard of judgment is objective and judicial, the tables turn, We must assess all aspects of the nation by that standard—her laws, her wars, and the reason her soldiers fought and died.
For example, we can hardly assume that American soldiers rushed headlong in the face of death at Normandy so that America could institute a program of murdering a few thousand babies every day in abortion clinics. But if they did, would you respect it? Would you ritually show your honor for that law by singing about it? Imagine the Marine Corps Band and Choir singing “God shed His grace on thee” while videos of aborted fetuses tossed in incinerators play on a large screen overhead.
That one law alone is enough to justify boycotting any and every show of national greatness until justice is restored.
In light of the biblical standard of national greatness, we have literally thousands of reasons to boycott a pledge or an anthem. And in doing so, for any of these reasons, we are not dishonoring the fallen, but rather honoring them for the very reasons they fought and died: the establishment and maintenance of justice and freedom.
We do not honor the fallen by standing for our freedoms in the abstract; we honor them when we exercise it in concrete situations. This is especially true when unrighteousness exists in our laws, taxes, police, governments, courts, and criminal justice systems.
If you honor the fallen by demanding lock-step conformity to the state, you do not honor them, but shame them. If you honor the fallen by insisting others conform to your ideals of what the flag stands for, and not the injustices that others see perpetuated by the Republic for which it stands, then you do not honor the fallen, but shame them.
To continue to sing of our national greatness when we fail God’s measure of it is blindness and hypocrisy. When we demand others do the same, it is madness and blasphemy.