“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2)
Alverta, our church treasurer, has taken it upon herself to replace the warn-out garden flag which adorned the entrance to our narthex. “I hope this flag is okay with you, Pastor,” she said. “If you don’t like it I’ll take it down.” The little banner fluttering about waist high in the flower bed to the right of Faith’s front door simply reads “Welcome.” There’s nothing controversial in that, but Alverta was concerned that the greeting appeared below a five-pointed star set on a background of red and white stripes and a field of blue with white stars—basically the stars and stripes of our American national flag. She was a little worried that I would not want to mix a patriotic symbol with a house of Christian worship.
She has a good point. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the American flag having a place of prominence in the chancel of Christian churches as, however much we love our flag and country, these symbols are not images for worship on a par with the cross of Jesus Christ. Ironically, although it was Martin Luther who first insisted on the separation of powers between church and state, it was American Lutherans who might be responsible for putting American flags in church chancels. German-speaking Lutherans planted the “Stars and Stripes” in their sacred spaces in an attempt to prove their allegiance during the days of America’s involvement in World War One.
I told Alverta that her “Welcome” flag was cool with me. After all, we still have Old Glory in the chancel, and I’m certain there’d be a huge dust-up if I ever suggested removing it. Nevertheless, this got me to thinking about the symbols we use—especially in light of the recent unpleasantness in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was told last night by a neighbor whose daughter lives in the Charlottesville area that a dark haze has descended over the town since the August 12 demonstration by white supremacists carrying Confederate battle flags and swastika banners. These so-called “Alt Right” marchers were protesting the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the town square. Because our symbols matter, there has been much activism recently to remove Confederate war memorials from public places in the US. I’d have to say it’s about time we did so. Why?
I was always taught in school that, although Lee fought for the Confederacy, he was an excellent and gifted soldier, a compassionate leader of men, and an overall fine gentleman who had the respect of his comrades and enemies alike. Unfortunately, much the same could be said of the Nazi general Erwin Rommel—and no one is rushing to put up a statue to him. Both of these soldiers made choices, and their choices were to fight for regimes which existed solely to dehumanize human beings. No gallantry on their part disguises the fact that they put loyalty to their homeland above the Law of God. A statue to Lee or any other Confederate general or statesman is a symbol which says, in essence, “It’s okay to brutalize others as long as you do it for your country.”
Now, as you all know, I’m a big history buff and I believe that the truth should be told about figures of historic significance. Let’s be fair: no one is 100% good or evil, and all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Nevertheless, there have to be cases were heroic symbolism is denied and reverence and veneration are forfeited. For example:
The trustees of Penn State University elected to remove the statue of the lionized football coach, Joe Paterno. Paterno’s inaction when he knew crimes were being committed against children can only amount to a depraved indifference. The trustees were right to remove his image from the campus.
A pastor in my former synod was discovered to have had an affair with his female vicar back in the 1970’s. Although the affair did not come to light for decades (and you would think the statute of limitations would have run out), the synodical bishop still called for the removal of this pastor from the clergy roster. Why? Because his relationship with the vicar, consentual or not, was an abuse of the pastor’s power and a violation of the trust placed in him by his congregation.
Baseball great Pete Rose has been denied a place in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. His illegal betting corrupted the game. A plaque in his honor at Cooperstown would be a symbol declaring illegal activity is forgivable if your batting average is high enough. Similarly, I think there can be no place of honor for a wife-beating O.J. Simpson, a steroid-juicing Lance Armstrong, or a dog-fighting Michael Vick. None of these men are beyond rehabilitation and no one is beyond the mercy of Jesus; however, there must be some penalty given, if only as a deterrent to others whose egos or misguided loyalties lead them to make gods out of something other than God.
Luther would tell us that protection of the weak and punishment of the unrighteous is the first use of God’s Law. I’m certainly all for forgiveness, and no one has a right to judge the soul of another. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that some actions—although forgiven—should not be excused. Our symbols are important, and we all need to decide where we, as a society, are going to draw the line.