Being Christian and Respecting the Flag

Given recent events in the news, a friend asked me, "How is requiring respect of the flag and anthem different than the idol worship proscribed in the Bible?"  Good question.  In short: the similarities are, at the very least, concerning.

 Idolatry is complex, manifesting itself differently in various historical and cultural contexts. At its heart, idolatry is the worship of not-god. A tree, sex, the sun, money, Caesar, a spouse, a nation, likes on Facebook, fertility, and social status are all examples of not-god that people worship, turning those things into idols.

What does it mean to worship something? It is to ascribe worth and the life-giving power to something as the source of meaning and identity. We become like what we worship. We’re supposed to worship God alone. If we worship God, we become like him, and we fulfill our purpose as the creatures made in his image. If we worship not-god, we dehumanize ourselves and others. For example, worshipers of money reduce themselves to consumers and others to debtors, creditors, and customers rather than human beings; worshipers of power define themselves and their worth in possessing and exercising power and treat others as competitors, collaborators, or pawns.  Hugh Hefner and the worship of sex provides a powerful concrete example of what I'm describing.  We become like what we worship.

When it comes to idolatry and the relationship between the believer and the State, much could and should be said.  For this inadequately short but hey-I'm-trying blog post, I’ll turn to two passages in the Bible, one from the OT and one from the NT.

Daniel chapter 3, paraphrased:

The king demands that everyone must bow down and worship the Big Image when the music is played. Anyone who didn’t was to be thrown in a blazing furnace. I guess you could say that the king would shout, “You’re Fired!” to all who disobeyed. Several God-worshipers worked for the king as good citizens, but they refused to bow down. The king was livid. They got fired, hardcore. But God was with these heroes of the faith, and they were unharmed. Their faithfulness brought change.

Mark chapter 12:13-17, paraphrased:

Jesus is asked by the religious leaders of his day if they should pay imperial taxes to Caesar (who claimed to be God). Jesus asked them to produce the hated coinage with Caesar’s image on it, and- surprise, surprise- they had one on them. “Whose image is on this coin?” he asked. “Caesar’s.” Jesus answers: Ok, pay back to Caesar in his coin with his image on it, and pay back to God in his own ‘coin’ with his image on it (i.e., the life lived by humans who are made in his image)! This does not relegate God to the realm of 'spiritual' things, leaving us on our own in the 'physical', 'worldly' realm. God claims rightful ownership of all of life (even taxes). Allegiance to God transcends but includes where we find ourselves in relation to the occupying power. 


In short: respect rulers, be good citizens, but worship God alone.

That’s why early Christians under Rome couldn’t engage in the imperial worship, which proclaimed that Caesar is Lord. God is king/Jesus is Lord, and the kingdoms and lords of this world are therefore demoted to their proper place, under his authority.

Within that framework there is certainly room for an appropriate patriotism rooted in a commitment to good citizenship (which is ultimately based on obeying God's command to love our neighbors). But when uncritical allegiance is demanded to a symbol that stands for military might and first responders but not equally also for teachers, postal workers, librarians, sanitation workers, and other civil servants, the symbol runs the liability of representing Empire and a Police State. It begins to look like an idolatrous civil religion.


Christian author Rachel Held Evans tweeted: “The early church would be utterly baffled by the idea that future Christians would shame someone for not swearing allegiance to the empire.”  She's not wrong.

Seeking Diversity without Dismantling White Supremacy is Dangerous

Most institutions want racial diversity, though perhaps not for the right reasons.  It’s good PR.  It’s a good way to signal that an institution is righteous.  It makes governments and accreditation agencies happy.  And if intuitions aren’t careful, it does nothing to undermine white supremacy.

Some folks hear “white supremacy” and think of KKK members, neo-Nazis, and tiki torch marches.  Those are revolting.  But to interpret the phrase along those lines is to reduce it to the conscious attitudes of individuals.  It’s also to signal that we’re among the good guys.  It’s to ignore America’s past and to pretend we can operate in an ahistorical vacuum.  White supremacy is in the air we breathe, in the culture we inhabit, and in the assumptions we inherit.  It’s baked into our institutions.

White supremacy is the way our culture and institutions normalize and elevate whiteness and white culture.  “White is right” isn’t something we say.  We don’t have to.  We get that message thousands of times daily.  In my field—theology—, there’s Latino theology, black theology, feminist theology, but what flies under the banner of just plain ‘theology’ is the work of white males.  Similarly with entertainment, schools, churches, and most every sphere of our lives.  Band-Aids by default match my kid’s skin color.  If my wife and I watch a romantic comedy the leads will almost certainly look and talk like us.  My church is just a church; my friend Warren’s church is an ‘ethnic church.’  White is normal; the rest isn’t.

White supremacy is part of our American heritage.  I see it in my neighbourhood, my church, my kid’s school, the university where I used to teach.  I’m on a journey to undo it both without and within.  But it’s stickier than we’d like to admit.  When we confront it head on, as I did at Grand Canyon University, it can strike us down (yes, even if we’re white).  It cost me my job as a professor of theology.

Talk of white supremacy makes people uncomfortable.  So our guard comes up.  “But my boss is black and we get along great!” is a defense mechanism against seeing it at work.  So are things like, “Hey, I grew up in a Latino neighborhood!”, “But I loved The Wire!”, and “My cousin married a black man!”  On a corporate level, “But we have people of color here, check out the cover of our brochure!” usually shows that diversity is being used to distract from unaddressed white supremacy in an institution.  People of color can be actors and/or pawns in systems of racial injustice.  Milwaukee County’s sheriff David Clarke is an obvious example.  Omarosa Manigault is another.  But it often happens in more subtle ways, even unwittingly so for those involved.

When we pursue diversity without first beginning to dismantle white supremacy, people of color get hurt.  Diversity initiatives can provide cover for the insidiousness of white supremacy.  The result is harmful situations where, for example, students of color at a large university have an all-white counselling department.  People of color are often underrepresented in leadership positions and those that are there must conform to white culture to stay there.  The natural hair of black folk is viewed as unprofessional.  Native Americans generally consider maintaining eye contact to be a sign of disrespect but white people tend to view a lack of eye contact as lacking attention, trustworthiness, and integrity.  People of color are told in a million small, subtle ways that they matter less, that they are ‘other’.  And most white folk don’t see it happening.  Most won’t see it happening because we are conditioned to consider it normal and because confronting white supremacy makes us uncomfortable.

I saw this happen at GCU.  When pressed as to why the college of theology hired 6 white males in one year, the response I got was a rationalizing, “we just don’t get many minorities who apply.”  But dismantling white supremacy means that institutions need to do things like actively invite candidates of color to submit an application.  When the list of faculty is mostly white males, scholars of color hear the message loud and clear.  Higher learning institutions need to cultivate relationships with people of color years before they are on the job market.  Schools need to invest in them and their educational training.  The fact that white people are given so many advantages along the way to becoming a PhDed professor is white supremacy at work.  White students are more likely to have a professor mentor them while in college, more likely to get accepted into strong postgraduate programs, and more likely to get job interviews.  Along the way I have benefited because my name is Shawn Bawulski and not DeShaun Jackson.  And that’s not OK.  White supremacy is not undone by hiring a few token people of color while letting everyone know that challenging the culture of white supremacy is out of bounds.

Diversity without dismantling white supremacy is dangerous for white folks, too.  A system that treats some as less than human poisons all of our souls.  Lack of diversity is the symptom, the branch.  The root of the problem works at the level of institutional culture.  It’s hard to uproot.  Doing so is dangerous, too—it might even cost you your job.  But if white people aren’t willing to spend their privilege, to use their advantages afforded them by white supremacy to dismantle white supremacy, then meaningful change won’t come.  Injustice will continue.  Diversity task forces and multiethnic brochure covers alone will do nothing but make white people continue to feel comfortable.

Some fragmented thoughts on "All Lives Matter"

“All lives matter.”  

It’s wielded to vindicate and justify the one who utters it.  It’s used to stomp out the beauty and importance of particularity.  It’s invoked to perpetuate American myth.  It invalidates and dismisses cries for help and justice.  I’ve seen the phrase wound more souls than I can count.  I've seen the mindset wound more bodies than I can count.

Of course, “Black Lives Matter” means “Black Lives Matter, Too”.  Anyone who’s genuinely listening will catch the implied adverb.  Many people aren’t genuinely listening.


“All lives matter” is not true until Black Lives Matter, too.