In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day. Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the U.S. flag by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777.
It’s not an official federal holiday: no one, except perhaps for some folks in Pennsylvania, gets the day off.
For Christians, however, it’s a great opportunity to talk about the church’s relationship to the larger society, or, as St. Augustine put it, the relationship between the City of God and the City of Man.
The question of what is Caesar’s and what is God’s is a perennial theme in Christianity’s 2,000-year history. It’s also a question that repeatedly turns up in American history. We are in such a moment now: the proposed HHS mandate presents Christians with a real possibility of having to tell our government, “This far and no farther.”
If that comes as a surprise to you, please go and read the Manhattan Declaration as soon as you’re done listening to this broadcast. That’s at Manhattandeclaration.org.
Even if we prevail on the HHS issue, conflicts will arise again. Caesar, especially in the form of the modern omni-competent technocratic state, does not like to be told “no.” He has definite ideas about what is “best” for us and little, if any, patience for rival versions of the good.
This reality prompts an increasing number of Christians to advocate washing our hands of the whole mess and embracing a separationist approach. “The church is the church, the world is the world, and the less the two interact, the better” is one way of summing up this approach.
There are two big problems with this: one, even if we refuse to engage, that won’t keep Caesar from trying to impose himself on us.
Secondly, it is at the very least in tension with the command to love our neighbor. In Jeremiah 29, God, through his prophet, commands the exiles to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” They are to pray for it because their welfare and the welfare of their neighbors are intertwined.
At the same time, we must never forget that, as Hebrews 13 tells us, “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
An ancient, anonymous letter to a Roman official named Diognetus, which Gabe Lyons quoted in his book “The Next Christians,” sums up the balance we are called to. The writer of the letter noted that, when it came to customs and “matters of daily living,” Christians lived much as their pagan neighbors. Yet they did so in a way that gave “proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.”
He wrote that Christians “have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. ... They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. ... They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted ...”
He summed up their role by saying, “What the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world.”
And so should we be here in America. So, as we recognize Flag Day, let us pray for the welfare of our country, all the while remembering that our true citizenship is in heaven.
Publication date: June 13, 2012
Photo Credit: Dori Drabek/Unsplash