Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.

It might be surprising to learn that flagpoles are born out of the same angularity that defines the cross. When creating a flagpole, workers glue beams of a desired height to one another in a box pattern and clamp them together for a night. The next morning they taper off corners until they are able to sand the pole into its rounded shape.

Poles must stand upright and proud, regardless of how they’ve been encumbered. Too weak and they bow out under the weight of their banners. This will not do. A flag is a rallying point, a band of colors and shapes to follow unto war and death. Everyone has to be able to see their side’s banners during battle, or no-one will know which side is advancing and which is retreating.

When it comes to the banner itself, I imagine flag construction to be a great ordeal involving reams of cloth and hundreds of yards of stitching. Fortunately, the Christian flag has a simple design. It’s mostly a white background, with a blue canton containing a red cross. White for purity, blue for baptism, and red for Christ’s blood. Sometimes there’s a gold fringe around the outside edge.

Evangelicals often find Christian flags alongside American ones in their sanctuaries. The two standards are typically either across a stage from one another or directly adjacent. Their heights are identical and they share the same colors. If one’s eyes go crosswise during a lengthy sermon, it’s not unlikely that the Christian and American flags set next to one another will bleed together into a red, white, and blue smudge.

This blending goes further. Just as there is a Pledge of Allegiance spoken directly to an American flag, so too is there a Christian pledge spoken directly to the Christian flag. One of its variants makes the American echo impossible to miss:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag, and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands; one Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe.

A good friend told me he used to recite the above pledge to the flag before AWANA meetings at his childhood church. This throws the problem of a Christian flag into relief. Flags work as symbols, gathering together a number of meanings and ideas under a single aspect for the person who identifies with the flag’s cause. This symbol, though, is one the Church has appropriated from the world of nation-states, international relations, and armies gathered against one another for war. That’s the frame in which Christian flag makers stitch a blood-red cross for children to pledge allegiance to. It’s more Christus Victor than the Suffering Servant, and still then more Julius Caesar than Christus Victor.

Violence and disorder may have salted the earth here, then, leaving the Christian flag beyond the pale of right use for church purposes. There’s indelible proof of this in the fact that the ratios between the canton and the rest of the flag have never been established, leaving each individual flag-maker to his own hunch about proportions. Each does what he judges to be right in his own eyes. Anarchy reigns in this world of haphazardly cross-spangled banners.

However, some also take the Christian flag’s white swath to stand for outright surrender, making this a flag waved only to waive the normal rights, privileges, and aggressions of independent statehood. Under one aspect, this may be a fine idea — particularly in reference to the individual’s surrendering their life to God and the Church — but when Old Glory is standing beside Oldest Glory, it may appear as though the Christian flag is indicating a surrender to the U.S.A.

What might this surrender look like? Perhaps a song about what I “may never” do, complete with gestures that mime those actions we “may never” do, leading to an affirmation of membership in a church that sounds like it’s being pitched as a paramilitary organization. So I may pantomime marching, riding, shooting, and flying in my pew to illustrate my belonging to the mystical body of Christ, who asks us to turn cheeks instead of an ICBM ignition switch. (The ignition gesture, for the record, is as pantomime-able as any other.)

We might think again of the cross, still set in its rough, splintery angles. Its corners have not been pared down; its colors don’t match those of a competing ideology’s banner; it is not draped with cloth, although perhaps it was once.

This cross, of course, is already itself a symbol, albeit one with drastically different connotations. It’s no banner to wave in front of an advancing army, but instead, a reminder of the brutal death experienced by a condemned man in some backwater country of the world. This cross gathers the Church under its heading and recalls believers to God’s gift of mercy and grace to those who believe. It may ultimately demand more than the American flag does — the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the Church and all — but by a different means than those used by the powers of this world. Under this sign, then, is a field hospital for sinners rather than a barracks for saints, and the gates of hell will not stand against it.


9 Comments

  1. I don’t understand your point here — “It’s more Christus Victor than the Suffering Servant, and still then more Julius Caesar than Christus Victor.” How does a Christian flag hanging in an Evangelical church call back to the Christus Victor understanding of atonement (Still held as the dominant theory of atonement by the Eastern Orthodox, among others)? I think you mean something here by Christus Victor that is outside my understanding of the term.

    1. Hi Rich Guy—to clarify, I was using Christus Victor atonement theory in a loose way and relying primarily on the “conquering the forces of evil” connotation. I mean no deep doctrinal point, only that the use of a flag gives a militaristic shade to the church that goes beyond the currents of combat/conquering/overcoming that already exist within its theology (hence the “more Julius Caesar than Christus Victor”). Thank you for reading the column. Hope this helps to clarify.

  2. I was brought up in a rural Methodist church in the 1950’s..and so no Awana…but every year in VBS we were tested on our memory of the two flag pledges. In my earliest memories, our VBS opening exercises were led by a tall slender man with slicked back black hair and a waxed mustache, and he just loved the pledges and militant action songs. He looked like my childhood idea of Satan. Even as a child I found the Christian flag and pledge too derivative from the national ones. By late childhood and even more by adolescence, I had learned (by Scripture and the Holy Spirit apparently, since no one that I can recall taught me about the virtues of loving enemies and the dangers of national idolatry) to find both pledges wrong-headed. How could anyone who had read the Sermon on the Mount, I wondered, say such things? I have not been comfortable with either of them or with flags in sanctuaries since. Thanks for your comments.

  3. I’m so sorry that this “flag” issue didn’t trace the use of flag/banner as it was used biblically. Flags as identifiers are an honourable designation:–“His flag/banner over me is love.” And the desolation of the deserted flag in Isaiah 30:17 is a warning to those who refuse God’s call to repentance and rest.

    1. Hi Lila—thanks for reading. You’re right that there’s a biblical context for the use of flags that I did not address. I have two reasons for this. The first is that I mean for the column to be primarily sociological and only secondarily biblical or theological. This is obviously not to say that Bible and theology aren’t important, but only that I have a different focus and method of analysis for these riffs.

      The second reason is that the Christian flag here riffed on is a very, very modern phenomenon, only dating back to the beginning of the 20th century and spurred into existence by a Sunday School teacher’s providential sideways glance at an American flag. That context lends some credence to the undertones and associations I try to (playfully) get at in the above piece.

      That said, I appreciate your pointing out the positive occurrences of flags and banners in Scripture. As with anything, there’s a far bigger story here than the one I’ve told. Thanks for filling in some of the gaps.

  4. You will not find either flags in our churches. Where does God give us permission to introduce these things into worship? Where does God give us permission to introduce symbols into worship? Besides the worship issues, there are way to many problems with both the American Flag and the Modern Christian Flag. It is not if those churches I am connected with have no banner but the banner is made of words and not symbols and it is used outside of worship and not in worship. Actually we have two, the Blue Banner which reads “For Christ Crown and Covenant” and the Cameronian Battle Banner which reads “For Christ and His Truth” and Hebrew words “YHVH Nissi” which is translated “YHVH is our Banner”.

    The Modern Christian Flag has lesser issues then the American Flag but it still has a few issues. There is symbolism that we are not permitted to use, but there is also the Pledge to the Flag which is really just a modified form of the American Pledge of Allegiance which itself is rooted in Socialist history. The American Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Socialist Baptist Minister and was written for a cause. It even had a Hitler-like salute until World War 2 came into play.

    And don’t even get me started on the American Flag and pledge/oath. There is a huge boat load of issues involved therein besides the socialist origin of the Pledge of Allegiance. More then a post on a thread like this could handle…

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