As Pope Francis entered a stadium in Cairo, Egypt on Saturday to conduct a mass, thousands of Egyptian Catholics waved double sided flags. One side was the Vatican flag while the other was the Egyptian national flag. Behind the altar there were representations of huge Vatican and Egyptian flags. Earlier, when the Pope met with the Pope of Egypt’s Coptic Church in front of a large icon of Jesus, on one side was a Vatican flag and on the other an Egyptian flag.
These images caused me to smile because I knew many American Protestant and Evangelical elites would be aghast at a similar worship service in which the American flag appeared at all, much less with such prominence. For many years these elites have waged their own crusade against any celebration or even recognition of America within the church. Their critique insists that flag waving, literal or metaphorical, is intrinsically idolatrous, a sin for which American Christians have been guilty for many decades. Supposedly, American Christians commonly conflate their faith with the nation, and any flag appearance is always proof.
Do these critics, which include Stanley Hauerwas, Brian Zahnd, Greg Boyd, Shane Claiborne, and countless others in the American Christian commentariat, also oppose any appearance of other nations’ flags in churches and worship places of those nations? If consistent, they do, although I confess to not hearing their specific comment. Of course, they tend to view America as uniquely unworthy, so maybe other national flags, while bad, are not that bad.
A few years ago the then pastor of my own congregation quietly removed the large American flag at the side of our sanctuary. He never publicly explained, but presumably he too equated the flag with idolatry.
Were the Pope, the Egyptian Catholic and Coptic churches, and thousands of Egyptian Christians behaving idolatrously with their flag waving pageantry in ceremonies and worship? American Christian anti-flag voices typically insist the flag represents the “empire” and not God’s Kingdom. Recall that Egyptian national life is far more hostile to Christianity than America’s. Egyptian Christians don’t have full legal equality. Parts of Islamic law are woven into Egyptian jurisprudence. There is often social hostility against Egypt’s Christians. Churches have been attacked, and too often government security response is inadequate. The Pope during his visit honored the latest martyrs of a church attack.
Yet Egyptian Christians undoubtedly love their country and are loyal to it. It’s where God placed them to serve. Catholicism and most branches of Christianity historically have taught their flocks, whether in the majority or the minority, to love and serve their lands, to seek the common good, and to witness by service. National flags and emblems can be idolatrous but don’t need to be. They are typically for Christians of any country a reminder of their temporal duties. They also are a reminder that God created and works through all nations.
Recently a professor at a Christian college told me that his mostly evangelical students have almost no awareness that their faith teaches nations and governments are instruments of divine providence. They believe God desires social justice but have not usually thought through how social justice is politically achieved outside governments and nations. There are forms of Protestantism so individualistic that, though they pay verbal homage to the church as community, they really are focused almost exclusively on the individual’s spirituality, to the exclusion of God’s purposes for various human communities and institutions. In contrast, flags summon individuals to corporate responsibility.
Egypt’s flag dates to its 1952 revolution against monarchy and colonialism, making it somewhat similar to the American flag. It replaced a flag featuring the Islamic crescent. Certainly, Egyptian Christians must prefer a flag featuring national rather than Islamic emblems. Nation states, at their best, offer a unifying common life for peoples otherwise divided by religion, race, clan, or tribe.
It was cute, during the Cairo mass, to see Egyptian Catholic children flock around the Pope wearing pharaonic headdresses, hearkening to their nation’s ancient heritage. In his homily the Pope concluded by recalling Egypt’s providential purpose in the Gospels, the early church, and throughout history:
May Our Lady and the Holy Family, who dwelt in this venerable land of yours, enlighten our hearts and bless you and this beloved country of Egypt, which at the dawn of Christianity welcomed the preaching of Saint Mark, and throughout its history has brought forth so many martyrs and a great multitude of holy men and women.
The Pope was assuring Egyptian Catholics that God has love and purpose for their nation, even as they struggle as part of an often besieged minority. God has love and purpose for every nation, including even America, for which national flags are small, important reminders.