One of the things that anyone who is fortunate enough to have a sabbatical experiences [and believe me, I know how fortunate I am to have a sabbatical] is the pleasure of digging into “the stack.” You know what I mean–that tall stack of reading material that you have been putting off until ‘sometime’–Christmas break, summer break, the weekend, a day off–but that you never seem to get to. It’s a key piece of any sabbatical.
In my stack, which lately I have begun tackling with gusto, is the fall issue of Seminary Ridge Review, a publication of United Lutheran Seminary. [You can find it here and read it for free: Seminary Ridge Review]. It is full of interesting articles, from the opening piece by my dear colleague and friend Kiran Sebastian, talking about identity politics in India and the legacy of Martin Luther, to the multiple articles reflecting on the 12th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held in Windhoek, Namibia last May. [There also is a very interesting article about the history of the two seminaries, Gettysburg and Philadelphia, by Maria Erling, which is very helpful in putting the recent consolation of the two schools into context.]
However, in this particular moment, when we have a president who, with his characteristic mean-spirited, ignorant bluster, swept entire nations, entire peoples into the garbage can with one horrific, racist slur, the article that struck me the most was “Flag and Cross: A Challenge to the Church.” This piece was the Urban Theological Institute Lecture from 2017, delivered by J. Wendell Mapson, Jr. I was there in the audience to hear it, and time has not weakened the power of his words.
He opens by talking about driving by a small church with a cross on the front lawn; one day, that cross was draped in an American flag–“showing more flag than cross.” He takes this as his central metaphor for challenging the way many Christians in this country conflate loyalty to God with loyalty to country, and promote a vision of a Christianized America that is highly exclusive, with a value system that emphasizes “success, hard word, racial entitlement and material prosperity.” This leads to “the conclusion that the poor, the marginalized, the uneducated, the unemployed, don’t deserve the benefits of this land, because if they weren’t so sorry and lazy they wouldn’t be in the shape they’re in.”
Mapson calls out Christians who “have dressed God in the red, white and blue and reduced Christianity to a quest for personal salvation, without disturbing or challenging the institutions and systems that promote and sanction racial inequality and social injustice. For them, the cross looks best, and is safest, when draped in the American flag….” By contrast, Mapson emphasizes that “To be Christ-like is to show concern for the poor, the marginalized, the beggar at the gate, ‘the least of these’….To be Christ-like is to assign value to people the world despises.” It is, I would argue, to challenge the normative discourse around “shitholes” and people who live there, and see instead beauty, dignity, and worth in people and places who are “the stranger”–the one Christ calls us to seek out and welcome with open arms.
Mapson argues that “The cross does not wear the flag. The cross challenges the flag. Challenges our misplace patriotism. Challenges our pride and nationalism. Challenges the hypocrisy of a nation that will not come to grips with its original sin.” We have a president who is incapable of doing this, incapable of seeing this. Christians must resist being led astray.
The cross isn’t “safe;” the cross isn’t “comfortable”–in fact, the cross is probably most at home in shitholes, and so is Jesus. No flag in the world can hide that truth.