This week please read chapter 11, Ragged Old Flag, and chapter 12, Drive On of Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. These two songs compose “Section 3: Nation and Nostalgia” of the book which leads us into an evaluation of patriotism, national wars, and their compatibility with the Gospel.
The song Ragged Old Flag was released by Johnny Cash in 1974. The country was gripped with the Watergate Scandal and the Arab Oil Embargo and the memories of the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam War were still very fresh. The idea of America for Republic for which the flag stands was very ragged. It had been abused and misused by both sides of the political spectrum.
The song opens with the singer in the courthouse square of a small town and commenting to an older man how ragged their courthouse and their American flag outside looked. The old man then defends their old ragged flag. The flag has been through a lot – Delaware River, Ft. McHenry, New Orleans, the Alamo, Chancellorsville, Flanders Field, Korea, and Vietnam. Most recently, it’s been burned, abused, and scandalized. But through it all – the good and the bad – the old man is still mighty proud of his old ragged flag
CHRISTIANITY and PATRIOTISM:
The song raises the issue of the inherent tension between Patriotism and the Gospel of Jesus. In the Roman Empire into which Jesus was born, the only pledge the Empire required of its subjects was to acknowledge that “Caesar is Lord.” But the first confession of the early church was that “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9). Jesus is clear that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), that our citizenship is also not of this world (Phil. 3:20), and that we are refugees and exiles from our true home (1 Peter 2:11). We are commanded to obey secular leaders (Rom 13:1), pray for their guidance (1 Tim. 2:2), and to render them appropriate service (Matt. 22:21, Luke 3:14), but only because the secular authorities can keep the secular peace. But the secular powers and even our identification by nationality is of this word, and we are not to be conformed to this world (Rom 12:2) nor in love with the things of this world (1 John 2:15).
However, there necessarily is a certain affection we have for those around us and particularly for those of our same family or tribe. There is a bond of having the same language, same history, and same religion. I am going to have a greater natural affinity towards someone from Horry County than from New York or an Episcopalian (even as a convert) than a Roman Catholic. This is the love called storage (pron. STOR-jay).
In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis includes patriotism as a storage love. This love can be good in that it enkindles a love for our immediate neighbors and willingness to be in a relationship with them and to help them when needed. It is natural to love our country and our people. Loving an old ragged flag is simply part of what it means to be human.
The reconciliation between Christianity and patriotism lies in the same reconciliation between Christianity and the love of anything else. Jesus says, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26). The word Jesus uses for “hate” (Gk: miséō) means to “love less than.” Our love of God must be primary. Everything in our lives, including our love of country, but be subservient to our love of God and must be properly ordered in light of the teachings of Jesus. Our citizenship of our country can never take priority over our citizenship in heaven.
If you want to go a little deeper, two very well written articles on this issue are from David French and John Piper.
I walked through a county courthouse square
On a park bench an old man was sitting there
I said, your old courthouse is kinda run down
He said, naw, it’ll do for our little town
I said, your old flagpole has leaned a little bit
And that’s a ragged old flag you got hanging on it
He said, have a seat, and I sat down
Is this the first time you’ve been to our little town?
I said, I think it is
He said, I don’t like to brag
But we’re kinda proud of that ragged old flag
You see, we got a little hole in that flag there when
Washington took it across the Delaware
And it got powder-burned the night Francis Scott Key
Sat watching it writing say can you see
And it got a bad rip in New Orleans
With Pakenham and Jackson tuggin’ at its seams
And it almost fell at the Alamo
Beside the texas flag, but she waved on though
She got cut with a sword at Chancellorsville
And she got cut again at Shiloh Hill
There was Robert E. Lee, Beauregard, and Bragg
And the south wind blew hard on that ragged old flag
On Flanders field in World War one
She got a big hole from a Bertha gun
She turned blood red in World War Two
She hung limp and low a time or two
She was in Korea and Vietnam
She went where she was sent by Uncle Sam
She waved from our ships upon the Briny foam
And now they’ve about quit waving her back here at home
In her own good land here she’s been abused
She’s been burned, dishonored, denied, and refused
And the government for which she stands
Is scandalized throughout the land
And she’s getting threadbare and wearing thin
But she’s in good shape for the shape she’s in
‘Cause she’s been through the fire before
And I believe she can take a whole lot more
So we raise her up every morning
We take her down every night
We don’t let her touch the ground and we fold her up right
On second thought, I do like to brag
‘Cause I’m mighty proud of that ragged old flag
Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:11