Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part V, On Symbols and National Flags

First Church, Dunedin

‘It all begins with the symbols. They capture primal relations, like water and death, fire and purification, seeds and hope. The stories do not come before the symbols, but they emerge from them and bring them to life. The stories explain the symbols, and the symbols make the stories worth remembering and telling. The window in the Lumbee church said, “See, under this sign of suffering, we will accept one another as brothers and sisters.” A congregation lives most deeply by its symbol-bearing stories. They tell us who we are.

Any cultural anthropologist would have warned me not to rearrange the furniture in our church. Of course, there were no cultural anthropologists in New Cana. Had there been, they would have reminded me that the physical focus of worship symbolically “freezes” the community’s story into a sacred universe. Therefore, to shuffle the furniture in the chancel or to alter the ritual, say, by moving the flag or changing the music, is to offend against the stories and derange the universe itself.

Who knew?

I should have known not to try to remove the American flag from the chancel. To me, the national flag represented an intrusion into the sacred space of the congregation, an obvious symbol of civil religion. Theologically, the flag has no business beside the altar.

At one of our congregational “town meetings” I patiently explained that I had nothing against patriotism but that it was a short step from “God and country” to “God equals country”. These were the last hours of Vietnam and the early days of Watergate. How can Christians minister prophetically to the country, I asked, if we embrace the nation’s chief symbol and admit it into our sanctuary’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 89–90.

I’ve blogged on this theme before too. See Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society


  1. Good stuff! I read this book a few years ago, and I appreciate all Lischer’s goodies and wisdom. I’ll have to give it another read.

    This topic in particular makes me think about a book I’m working toward on my shelf. You may already know about Gabriel Santos’ Redeeming the Broken Body: Church and State after Disaster. I worked in the fire service, and I’m anxious to see Santos’ work with how theological and national narrative gets mixed and muddy in disaster response and recovery.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with web-wanderers like me!
    Mike C.


  2. How come there’s always something timely somewhere… My text for Sunday is Jeremiah 1: 4-10 authority over nations, uprooting and tearing down, building and planting and Luke 4 the prophet in his own country and a near-lynching.


  3. Anne and I spent five days around East Cape in the North Island of NZ – the use of flags really stood out. The tinorangitira flag (Maori sovereignty – a flag that we quite like but not if the agenda is separatist) was prominent in many seaside villages, but especially where people were camping. But it wasn’t the only flag – the NZ flag was also flown in some campsites. It made us realise that the debate about the future of the NZ flag (which we don’t care for especially as it represents part of our colonial heritage but not our sense of being tangata whenua [people of the land] and manuhiri [those who have settled here since]) is quite necessary because of the evidence of flags being used to make divisive statements about identity.
    We talked a bit about nationalism and the flag as a symbol – and got to something like this: while we are nervous about flagwaving as a habit, state symbols should attempt to reflect both the diversity and aspirations of unity of the nation. We feel that the time has come for some careful discussion about a new flag that attempts to meet this goal. But like Lischer, use them in the right places, but not the church.


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