I found this astonishing. This is not some wacked-out uber-patriot claiming that "the flag is alive!" This is the official law code of the land, calmly stating that the American flag is considered a living thing. I immediately began to think about how to categorize this from a biblical and theological perspective. And for my part, I'm not trying to be a wacked-out uber-critic on the other side. I'm just trying to process what this means, and here's how my thought process goes.
Humans take some material and make something from it.
Humans claim it's alive and act as though it is.
Idols then demand sacrifices from humans.
The biblical text that came to my mind was the mockery of idols and idol worshippers in Isaiah 44:9-20. The paraphrased point is: "You idiot idolaters. You chop down a tree, use half of it to cook your food and turn the other half into something that you claim is alive and then treat it as such."
Humans take some material and make something from it. Check.
Humans claim it's alive and act as though it is. Check.
Idols then demand sacrifices from humans (Ps. 106:38). Check again. As Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle put it, "The sacrificial system that binds American citizens has a sacred flag at its center."
The Hebrew term translated "image" (as in "image of God") is the same word often translated "idol." The real God makes the one true image of himself--humanity--and forbids humans to shed blood, because blood is sacred. God doesn't need human sacrifice to live. So Christians are called to be a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2). But the idols made by humans are frail. And these idols demand human sacrifices to live, to make them real. So are these idols real? In one sense, no, says the Apostle Paul. They are not really gods. But they are demonic powers, as he notes in 1 Cor. 10:18-22. False gods demand that we sacrifice the life blood of those who bear the image of the true and living God. In short, that we kill God in effigy on the altar of these false gods.
Here's how John Howard Yoder summarizes the biblical connection between sacrifice and idolatry: "If we follow the Great High Priest who shed not the blood of bulls and goats but gave his life for his enemies, how could we sacrifice our enemies or even threaten to do so for the sins of their politicians? If we do thus sacrifice our enemies' lives--and it is sure that as nations we do--it cannot be to the God and Father of Jesus. It has to be an act of idolatry."
"Legalistic arguments about the morality of war have sometimes been reduced to asking whether war is a sin against the sixth commandment ["thou shalt not kill"]...That is to miss the point. War is a sin against the first two commandments. To sacrifice the life of my brother or sister for the sake of a political system or a regime in order to maintain the privileges which that regime provides its friends, is to make of that political systsem a graven image, another god."
"Whether we call that image Moloch or Caesar, popular democracy or democratic capitalism, law and order or liberation, matters little. The moment we plan, rationally and in advance, to destroy for its sake the image of God in the lives of our fellow creatures, is the moment we have made of those political values another god, a graven image. At that moment we have removed that segment of creation and that aspect of our own life from under the lordship of the God who made those men and women in his image and who sent his Son (and us) to die for them." (from "Politics of the Lamb," in Seek Peace and Pursue it: Proceedings from the 1988 International Baptist Peace Conference, p. 73-74)
Because blood of God's image-bearers is sacred, then all who would shed blood are priests. Every army is a priesthood. Those who march under the living American flag must kill; every false god has to feast on the life-blood of humans in a vain attempt to fend off its own mortality. But because the one true God has no need of defense, the army we call the church is called to be a non-violent priesthood.
So today when I looked out the window and saw the American flag, I saw it with new eyes. My country considers it a living thing, a sort of horcrux brought to life through the dark magic of human sacrifice so that something mortal (my country) can try to grasp onto immortality. But Jesus was validated and resurrected because he did not try to seize onto godlikeness but let go, even unto death on the cross. So our choice is clear: we can follow our older brother Jesus (Heb. 2:11) who spilled his blood for us or we can follow the path of the older brother Cain, who chose to spill his brother Abel's blood in a parody of Abel's animal sacrifice. If we are priests in the line of Jesus, the only sacrifice we are permitted to offer is our selves, as living sacrifices daily or, in extreme cases, as priests willing to have our own blood shed. To act otherwise is to functionally renounce our priestly calling as well as to deny the sufficiency of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice.
So listen to Isaiah 44:18-20 again, with slight alterations: "They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing to which I pledge allegiance with my right hand a fraud?”
So help me out here. What do you think? I'm not trying to sound extremist (although maybe that's not a bad thing; the prophets were extremists). I'm simply trying to be attentive to biblical categories and how our world actually functions. I'm not trying to offend those who hold the flag near and dear. But is there a connection here between the flag and idolatry? The flag and sacrifice? If so, why do Christians often miss this? If not, then what's going on here that I'm missing? Why would you say the flag/nation is not functionally an idol?