“Salvation Belongs to Jehovah”

AT TIMES of national crisis and international tension, people look to their government for safety and security. Governments for their part step up programs designed to rally the support of the populace. The more the feeling of patriotism is fostered by such programs, the more spirited and frequent become the observances of patriotic ceremonies.

During a national emergency, patriotic fervor often gives people a sense of unity and strength and may promote a spirit of cooperation and civic-mindedness among them. However, “patriotism is as volatile as any emotion,” states an article in The New York Times Magazine, since “once released, it can assume ugly forms.” Expressions of it may take a turn that can encroach on the civil liberties and religious freedom of certain citizens of the country. True Christians particularly come under pressure to compromise their beliefs. How do they conduct themselves when such an atmosphere engulfs the world around them? What Scriptural principles help them to act with insight and to maintain integrity to God?

“You Must Not Bow Down to Them”

At times, saluting a national flag becomes a popular expression of patriotic feelings. But flags often bear representations of things in the heavens, such as stars, as well as things on the earth. God expressed his view of bowing down to such objects when he commanded his people: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—Exodus 20:4, 5.

Does saluting or kneeling before a flag representing the State really go against giving Jehovah God exclusive devotion? The ancient Israelites did have “signs,” or standards, around which their three-tribe divisions gathered while in the wilderness. (Numbers 2:1, 2) Commenting on the Hebrew words denoting such standards, McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia says: “Neither of them, however, expresses the idea which ‘standard’ conveys to our minds, viz. a flag.” Furthermore, Israel’s standards were not viewed as sacred, nor were any ceremonies associated with their use. They simply served the practical purpose of signs, showing the people where to gather.

The representations of cherubs in the tabernacle and in Solomon’s temple primarily served as a picture of the heavenly cherubs. (Exodus 25:18; 26:1, 31, 33; 1 Kings 6:23, 28, 29; Hebrews 9:23, 24) That these artistic likenesses were not to be venerated is evident from the fact that the people in general never saw them and that angels themselves are not to be worshiped.—Colossians 2:18; Revelation 19:10; 22:8, 9.

Consider also the figure of a copper serpent that the prophet Moses made during the sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness. That figure, or image, served as a symbol and had prophetic significance. (Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14, 15) It was not adored or used for worship. Centuries after Moses’ day, however, the Israelites improperly began worshiping that same image, even burning incense to it. Hence, Judean King Hezekiah had it crushed to pieces.—2 Kings 18:1-4.

Are national flags simply signs serving some utilitarian function? What do they symbolize? “Nationalism’s chief symbol of faith and central object of worship is the flag,” stated author J. Paul Williams. The Encyclopedia Americana says: “The flag, like the cross, is sacred.” The flag is the symbol of the State. Therefore, bowing down to it or saluting it is a religious ceremony that gives reverence to the State. Such an act ascribes salvation to the State and does not harmonize with what the Bible says about idolatry.

The Scriptures clearly state: “Salvation belongs to Jehovah.” (Psalm 3:8) Salvation is not to be ascribed to human institutions or their symbols. The apostle Paul admonished fellow Christians: “My beloved ones, flee from idolatry.” (1 Corinthians 10:14) The early Christians did not participate in acts of worship of the State. In the book Those About to Die, Daniel P. Mannix observes: “Christians refused to . . . sacrifice to the [Roman] emperor’s genius—roughly equivalent today to refusing to salute the flag.” So it is with true Christians today. In order to render Jehovah exclusive devotion, they refrain from saluting the flag of any nation. By doing so, they put God first while maintaining respect for governments and their rulers. Indeed, they recognize their responsibility to be in subjection to the governmental “superior authorities.” (Romans 13:1-7) What, though, is the Scriptural view of singing patriotic songs, such as national anthems?

What Are National Anthems?

“National anthems are expressions of patriotic feeling and often include an invocation for divine guidance and protection of the people or their rulers,” says The Encyclopedia Americana. A national anthem is, in effect, a hymn or a prayer in behalf of a nation. It usually asks that the nation experience material prosperity and long duration. Should true Christians join in such prayerful sentiments?

The prophet Jeremiah lived among people who professed to serve God. Yet, Jehovah commanded him: “Do not pray in behalf of this people, neither raise in their behalf an entreating cry or a prayer nor beseech me, for I shall not be listening to you.” (Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14; 14:11) Why was Jeremiah given this command? Because their society was permeated with stealing, murdering, the committing of adultery, false swearing, and idolatry.—Jeremiah 7:9.

Jesus Christ set a precedent when he said: “I make request, not concerning the world, but concerning those you have given me.” (John 17:9) The Scriptures say that “the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one” and “is passing away.” (1 John 2:17; 5:19) How, then, can true Christians conscientiously pray for the prosperity and longevity of such a system?

Of course, not all national anthems include petitions to God. “The sentiments of national anthems vary,” says the Encyclopædia Britannica, “from prayers for the monarch to allusions to nationally important battles or uprisings . . . to expressions of patriotic feeling.” But can those who seek to please God actually exult over the wars and revolutions of any nation? Concerning true worshipers, Isaiah foretold: “They will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears.” (Isaiah 2:4) “Though we walk in the flesh,” wrote the apostle Paul, “we do not wage warfare according to what we are in the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly.”—2 Corinthians 10:3, 4.

National anthems often express feelings of national pride or superiority. This outlook has no Scriptural basis. In his speech on the Areopagus, the apostle Paul said: “[Jehovah God] made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth.” (Acts 17:26) “God is not partial,” stated the apostle Peter, “but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:34, 35.

Because of their understanding of the Bible, many make a personal decision to refrain from participating in the flag salute and in the singing of patriotic songs. But how do they conduct themselves when confronted with situations that bring them face-to-face with these issues?

Refrain Respectfully

In an effort to strengthen the unity of his empire, King Nebuchadnezzar of ancient Babylon set up a huge golden image on the plain of Dura. He then arranged for an inauguration ceremony to which he invited his satraps, prefects, governors, counselors, and other high officials. At the sound of music, all gathered were to bow down and worship the image. Among those who had to be present were three young Hebrews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. How did they show that they were not participating in this religious ceremony? As the music began and those gathered prostrated themselves before the image, the three Hebrews remained standing.—Daniel 3:1-12.

Today, flags are usually saluted with outstretched arm or with the hand held to the forehead or over the heart. At times, some special bodily position may be assumed. In some lands, children at school are expected to kneel and kiss the flag. By standing quietly while others salute the flag, true Christians make it evident that they are respectful observers.

What if a flag ceremony is conducted in such a way that simply standing gives evidence of participation? For example, suppose one student in a school is selected to represent the whole school and he salutes the flag outside at a flag pole while the other students are expected to stand at attention inside the classroom. The mere act of standing in this instance signifies agreement with having the student on the outside act as a personal representative in saluting the flag. Standing in any manner would then denote joining in the ceremony. If this is the case, those desiring to be only respectful observers would remain quietly seated. What if the class is already standing as such a ceremony starts? In this case, participation would not be indicated if we were to remain standing.

Suppose one is not asked to salute the flag but merely to hold it, either in a parade or in a classroom or elsewhere, so that others can salute. Rather than ‘fleeing from idolatry,’ as commanded in the Scriptures, this would actually mean being at the very center of the ceremony. The same is true of marching in patriotic parades. Because doing this would mean giving support to what is honored by the parade, true Christians conscientiously decline.

When national anthems are played, usually all a person has to do to show that he shares the sentiments of the song is to stand up. In such cases, Christians remain seated. If they are already standing when the national anthem is played, however, there is no need for them to take the special action of sitting down. It is not as though they had specifically chosen to stand for the anthem. On the other hand, if a group are expected to stand and sing, then merely standing up out of respect but not singing would not constitute sharing in the sentiments of the song.

“Hold a Good Conscience”

After describing the ineffectiveness of man-made objects of veneration, the psalmist said: “Those making them will become just like them, all those who are trusting in them.” (Psalm 115:4-8) Obviously, then, any employment that directly involves manufacturing objects of adoration, including national flags, would be unacceptable to Jehovah’s worshipers. (1 John 5:21) Other employment situations may also arise when Christians respectfully show that they worship neither the flag nor what it represents but only Jehovah.

An employer, for example, may ask an employee to raise or lower a flag displayed at a building. Whether an individual would do so or not depends on his personal view of the circumstances. If raising or lowering the flag is part of a special ceremony, with people standing at attention or saluting the flag, then performing this act amounts to sharing in the ceremony.

On the other hand, if no ceremony accompanies the raising or lowering of the flag, then these actions constitute nothing more than performing such tasks as preparing the building for use, unlocking and locking the doors, and opening and closing the windows. In such instances, the flag is simply an emblem of the State, and raising or lowering it among other routine tasks is a matter for personal decision based on the dictates of one’s Bible-trained conscience. (Galatians 6:5) The conscience of one person might move him to ask his supervisor to have some other employee put up and take down the flag. Another Christian might feel that his conscience would permit him to handle the flag as long as no ceremony is involved. Whatever the decision, true worshipers should “hold a good conscience” before God.—1 Peter 3:16.

There is no Scriptural objection to working in or being in public buildings, such as municipal offices and schools, where the national flag is displayed. A flag might also appear on postage stamps, automobile license plates, or other government-produced items. Using such objects does not in itself make individuals participants in devotional acts. What is significant here is, not the presence of a flag or a replica thereof, but how one acts toward it.

Flags are often displayed on windows, doors, cars, desks, or other objects. Clothing with the motif of a flag imprinted on it can also be purchased. In some countries, it is illegal to wear such items. Even if doing so would not violate the law, what would it indicate relative to a person’s position with regard to the world? Concerning his followers, Jesus Christ said: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:16) Not to be overlooked is the effect such an action could have on fellow believers. Could it injure the conscience of some? Might their resolve to remain firm in the faith be weakened? Paul counseled Christians: “Make sure of the more important things, so that you may be flawless and not be stumbling others.”—Philippians 1:10.

“Gentle Toward All”

As world conditions deteriorate in these “critical times,” feelings of patriotism are likely to intensify. (2 Timothy 3:1) May those who love God never forget that salvation belongs only to Jehovah. He deserves exclusive devotion. When asked to do something out of harmony with Jehovah’s will, Jesus’ apostles said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.

“A slave of the Lord does not need to fight,” wrote the apostle Paul, “but needs to be gentle toward all.” (2 Timothy 2:24) Thus, Christians endeavor to be peaceable, respectful, and gentle as they rely on their Bible-trained conscience in making personal decisions regarding flag salute and the singing of a national anthem.

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Resolute but respectful, three Hebrews chose to please God

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How should a Christian act during a patriotic ceremony?