Flag Burning

It strikes me that people who burn our country’s flag actually do so because they have no sense of the sacred in their lives. The flag is, after all, a civil icon. It points to a complex synthesis of meanings from home, to patriotism, to a national “ideal”, to the sacrifice of those in service of the country. These things are not unique in the U.S. flag. They are inherent in the flags of all nations. Because the symbolism of a flag is complex, it presents something of a civil sacrament — if that image is not pressed too far. To deliberately burn one’s own flag should be troubling. I’m not speaking of legal or political thought, but of a deeply human and Christian mind.

Human beings are created in the image of God. Images mean something, because they ultimately either point to communion with God himself, or they point away from that. This is why we have competing images and flags, and why there are natural alliances as well. But to destroy one’s own flag is ultimately a theological statement. It is a willful act.

It means that there is nothing that is transcendent or honorable. It says that only the mundane and vulgar are acceptable, that only our passionate desires are worthy of fulfillment. And so flags are burnt. Such burnings proclaim that there is nothing holy or sacred.

Those who do this are terribly broken and one feels some pity for them (or should); that is not to say that we should have pity for their actions but the reality in which they find themselves. It is a sign that they have turned their backs on God and his holiness, and so they strike out to destroy all images of any sort which proclaim an “otherness” beyond the vulgar, or which demand a response of loyalty and fealty, whether it is faith, country … and very tellingly now … other persons.

This is the lot of all iconoclasts. They destroy the image and set fire to their own beings.

Fr. John Guy Winfrey

About Fr. John Guy Winfrey

Fr. John Guy Winfrey is an archpriest in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, serving the parish of St. George Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  1. Father, Bless,

    With respect, what if the flag is burned as a desperate cry against the murder of millions of unborn children and/or wanton killing of thousands in unjust wars *because* these are things that displease God and the one burning the flag is expressing himself against the organization that promotes and carries out these evil, Godless tragedies?

    What if the burning is done by one who has not turned away from God, but can clearly see that the government and culture represented by the flag have turned their backs?

    I can see no equivalence of the symbols of the State with one’s faith or lack thereof in God. Sure, there may be some who hate everything and want to tear it all down, but I don’t think burning the flag (or sitting out the National Anthem, etc) are indicators of faithlessness.

    You wrote “The symbolism of the flag is complex.” I would suggest that the symbolism of burning the flag is also complex.

    Please pray for me.

    1. I have seen no one burning flags because of abortion. Nor have I seen people specifically burning flags because of unjust wars. There is a highly materialist motivation in what we see today. But, there may be some few somewhere who have not turned their backs on God and do so. But loving God would also include respecting the state. For example, I would never burn the flag of another country — even if I disagreed with everything they stand for.

  2. When I read your “ponderings,” I was immediately struck by a sadness that people who burn the flag are so desperate. Their internal cries of aloneness speak volumes. They seem to be totally lost, but I believe God can reach them, and I pray that He will touch them. One wonders about their caregivers who, somehow, did not teach them about sacred things. Were they disillusioned too?

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