Dolce et decorum est, pro patria mori.
~ Horace (a statement also referred to as “the old Lie” by British poet Wilfred Owen — cf. http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html).
(1) Empires, just like the Church, have their own sacred rituals.
These rituals serve multiple purposes: they strengthen the general population's subservience to the lords of the empire (just as Christian rituals strengthen Christian subservience to the lordship of Christ), they bond the general population together with an increased feeling of unity (just as Christian rituals bond together those who are in Christ), and they often employ a spectacle that appeals to one's senses and emotions (just as Christian rituals engage in spectacles that do the same).
(2) Such rituals are used by empires to craft a form of religion or spirituality that advances the agendas of those who are lords of the empire.
For example, New Testament scholarship has become increasingly aware of the ways in which the “Imperial Cult” was used to advance the domination of Rome over conquered nations. Temples dedicated to the goddess Roma or to the divinised Caesars (Augustus, in particular) were built all across the Roman empire and participation in the “Imperial Cult” brought honor and access to powerful allies or patrons (for example, those who were elected as priests in the temples of Augustus could appeal directly to Caesar — the most powerful patron in the Roman world).
Further, rituals of the the Imperial Cult came to pervade all areas of social, economic, and public life in the Roman empire. Thus, the calendar was based upon the life of the Caesars (new year's day was the same day as the birthday of Augustus, for Augustus was said to have ushered in the new age of peace and prosperity); thus public festivals and feasts were held in honor of the Caesars; thus, both monuments and coins reflected the ideology of the Imperial cult; and thus political and business meetings were begun after each member offered a pinch of incense in honor of Caesar.
Thus, the Imperial Cult inundated all areas of life bringing many blessings in exchange for simple gestures of loyalty.
(3) In our day and age, the Religion of Empire is just as present.
We often miss this because the language employed is less “cultic” — less obviously “religious.” Our Enlightenment and scientific heritage has caused us to place “religion” within a narrowly defined box, and so we often miss forms of religion and spirituality that continue to impact our lives on a daily basis.
However, we find the Religion of Empire expressed in the language of Patriotism. Furthermore, when we think of Patriotism as the Religion of Empire, we also become aware of the ways in which the rituals of patriotism have inundated most (all?) areas of our public lives. Thus, the national anthem pervades public events (it is sung at the start of the school day, at sporting events, etc.), the flag pervades public space (in parliament buildings, schools, churches, lapels, backpacks, etc.), and public holidays often take on patriotic overtones (Remembrance Day, Queen Victoria's Birthday, Canada Day, Thanksgiving, etc.).
Furthermore, patriotism is just good for business. For example, Christian camps in Canada love to fly the flag over the idyllic and rugged Canadian wild (Canadians are pretty proud of their scenery). I happen to know this first hand because, a few summers ago, I was an assistant director at a Christian camp and I would not allow the flag to be raised over the camp (for years the whole camp had met at the flagpole for morning prayer every day). Or, take another example, probably the most successful advertising campaign for beer in Canada was built around the motto: “I am Canadian” which, in the most distinctive ad, is shouted as the climax of a rant by a young man about his pride in certain Canadian distinctives (Canadians are pretty proud of their beer). And one just looks good wearing a flag pin on one's lapel when going into a business meeting.
Thus, patriotism brings many blessings in exchange for a few gestures of loyalty.
4. However, if Christians are to offer a genuine alternative to the norms and values of empires, they must not become involved in the rituals that sustain and strengthen the Religion of Empire.
This was something that the early Christians realised from the beginning. Thus, we see Christians who lived in the Roman empire being persecuted because they refused to pinch incense in honor of Caesar. They would offered various reasons why they should pinch incense to Caesar — “we're not asking you to actually worship Caesar, just pinch the incense and keep worshiping your God,” or “look this is something we all do, and it brings us all together, what's so bad about that?” or “can't you recognise the things that are good about our country? Sure, we're not perfect, but we've got a lot to be proud of; can't you pinch a little incense just in recognition of that?” or “Hey, what are you? Some sort of anarchist? Would you rather have total chaos sweep over us?” or “Don't you have any respect for the traditions of our culture?” — but they continually refused. Thus, the early Christians suffered socio-political and economic losses, and some were even put to death, because of this.
Therefore, I would like to suggest that contemporary Christians should have the same attitude toward the anthem, the flag, and the national holidays. We should not sing, nor stand for, the national anthem. We should not fly, nor salute, the flag. And we should learn to celebrate the holidays that are structured into the Church calendar rather than celebrating national holidays. Perhaps, by doing these things, the people of God can learn what it means to be a “holy nation” that exists as a true alternative to the empires of this world.