Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I pledge allegiance to the standard of the Roman Empire

I got into an interesting discussion on Christians pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States last night. What got the conversation going was article by Matt Young titled The Pledge of Allegiance: 2 Reasons Why Christians Should Not Say It. That is a pretty controversial topic among religious Americans as pledging allegiance to the flag is just something we have always done from a very young age. The article argues from two primary passages that Christians should not say the pledge of allegiance, Matthew 5:33-37 and Matthew 6:24. These passages, taken directly from the teachings of Jesus, teach that Christians should not swear oaths of any sort and must not have divided loyalty because we cannot serve two masters. One of the individuals who was arguing that we could freely swear allegiance to a flag suggested that the Sermon on the Mount was not intended to be normative or binding on non-Jewish believers but was merely illustrative of our inability to keep the Law.

There are many Christian theologians who make that argument, perhaps most commonly to get around the commands of Jesus to "turn the other cheek". I am not sure that the implications of that are really thought out as well as they should be. If the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on  the Mount are not normative or binding for us then perhaps it is OK for me to ogle another woman with lust in my heart (Matt 5:28). Likewise divorce and remarriage must be OK (Matt 5:32). Retaliation is not only OK but perhaps even a positive trait (Matt 5:39). If someone sues you, sue 'em right back! (Matt 5:40). Loving your enemies (Matt 5:44)? Pshaw! Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out! We definitely should pray loudly in public to be seen by men (Matt 6:5) but we definitely should not pray as Jesus taught in the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-13). We of course should lay up treasure here on earth (Matt 6:19) and boy have we embraced that one. Got problems? Of course you should be anxious about them (Matt 6:25). I am belaboring the point and engaging in hyperbole but hopefully you get what I am trying to say.

This neglect, or perhaps the inconsistent application, of the ethical teachings of Jesus was one of the drivers of the Anabaptist "radical reformation". They believed that being a Christian meant following Jesus in word and deed. With the Roman Catholic and magisterial Reformers alike teaching  infant baptism, giving the New Covenant sign to those who cannot exhibit the slightest notion of being born-again, and intentionally bringing unbelievers and believers alike into the "visible" church, what people came to understand as the church became hopelessly muddled and indistinguishable from the world. That is largely the same issue we have today. It seems that too much of the church is content to leave the ethical teachings of Christ to the "progressives" and the results are apparent. Just because we are not literally expected to pluck out our eye lest it cause us to sin, it doesn't follow that we should feel free to lust after a woman by gawking at her. We ought not look at women lustfully because that is adultery in our hearts. We also ought to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray as Jesus taught and store up treasure in heaven rather than earth. Our inability to follow these commands perfectly is not the point as the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us and our sin redeemed by Him (2 Cor 5:21). As followers we need to follow Him and the teachings of Christ were preserved for a reason, and that reason is not just for illustrative purposes. 

Back to the main question re: a Christian pledging allegiance to a rectangle of fabric and what it stands for. If you step back and ask the question more broadly, I think you get a different view. Is a Christian in China OK with pledging allegiance to the Communist Party or the Chinese flag? What about a Roman legionnaire who converted to Christianity pledging allegiance to the Roman eagle standard? What about a Christian German solider when the Nazis took over, would pledging allegiance to the Third Reich be acceptable? In other words is it equally OK for Christians to proclaim oaths of obedience to secular nation-states regardless of which nation-state they have been placed in by God?

That question is intentionally designed to make American Christians uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable! Love of country is a deep seated American middle class value and that demographic is who makes up most of the public thinkers in the church, which perhaps explains why these conversations so rarely happen. I think that deep down a lot of Christians in America think pledging allegiance to a flag is OK for us because America is different. You can almost picture American Christianity praying the Pharisees prayer from Luke 18:11: The Pharisee American Christian, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners Canadians, unjust Iraqis, adulterers French, or even like this tax collector Bolivian.  I am not sure what Christians in other countries do or what they think of our pledging allegiance to a flag but I am pretty sure that our general attitude comes across as pompous and arrogant, as if America is uniquely "God's favored people".

America is different in degree, not kind, from other secular nations of the world whether we are speaking of modern Switzerland or the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany. Now that sounds jarring. Didn't we nobly smite the Nazis in World War II? Yes but as I have written before the noble narrative of World War II is not quite as clean cut as we have been taught.

Not to go all Noam Chomsky on you but....

- America was founded in armed rebellion over what would today be pretty minor issues.
- Much of the economic growth of America for our first hundred years was built on the backs of slaves, European immigrants that lived in squalor and Chinese workers who helped build the intercontinental railroad.
- The bloodiest and costliest war fought by Americans was fought on the one hand to preserve the enslaving of human beings and on the other to prevent an allegedly free people from choosing their own future.
- A lot of the land where many Americans live, manufacture our goods and grow our food used to be inhabited by nomadic people that we killed and institutionalized in reservations. Sure the American Indians often fought with European settlers and could be quite brutal but it was hardly a one sided affair.
- Even though slavery was outlawed in the 19th century, the after effects of racial discrimination haunt America still today, from widespread racism to institutionalized generational poverty.
- America is the only nation on earth to effectively use weapons of mass destruction and the only nuclear power to have actually used nuclear weapons, not to mention the targeting of civilians for the purpose of terrorizing civilian populations and sapping their will to fight in Germany and Japan. Not to mention the mass imprisonment of an entire population of people for looking like our Japanese enemies.
- Our history is replete with wars for territory, wars of aggression and wars under false pretenses (Iraq anyone?). While the Nazi regime rose and fall over the course of two decades, America has been at war for most of our history.

Now by virtually any measure, America is better than Nazi Germany. That kind of goes without saying. That doesn't mean that America is without serious flaws because we certainly are and always have been. That is why I say America is different in degree and not kind from other nations, even the most repressive regimes of history, because at the core America is a nation founded and led by flawed human sinners, few of whom were Christians, just like every other human nation that has or ever will exist.

Thus we come to my point at long last. Christians ought not, I would even say must not, pledge allegiance to America or any other country. Our loyalty is to Christ and His Kingdom and there is no room for divided loyalties there. I am an ambassador of the King, sent to the nations of the world as His emissary and representative (2 Cor 5:20). I cannot pledge allegiance to the very nation I am sent to in order to call her people to repent. Further I may be called to take the Gospel somewhere else, thus making my pledge of allegiance meaningless. Or do we do an un-pledge or a transitional pledge to our new nation? I am where I am by the sovereign will and purpose of God and I am here for a purpose. That purpose is not to sustain American traditions or fight in her wars but rather to proclaim Christ.

If we follow the teachings of Christ, both in specifics likes not swearing oaths or serving two masters as well as in more general terms having to do with our relationship to the world, I think we will find that it is not only not advisable but potentially damaging to our witness to swear oaths to an earthly power while claiming to have allegiance to the King. There is no reason and no advantage to doing so and all sorts of reasons to not do so. It doesn't need to be a dogmatic, "Look at me, I am making a political statement!" sort of thing, just simply a quiet refusal to follow the culture and refusing to teach our children to do so. I have enough to do in struggling to stay loyal to Christ without adding a secondary allegiance that often seems to trump the primary.

I pledge allegiance to no one and nothing but Jesus Christ my Savior and dedicate my life to His Kingdom and no other.


Chuck McKnight said...

Thank you for this, Arthur. I totally agree.

And it's not about being anti-America (as most folks seem to claim the moment this topic is broached). Rather, it's about being pro-kingdom of God. It's about being citizens of a heavenly kingdom first and foremost, while only ambassadors here in America.

Alysa said...

This is cool!