Each morning, my classmates and I joined in the time-honoured ritual. We would stand to our feet, face the small American flag in the corner of the room, place our hands on our sternums and recite the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’. All of us, that is, except Daniel – that smug, irreverent little reprobate. He just made faces at us while we chanted about the glories of the republic, the indivisible nation with liberty and justice for all.
Many American Christians berate those who choose not to recite the pledge or sing the national anthem. Vibrant memes blasting the latest athlete or school student who opts out of these civic rites routinely make their epic journeys around social media. Disrespectful, we label them, and dishonourable!
Patriotism or Worship?
But wait. What about Amish sisters and brothers, or Mennonites (friends with whom I attended university), or Quakers (friends with whom I’ve worked)? On principle, they refuse to take oaths or pledges of allegiance to any nation, even that of their birth, just as they refuse to serve in any military. Do any of these groups fit the profile of a disrespectful, dishonourable rabble? No, they reject these expressions because they recognise them as acts of worship and they reserve their worship for God alone.
Maybe you found that last sentence jarring. ‘It’s not worship,’ you want to shout, ‘It’s patriotism! There’s nothing wrong with loving your country.’ That’s true; I have two countries and I love the people, communities and landscapes that make them what they are. But what we do in the U.S. far exceeds affection. Think about it: We take an inanimate political entity (along with its accompanying flag) and personify it. We arise as one and pledge our devotion to it. We sing songs of adoration to it. We vow to serve it, follow its dictates and fight wars on its behalf. We thank it for all it has done for us, promise to sacrifice to it and ask it to protect us. If this was a golden calf, or a statue of Ba’al, we’d call any of these practises idolatry.
We excuse this worship of the non-divine because we’ve welded the spare parts of nationalism and American exceptionalism onto a Christian framework. Or maybe we’ve welded Christian components onto a nationalist substructure (In missiological terms, we call this syncretism. There’s your free word of the day!). It’s clever, in a way, because we assume that this Frankenstein’s monster allows us to honour two commitments at once and efficiently.
And before we dismiss this as nonsense, we should consider these questions: Why do countless churches across the United States position an American flag in close proximity to the pulpit? Why do our hymnbooks contain sections with patriotic American songs? Why do we cite the Constitution as often as, if not more often than the Bible? Why do we shun and denounce those who won’t participate in our nation-honouring rituals (as religious communities have long practised: ostracising or punishing members who refuse to loyally engage in corporate worship)?
Enslaved in the ‘Land of the Free’?
The authors and editors of the Hebrew scriptures viewed idolatry as the source of all their ills as a people. YHWH wouldn’t share glory or power with gods of wood, or stone, or gold (or cloth, or paper, for that matter) (Exodus 34:11-17; Isaiah 42:8). The exile of Judah to Babylon was the natural consequence – this wasn’t merely punishment from an ‘angry’ God – of the people’s idolatry. Worshiping idols was in fact voluntary bondage or slavery. The people pledged their allegiance and service to other gods, and so they would get their wish: servitude in a foreign land, under the eyes of foreign gods.
It’s hardly surprising, given this background, that the New Testament has a lot to say about allegiance. Jesus made clear that the Kingdom of God has no room for divided loyalties. He insists that would-be disciples leave everything behind to pursue this kingdom, a total commitment which would even divide families (Matthew 10:35; Luke 9:57-62). Paul understood this well, claiming in his letter to the churches in Rome (the first section of which is all about idolatry and its effects) to be a ‘slave to Jesus the Messiah’ (Romans 1:1).
The scriptures speak with one voice about the perils of splitting one’s allegiance. It leads to compromises, excuses and blindness, as we attempt to mingle and marry our two masters’ wishes. Indeed, such a thing has already happened to a great number of us; we’ve lost the ability to differentiate between what is ‘American’ and what is ‘Christian’.
A Costly Step Forward?
The only answer to idolatry is repentance. And that doesn’t mean ‘saying sorry for being bad’, contrary to some popular thinking. Repentance is a complete change of direction, a repudiation of our present course to follow another. That would require us to strip away the layers of tradition, cultural mores, compromised doctrine and assumptions about the country and the world that have built up over many years, to return to our first allegiance – Jesus, the cross and the Kingdom.
That sounds scary! But I’m certain – from the experiences of many who have done just so – that we could summon the courage to do what’s needed. And courage is what it will take, because adopting such a stance, one of unswerving commitment to the Kingdom of God, won’t make us popular with adherents of the American civil religion. We may find we’re the ones being denounced, excluded and rejected for failing to join in its rites and for daring to question its practices.
That’s exactly what happened our true master. And if we truly serve him, we should expect nothing less for ourselves.
- Featured Image: 1892 Pledge of Allegiance (Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons)
- Pictures of other random objects – US flag flying in the breeze (Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons)
- Statue of Ba’al at The Louve, found at the site of ancient Ugarit (Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons)