One of the social institutions of the United States is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Technically, according to a Supreme Court ruling in 1943, no one may require public school students to recite the Pledge. But in schools and in other places where standing at attention, facing the US flag, with hands over hearts, and reciting the pledge is customary, it can be quite intimidating to not do what others around you are doing—especially in a world that values social conformity, and devalues what is different.
I don’t recall my parents ever telling my siblings and I that we were not allowed to stand for the Pledge and even to recite it, but they did help us understand that our foremost allegiance was to the only sovereign God. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said (Mt. 6:24). “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), Jesus also said, and as followers of Jesus, we are of that kingdom. Somewhere along the way it grew on me that any pledge I would make as a follower of Jesus would need to be weighed against the ultimate allegiance I have made to Jesus Christ. And this allegiance to God would create tension in my sense of allegiance to the United States of America. It’s not that I had to dislike America (although there were, and still are, things that I greatly dislike), but it became clear that the American flag is not an appropriate object of my allegiance. Only God is. Allegiance has to do with worship, and worship directed towards a nationalistic symbol became, for me, a form of idolatry.
Christians have needed to wrestle with their relationships with secular governments ever since there have been followers of Jesus. The early church’s relationship with Rome was a pressing issue. On the one hand, Paul says Christians should submit to ruling authorities (Rom. 13:1-4), obey its laws (Titus 3:1), and pray for its leaders (1 Tim. 2:1-2); on the other hand, the apostles refused to submit to Rome’s laws when they conflicted with the way of Christ (Acts 4:19; 5:29). In Revelation, John blasts Rome for its immorality, greed, pride, excessive luxury, and an addiction to military might that stained the world with blood to secure its own interests (Rev. 17-18).
In Jesus’ own struggle between the ethics of the kingdom of God and the ethics of the secular (and religious) authorities who opposed him, he never wavered in his allegiance to the sovereign God. He prioritized faithfulness over comfort (Mt. 8:20); by standing with the oppressed he exposed himself to ridicule (Lk. 4:16-30); for speaking out and denouncing the hypocrisy and injustice of Scribes and Pharisees (Lk. 23), Jesus was accused of insurrection and blasphemy. He was a threat to those in power, so they crucified (murdered) him. Jesus became a cross-bearer rather than a flag-waver. Cross-bearing has never been very popular, but it’s more effective than mere flag-waving.
As this nation engages in its annual 4th of July “worship” festivities this week, let us recall and recommit ourselves to our primary loyalty and allegiance—Jesus Christ, Son of God. Here is “A Christian Pledge of Allegiance,” by June Alliman Yoder & J. Nelson Kraybill in 2004: “I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, and to God’s kingdom for which he died—one Spirit-led people the world over, indivisible, with love and justice for all.”
Phil Kanagy, pastor
July 1, 2020