by Dr. Robert Cornwall
As a child I had a classmate who remained seated as the rest of us stood to say the “Pledge of Allegiance.” While we pledged our allegiance to the nation symbolized by the flag, thinking nothing of the religious implications of our act, my classmate, who happened to be a Jehovah’s Witness, had been taught that to stand and recite the pledge would break one of the Ten Commandments—the one about having no graven images. At the time I didn’t understand why he refused to stand and say this innocuous statement, but when I think about it now it does give me pause. While his religious community refuses to acknowledge any government besides God’s kingdom (they don’t vote or serve in the military either), most of us live with a Constantinian vision.
Most Christians don’t see anything wrong with pledging allegiance to the symbol of our national identity. In fact, many American Christians have equated their Christianity with their national loyalty. After all, isn’t the United States a “Christian Nation”? Yes, God and Country go together! The Scouts even have a badge you can earn that celebrates this. Of course, other nations have felt the same way. In fact, they have assumed that God was on their side during serious conflicts. The German Christian movement even reconfigured the Christian faith to fit its ideology. I wonder if we do the same? Do we discount the teachings of Jesus when they come into conflict with our national aspirations?
Symbols are important. So, if you go into many churches, including my own, you will find an American flag placed somewhere in the sanctuary. I must confess my own unease with the presence of the flag, but thus far I’ve not made an issue of it. Fortunately, our flag sits at the back of the sanctuary and not in the chancel. What I find more puzzling are the churches that choose to fly large American flags out in front of their buildings. More often than not the American flag stands above the “Christian” flag (I’ve always wondered who decided this flag, with its red cross on a blue field in the corner of an otherwise white flag, should represent Christians, or at least Protestants). It seems to me that when we make the flag such a prominent symbol, we give pride of place to nation over the realm of God. I know that my Jehovah’s Witness classmate all those years ago would find all of this befuddling.
When we say the pledge of allegiance we are expressing our loyalty to the nation in which we hold citizenship. I really don’t have a major problem with this. I’m quite happy with my American citizenship, at least to a point. I think we can have a variety of allegiances. I am, for instance, a life-long San Francisco Giants fan. When it comes to baseball, they have my allegiance. My family has my allegiance as well. I made a covenant with Cheryl some thirty plus years ago to be her husband. But, having said that, none of these allegiances is ultimate.
For those of us who continue to recite the Lord’s Prayer on a regular basis (my congregation continues to say this prayer each week), I believe this prayer which we believe Jesus gave us is our pledge of ultimate allegiance. With this prayer offered up to God whose name is hallowed, we ask that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” There is an expectation present in this prayer that God would be engaged in something transformative, and that we’re agreeing to be part of God’s work. Yes, when we offer this prayer, we are making a statement of loyalty to God’s vision and offering ourselves as agents of that vision. It isn’t that we will bring the realm of God into existence, but we make ourselves available to God’s realm.
I realize that some might find this affirmation of God’s realm a bit disconcerting. They might think that I’m recommending some kind of theocracy. In a way, I am, but not in the usual way of thinking. This isn’t a divine government imposed by an earthly realm. This is instead a recognition that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God, and when loyalties conflict, and they will, we must choose the realm of God. The church is called to be an expression of that realm on earth as a reflection of God’s realm in heaven. So, no I’m not advocating making the United States a Christian nation. I’m advocating that we recognize that God’s realm is present on earth as in heaven!