Monday, October 11, 2010
I Pledge Allegiance
Underfunded but we still don't understand/Under God but we kill like the son of Sam/But if you feel like I feel about the Son of Man/We will overcome.
Flobots, "Stand Up" (2008)
Christians are not called to be heroes or shoppers. We are called to be holy. We do not think that holiness is an individual achievement, but rather a set of practices to sustain a people who refuse to have their lives determined by the fear and denial of death…Our response is to continue living in a manner that witnesses to our belief that the world was not changed on September 11, 2001. The world was changed during the celebration of a Passover in 33 A.D.
Ultimately, from the Roman point of view, there was only one Lord of the world. According to Paul, he now had a rival.
N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said
One of the crucial elements to EasyYolk’s understanding of spiritual activism is the notion that we are caught in a web of competing narratives about what it means to be truly human. Due to fragmentation, most of us are living different components of competing stories at the same time. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann proposes that most Christians are caught up in at least one of the four key streams of an American narrative—militarist, consumerist, therapeutic, technological—that we inevitably default to if we are not intentional and disciplined enough to live out something more alternatively compelling. One of the best examples on offer today of a significant practice associated with The Great American Default Narrative is the robotic, collective impulse to “pledge allegiance to the flag” or to “honor America with the singing of our National Anthem.” This is the herding instinct on display, as Radiohead chanted so presciently, “like a pig in a cage on antibiotics.” Most American Christians do not think twice about participating in these patriotic rituals and neither did I for the first 35 years of life. As a teacher and one with a deep appreciation for sport, the American flag is a symbol that I am asked to honor quite often. However, as a Christian who made a commitment at baptism to pledge allegiance to the Reign of God, I am placed in a rather precarious position.
It was the popular British Anglican bible scholar N.T. Wright who first introduced me to the deep contradiction of bowing to both Christ and Caesar: “Paul, with both feet planted firmly in the prophets, addressed the pagan world with the news of a new king, a new emperor, a new Lord.” His writings convinced me that, truly, this is what the original New Testament documents confronted with phrases like “confessing Jesus Christ as lord (Greek kyrios),” as well as the notorious political terms—“gospel” (euangelion), “repentance” (metanoia) and “church” (ekklesia)—that writers like Paul subversively borrowed and redeemed from the Roman Empire itself. Back in the day (in the early decades of Christianity), pledging allegiance to God’s Reign and the gospel of King Jesus meant ipso facto that one was knowingly participating in political treason, turning one’s back on Caesar (what “repentance” literally meant) for “the way.” Archaeology has dug up coinage with the phrase “Caesar, Son of the Divine” and ancient literature refers to Caesar with the titles “lord” and “savior.”
Since my deeper understanding of New Testament language, I have discovered that Christians like the Anabaptists and Quakers have always had strong inclinations against uncritical patriotism to any political entity other than the Reign of God. That’s right, the Reign of God is deeply political (and economic and social). Loving one’s enemies and sharing one’s wealth and serving the interests of those with different nationality and ethnicity are practices that are distinctly Christian, yet deeply un-American (although they need not be). It has been Anabaptist voices like John Howard Yoder, Glen Stassen, James McClendon, Shane Claiborne, Ched Myers and Stanley Hauerwas who have convinced me to critically assessing my ingrained practice of pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.
It is now my Christian practice to stand during the pledge of allegiance every morning in my classroom. I do not speak. I do not put my hand on my heart. I do not consider this a compromise position, but a deeply symbolic gesture that signals my primary allegiance to the way of Christ, but also my own love and responsibility to make America great. To clarify, my love of country is not blind patriotic worship, but instead a commitment to prophetic civic engagement that requires me to criticize unjust policies and advocate for better ones. As Cornel West writes, “To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that which shows what it might become. America needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine and re-make it.” In addition, I must clarify that my commitment to making America great should not be equated with the brand of American exceptionalism floating our country that refuses to be confessional about the weaknesses and profoundly dehumanizing tendencies of the United States and the inability to learn from the greatness of other countries. The greatness of the United States, like all countries of the world, should be measured by virtue: an unwavering commitment to decisions and policies that reflect fairness, justice, equality, opportunity, freedom and the value of each and every human being on the planet, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation or vocation.
I am in the process of incorporating a Pledge Allegiance to Jesus prayer that a good Mennonite brother recently passed along:
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.
Every morning, I can whisper this pledge to renew my commitments to God (first) and country (second). These commitments are distinct and often confrontational. I cannot wholeheartedly pledge allegiance to the American decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan and use drones to drop bombs on Pakistan and Yemen. I am not compelled by arguments that portray the US as somehow a “Christian nation” or a “new Israel,” having a special vocation to bring freedom to the rest of the world by any means necessary. God uses men and women from every nation to work for the redemption of the planet. The United States does not have favored nation status in the eyes (or plans) of God and when this idea creeps into our worldview, then Christian convictions become watered down and subservient to the self-interest of the United States.
Because Christianity is itself a set of practices and habits that arise from convictions about life, it is simply impossible to divorce them from my relationship with my citizenship to the United States and my civic duty. I do not believe that there is such a thing as a separation of faith (my private life kept to myself) and the rest of life. This is the sort of thing that led German Christians to endorse the Nazi regime 75 years ago. In short, whenever and wherever American policy defies Christian virtue I cannot pledge allegiance to it. This may lead me to non-violently resist unjust laws as it did with MLK and Civil Rights marchers in the 50s and 60s and as it did with the Berrigan brothers and others who protested the nuclear arms build-up in the 70s and 80s. These kinds of strategic protests, faithful to Christian witness, always make our country more humanizing and remind the USA of what it should be at its very best.