To Pledge or Not to Pledge?

I don’t pledge allegiance to the flag.

“What? Why not, Daddy? We have to do it every day at school. Didn’t you do that at school when you were a kid?”

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Yes, I did. I learned it that way too. I said the pledge, while crossing my heart and staring reverently at the flag.  I was an earnest young boy. I really loved my family and the land I lived in.  And when I said the words, it sort of felt sacred.  Almost religious. 

“I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America. And to the republic for which it stands. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

When I was a kid, I remember having a conversation with grown ups about the pledge too. When I was in late grade school, I had some reservations.  Pledge allegiance?  To a country?  But, shouldn’t I only pledge my allegiance to God?  What if the two aren’t the same?

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I was told then, what many are told now. It’s okay to pledge allegiance to both. Of course if one conflicts with the other, we understand that our allegiance to God supersedes country.  But how often will that really happen anyway?  This is America!

Sounds good. And for a long time I believed that settled it.  But the problem is I really don’t want the two to conflict with each other. So even when they clearly did, I  would go out of my way—through lots of intellectual and theological gymnastics and justifications—to pretend they didn’t.  I didn’t want to ever have to make the choice, so my mind helped me never see the conflict. 

Many of us find ourselves living in a weird tension in life. We know that certain things like national defense, border security, economic policy etc are best for the good ole USA (or at least certain sections of it).  But deep down, we wonder, are those things that Jesus would prioritize . . . or condemn? 

What would Jesus do about illegal immigrants looking for a better life?  

What would He think about economic policies that boost American affluence, even at the exploitation of others? 

What would Jesus think about a ballooning budget for military expansion while benefits for the poor are cut? 

We are so often caught in the tension of self-interest and Jesus’ call for radical other-centered love that requires self-sacrifice. 

America First!! But wait . . . would Jesus say that?

I don’t think it has to be this way. I think it’s a false tension.  We’ve convinced ourselves we can pledge allegiance to two masters.

We’ve convinced ourselves that we’ll have the objectivity to know when the interests of empire and kingdom don’t match and the courage to choose Jesus’ way (the cross) over the way of the empire (self-preservation).     

But I don’t think we are nearly as objective or courageous as we give ourselves credit.  So instead we end up syncretizing our commitment to Jesus and his call to “pick up the cross” with our empire’s convenience of money and its self-protective use of the sword.  

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So how do we get out of this pickle?  

Well, I know this is unpopular in many evangelical circles today, but maybe we begin by refusing to pledge allegiance to America’s flag.  

“What? It’s only a flag! We are just expressing our love of our country.”

Perhaps. But I think when we “pledge allegiance” it really means something.  It affects us. It shapes us.  Words have meaning. And as Christians, when we pledge our allegiance to anything other than Jesus, it inevitably creates conflict and tension. 

Now, please don’t misunderstand.  I don’t mean that we stop loving our country or its people. I don’t mean that we stop doing our part to contribute to our societies and neighborhoods.  I don’t mean that we stop cheering for the stars and strips in the Olympics or taking pride in the good our country can do.  I’m not suggesting we become anti-American and burn flags.   

I’m simply wondering…  What if we stopped saying the words and pledging allegiance and loyalty to a worldly empire?  What if we took more serious our allegiance to Jesus as our one, true king and his way of life as our true kingdom?

Words we say matter. Pledges we make matter.

Perhaps limiting our allegiance to only Jesus might change us.  

“What might change?”  Glad you asked.

We may begin to EXPECT conflict between our empire and Jesus’ kingdom.  This is a massive change in our perspective.  Our current split-commitment makes us less likely to objectively see the obvious conflicts.  We don’t look for them; in fact, we actually try to avoid seeing them!  But giving up our allegiance to a worldly empire frees us from the (self-imposed?) blindness to the conflicts between it and Jesus’ kingdom. We now expect that they will at times conflict, rather than that they won’t.  This happens because in making a choice to refuse to say the words of allegiance, we’ve already made our commitment to expect and look for these conflicts.  So we become more observant and sharp and less prone to idolatry.  

We also become more bold.  When we have the courage to stop saying the words of allegiance to a country and only to Jesus, it gives us resolve to speak up about many other things.  One small step of courage leads to greater clarity.  The tension between competing values and allegiances often paralyzes us and stills our voices.  But now we don’t feel pressure to defend every aspect of a worldly kingdom that is inevitably flawed.  There is freedom to have a truly prophetic voice in the midst of consumerism, corruption, selfishness, exploitation, discrimination, and greed of the empire. And our voice has more legitimacy, validity, and perhaps conviction, because it isn’t tainted in the minds of our hearers (or ourselves) with a political or nationalist agenda.  

We are more likely to think of others first.  When we refuse to pledge allegiance to any human construct based on race, nationality, or artificial lines drawn on a map, it frees us to see Jesus’ kingdom as global, universal and expansive.  This new perspective moves us beyond selfishness to stand up for things that don’t benefit us personally but help the least of these.  We become more true advocates for our fellow kingdom citizens inside other human-made borders, systems, or governments.  When God’s kingdom is global, why should we care whether America is first?  Abandoning our pledge of allegiance to country is an excellent antidote to our own selfishness and pride. 

We’ll be better ambassadors for the gospel too.  When our commitments are split between God and country it becomes difficult for the world to discern whether we are promoting the gospel of Jesus or the gospel of America (or at least our version of it).  Split commitments make us more likely to become colonialists than evangelists.  And we end up having to defend things like American foreign policy and military action as part of our apologetics of Jesus.  This is all unnecessary.  As missionaries, both foreign and domestic, we have enough work on our hands as ambassadors of Jesus’ kingdom without adding ambassador to the United States onto our job description.  

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Someone asked me last week what I thought the biggest theological issue facing the church is currently.  I think this might be it. 

It can hardly be denied that Christianity as a whole has lost a great deal of its relevance in Western culture over the last few generations.  I don’t believe this has happened because the gospel of Jesus is less powerful today or because modern people have less need for it.  I think instead it’s lost its vitality because it’s been diluted and compromised with political and nationalist allegiances. 

I pledge allegiance to the flag . . . 

The way back to relevance isn’t better social media or more conservative laws.  It’s not gonna happen by electing officials or more Christian films.  It will happen when we take serious our radical allegiance to Jesus alone. That’s what will turn the world upside down.  Indeed, it’s what the early church discovered already did. 

Again, please hear me, I’m not suggesting we hate our country or do less than our best to make it a great place to live.  I think we should enjoy and appreciate this country we live in and the people that make it great.  And we should contribute to our neighborhoods and country in meaningful ways, inspiring it to be a better, more compassionate and more just society than it is now. 

But, I think Christians will do a much better job of all of that if we stop pledging our allegiance to a flag.  

It’s time to remember that Jesus himself and his way of life, is the ONLY hope of the world.

So let’s pledge allegiance to that alone.  

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