Saturday, July 5, 2014

I Pledge Allegiance . . . .

Well, yesterday was another Fourth of July celebration here in the U.S. And tomorrow there will also be lots of patriotic talk in many churches across the land.

By the end of the day on Sunday, many people in the country will have pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag over the three-day weekend.
But that will not be the case for the people at Rainbow Mennonite Church (RMC), at least on Sunday —or for the people in most Mennonite churches across the nation, I assume.
Like the Quakers and other smaller Anabaptists groups, such as the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites are not big on pledges of allegiance.
The sermon at RMC will not be a particularly patriotic one either. I should know, for I am the one who will be preaching.
Our pastor and several others from the congregation will be in Waxahachie, Texas, for the Mennonite USA Western District Conference Annual Assembly. So I will be preaching in place of Pastor Ruth.
The Anabaptists from their beginning in the sixteenth century have generally been opposed to taking oaths. And a pledge of allegiance has often been considered a type of oath.
It was/is different among Southern Baptists. I know because I was a SB church member for twenty years, and also a (part time) SB pastor for eight years, before going to Japan in 1966.
During those years I was involved, in one way or another, in Vacation Bible School activities almost every summer.
It may have been different in other denominations, but in SB churches the daily VBS program started with a procession. All the children and teachers marched into the church auditorium following three older children bearing the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible.
And then the pledge of allegiance was said—to the American flag, to the Christian flag, and to the Bible, always in that order. Following that, the American flag was placed in front of the church—always on its right, the place of honor, as stipulated by the flag code.
Perhaps there was little problem with pledging the Christian flag—other than it taking second place to the American flag. Of course, there is a problem when the pledge to one flag conflicts with the pledge to the other.
Back in 2004, two Mennonite college professors penned a “Christian Pledge of Allegiance.” From the beginning of the Iraq War the year before, there were reports of children and youth in public schools being pressured to participate in saying the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.
June Alliman Yoder and Nelson Kraybill thought it was important for Christians of all ages to have an alternative statement that expressed allegiance to Jesus Christ. Here is what they came up with:
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.
I had not seen this pledge until a couple of weeks ago, but I like it.
Personally, I haven’t said the pledge of allegiance to the American flag for years. As a Christian I give my allegiance to Jesus, who said that no one can serve two masters (see Matthew 6:24).
But I am convinced that such a stance is not anti-patriotic. In fact, pledging allegiance to Jesus and following his teaching should do more to help the people of the country, and the world, than repeating the words of a pledge.
That’s how I see it. What about you?

22 comments:

  1. I agree with you, Leroy. In fact, I'd suggest the Pledge to the American Flag is idolatrous in its wording. However, one need not be so literal. And probably most Americans don't take the Pledge so literally. If they did, they'd be more concerned with its lack of truth--namely, "with liberty and justice for all." Rather, it's more like a code representing an overall orientation of patriotism; much like most fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who "believe in the Bible." It's not really so much the Bible they believe in but rather a conservative Christian worldview that has been shaped over the centuries and has come to be represented by the code "Bible believing."

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    1. Thanks, Anton, for being the first to respond to my blog posting this morning.

      As always, your comments perceptive and much appreciated.

      What I find interesting is that those Christians who are "most fundamentalist and evangelical" tend to be the ones who emphasize the pledge of allegiance to the flag and patriotism the most. But I guess that is because they see the U.S. primarily as God's chosen people.

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  2. Thinking Friend Brent Walker, who is Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., sent the following comments (and gave permission for them to be posted here):

    "Thanks Leroy. I am preaching at Highland BC in Louisville. I agree! I continue to say the pledge but certainly not in worship. I think we can have penultimate allegiances."

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    1. Thanks, Brent, for reading and responding to this morning's blog article.

      I think your reference to "penultimate allegiances" is worth considering well. Surely most Christians who readily say the pledge of allegiance to the flag do not consider it to be as important as their commitment to Jesus Christ.

      On the other hand, it seems to me that there are many Christians, such as those mentioned in the previous comment, who think that pledging allegiance to Jesus and to the American flag are pretty much the same thing: one implies the other. I find that disturbing.

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  3. Local Thinking Friend Cole Morgan, who self-identifies himself as a humanist, shares the following comments (and also gave posting permission):

    "If I was to pledge, not exactly sure how I feel about that word, I would rather make a pledge - I will try to honor - life and humanity. Trying to communicate outside this world isn't something I practice.

    "I think schoolchildren should make a pledge to humankind and all the other animals. One that would be inclusive of all cultures and kinds."

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  4. In other contexts, I've recommended the following revision of the Pledge, which I think is less idolatrous and jingoistic and more inclusive: "I pledge allegiance to the principles for which this flag waves—nations of democracy and human rights, always under the judgment of God, striving for liberty and justice for all people."

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    1. I really like this revision, although I would rephrase and restructure the second half a slightly.

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    2. Anton, thanks for sharing this revised Pledge. I hadn't seen it before, and I like it. But my guess is a large segment of American society would not be inclined to say a pledge that includes other nations.

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  5. I do like the concept of pledges. Most organizations have a pledge, motto, slogan, and/or anthem which promote a pursuit of positive ideals. (Probably also included would be rituals and sacraments.)
    I have taken several such over the years and still think on them.
    Keith Green had a wonderful anthem called, I Pledge My Head To Heaven.

    The Boy Scout Oath has remained the same despite the national board making changes to their beliefs.
    It ends with "…To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight." At the time it was originally written the final two words were encompassing of life. However, one now hears a sexual alternative invoked by some at meetings - "…and morally gay." Organizational membership and financial support has dropped off dramatically since the first of the year.

    Within our republic, the only mandatory pledge is taken by the President. Very few have done well keeping it.

    The term Indivisible is a very powerful term, and organizations take it seriously. It seems to imply a foundational truth to which members must adhere. In the earliest catechism of the Church, dating to shortly after the time of Jesus Christ, one of the easiest ways to be excommunicated was to cause schism. I am a big believer in the unity of the Church, but there have been and continue to be schisms – it seems a common practice, especially with the individualism (a heresy??) of the those within the United States, both in and out of the Church. And both are strongly polarizing. In order to preserve indivisibility, there must be a unifying foundation – words can describe it, but there must also be a commitment.

    And then definitions – like justice. The word, like several others, has distinctly variant definitions.

    Without the unity of a pledge, is there a call for division or schism? That was part of the criticism against the early Anabaptists. Both sides were probably right, but both sides were very wrong. With major divisions come wars, not peace.

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  6. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson sent the following substantial comments:

    "I respect the Mennonite view, Leroy. It takes the teaching of Jesus seriously. Pledging allegiance to the flag conflicts with 'Let your yes be yes and your no be no' and with his warning against having two masters.

    "He did leave a little wriggle room or ambivalence in 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's.' Does the state have some claim to allegiance? I don't know whether it could exist without that. The quandary is: How do we balance or sort out allegiance to the state vis-a-vis our ultimate allegiance, that is, to God?

    "Allegiance to the state should never outweigh our allegiance to God, yet, sadly, it does so in most Christian lives. So do many other allegiances."

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    1. Dr. Hinson, thanks for your significant comments.

      I have recently been reading about how the Mennonites in the U.S. during the 1770s and 1780s responded to the Revolutionary War. Most, as you know, were unwilling to take up arms. But most, it seems, were willing to pay taxes, even taxes to support the war efforts.

      The Mennonites then tried to be faithful to the meaning of the "Render unto Caesar . . . " teaching of Jesus. Of course, part of the dilemma was trying to decide whether the Colonial leaders were "Caesar" or whether Caesar was still the King of England.

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  7. I also received the following thoughtful comments from local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Thanks for your timely comments, Leroy.

    "I belong to a breakfast club in which we end our meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance. I am not particularly fond of the Pledge and I recite it with some reluctance since it strikes me as somewhat silly and shallow.

    "Rather than reciting the Pledge, it would be far more patriotic to seriously study the challenges facing our nation and to work to meet those challenges.

    "In addition, I am not a nationalist. Although I care very much about America, I recognize that people in other countries have similar feelings about their own countries.

    "While I am an American citizen, I am also a citizen of the world along with everyone else. My pledge says, 'Every man is my brother and every woman is my sister. No exceptions.'

    "So I respect the Mennonites for looking beyond narrow nationalism and seeing that we all share the same planet.

    "Let us all work together for peace and human dignity for everyone."

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  8. The pledge has a rather long and convoluted history, starting with Columbus Day, 1892, when Christian Socialist (and Baptist minister) Francis Bellamy wrote the first version. It was hoped by supporters to raise patriotism among the children (for whom it was written) and, of course, to sell flags. It was not officially approved by Congress until 1942 and did not reach its current form until 1954, when the insertion of "under God" was the final edit to the text. Apparently both hot and cold wars spurred interest. If Bellamy could see it now, he might understand why people so often refer to "the law of unintended consequences."

    For more information, see this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance

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    1. Craig, as always, I appreciate you reading and commenting on my blog articles.

      In working on this article, and my sermon for last Sunday, I had read the Wikipedia article. I was surprised to learn that the pledge to the U.S. flag was written by a Baptist minister who was also a Christian socialist. I didn't mention that in my sermon. But I did say,

      "The pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag was not composed until 1892—and it was not formally adopted by Congress until 1942, during WWII. The last change in language came on Flag Day 1954 when the words 'under God' were added. Many of you, like me, remember saying the pledge of allegiance before those words were added during the height of Cold War."

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  9. I appreciate Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona sending the following comments:

    "Your thoughts on the pledge of allegiance certainly is in line with Anabaptist roots. However, I believe a person can both be a good patroit of both kingdoms. Jesus said 'render to Caesar what is his and to God what is his.'

    "Neither church and state nor government and religion need be enemies of one another nor demand total allegiance from the other. Such duel loyalthy is possible only in a free state and free church. That's my take on it."

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    1. Truett, thanks for taking the time to write and to share your comments.

      Part of my response to you is included in what I said in response to what Brent Walker and Glenn Hinson wrote above.

      I am not sure, though, that the "two kingdoms" idea, such as Luther envisioned always works satisfactorily. That theology, I'm afraid, was one of the main reasons so many German Christians could simultaneously claim to be Christians and to be followers of Hitler.

      I am also uneasy in saying that Jesus Christ does not demand total allegiance. As I said to Brent, perhaps the concept of a penultimate allegiance to the state is a good one. But can there be, should there be, only limited allegiance to Jesus?

      The old saying, which is theme of one of the chapters of my yet-to-be-published book, is true, I believe: "Jesus must be Lord of all if he is Lord at all."

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  10. Well, thanks for the positive evocation of thought from so many of your readers. It's been fun, if frustrating, to read them. I tend to orbit around the comments of Walker, Henson and Dempsey largely because they leave a bit more wiggle room than you do, Leroy. Although, I am also aware that a provocative blog as yours aims to leave certain things undefined so that the definition can follow in the comments. I offer these.

    I'm increasingly perplexed by the relationship between the church and state (not that I wasn't before reading your blog), because of my realization that my religious freedom, to a great degree, rests under the protection of the state. Indeed, many of my Muslim and Jewish friends realize this even more than I do. So, a state that can protect and ensure freedom of personal experiences and practice of faith is essential and it stands because of people who enjoy those freedoms help it to make it stand. So, I implicitly owe some allegiance to the state or else I'm just dishonest or hypocritical.

    Does this mean that my allegiance to the state is uncritical? Absolutely not. In a free society where change can happen because citizens are open to new ideas, critical attitudes toward citizenship are essential. In fact, I think that my allegiance presupposes such critical citizenship. And, I would say that my citizenship in God's kingdom presupposes such critical attitudes. Do I hold to the Bible uncritically? No, and neither do you, Leroy, if I read your books (e.g., Fed up with Fundamentalism) correctly. Thus your concluding statement in your response to one reader, which is to be a chapter in your upcoming book--"Jesus must be Lord of all if he is Lord at all"-- will be a touchstone for your elaborations on how you hold that to be so in light of a million possible qualifications. I look forward to the book and the chapter. But, let me say, we all owe a measure of allegiance to the republic that constitutionally avoids establishing and interfering with (free-exercise) our practice of religious faith, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Yoruba or Humanist. Living out that allegiance while also living out the allegiance to our chosen religious faith is the challenge of community life.

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    1. Very well put. Christ certainly lived out his life without any condemnation of the governing authority of Rome, whether by the governor or the soldiers - many of whom seemed become followers of his while remaining actively in allegiance and service to Rome.

      As a slight shift in concept, his own words might suffice as a pledge to the Kingdom not of this world - "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

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    2. Milton, I much appreciate the thoughtful comments you made, and I am sorry I have been unable to respond sooner.

      Most discussions/disagreements depend on how key words are understood/defined. In this case "allegiance" is the word/concept that seems to mean something to me that is more demanding than to you.

      You say you "owe some allegiance to the state," and I would certainly agree that there are various responsibilities and actions which we "owe" to the state, but I would not call that allegiance.

      Maybe partly because you are an OT person, I thought of the words of Jeremiah 29:7 - "Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." That, it seems to me is a desirable position for any person of faith living in any country, and here I am thinking about Hauerwas & Willimon's book "Resident Aliens."

      As you know, I lived in Japan for 38 years as an alien. Certainly I did not pledge any allegiance to the Japanese flag. But I appreciated the Japanese state that protected and ensured freedom of personal experiences for me as well as for the Japanese, including the Japanese Christians, I knew. So I was happy to work for the "peace and prosperity" of the nation in which I was living, even though I was not a citizen and pledged no allegiance to the state.

      I think your emphasis on "critical citizenship" is very important--and somewhat opposed to the idea of pledging allegiance. Seeking the best for the nation, and the people in it, sometimes means to oppose what the national leaders (President, Congress, etc.) do. But pledging allegiance can easily be twisted into being loyalty to the country's actions, right or wrong. Perhaps the 2003 Iraq War is a good example: to a large extent those who were most inclined to emphasize the pledge of allegiance and the flag were the ones most inclined to support that preemptive war.

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    3. Saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag comes so naturally when one has been in Grades 1-14 and does not know better! However, I've always had problems with the phrase, "...under God...." When one is aware that there are more religions than Christianity, s/he is painfully aware, or should be, that someone whose faith means a lot to them, is being left out! I'd bet a steak dinner that Jesus wouldn't say the Pledge of Allegiance at any time. I never realized that there was a "Pledge of Allegiance to Jesus Christ." I wonder if Jesus would have problems with that also. Deeds are louder than words.

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  11. Hi I just found your post. your picture "Who had your allegiance?+ led me here. I am writing a blog post on why I no longer pledge allegiance to the flag
    May I use your picture? My allegiance is to Christ alone.

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