Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Can a Christian Pledge Allegiance to the Flag: Reflections on Religious Affections Ancient and Modern

This past March I presented a paper at the 37th Annual Society for Pentecostal Studies meeting at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. The paper was entitled "'Savior' and 'Lord' in the Lukan Birth Narrative: A Challenge to Caesar" (which has been submitted for publication in a NT related peer-reviewed journal presently). In this paper, I spent a great deal of time constructing the historigraphical picture of Palestine with reference to the rise of the Imperial cult through the end of the first century BCE and the mid-first century CE. In so doing, I spent much time wrestling with the ideology of religious affection in a milieu in which the taxonomic lenses of modernity's bifurcation of "political" and "religious" were alien, unthinkable demarcations; for religion was political and politics ipso facto was intrinsically enmeshed with religious concerns and affections.

As I studied the rise of the Imperial cult, I found myself torn internally by what I was uncovering about the past and how such knowledge was impossible for me to keep from deconstructing my own current experience as a human in the American Imperial West in the 21st century. Granted I was very careful to reconstruct the ancient world as the ancient world. However, what I did not expect from my research was the overwhelming effect, residual effect, such study would ultimately have upon my own Weltanschauung in the present. Indeed, the ways in which I conceived of myself in the socio-political and historical present. Now to my thought for the day, actually, I have been pondering this for quite some time now, almost a year.

In the ancient world, Israel was, even after exile, (as N.T. Wright has labored exhaustively to show) Israel likely still perceived herself as still in exile, even during the time of Jesus' advent. First, the Persian empire financially and politically offered the support (or rather sponsorship) of the reestablishment of a temple-state in Israel (i.e. Ezra and Nehemiah's building programs). Throughout the period that followed from the Persian sponsorship of the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem to the Roman occupation stretching into the earliest Jesus period, Israel was perpetually ruled by socio-political forces outside of their control. At times there was a feeling of independence, but historically the period clearly evidences the nation as a subject peoples, though often granted the beneficence of being able to practice their own religion and operate on a semi-independent scale, barring the perpetual extraction of monies by the overlords.

By the latent first century BCE, the Roman Empire was in process, that is, they were undergoing an internal transformation, a transformation instilling national power in an individual--the Emperor. This, of course, is a complicated manner that here, my brush strokes only outline vaguely. However, with Julius the religious landscape, polytheistic as it was, was also changing along with the power structures (because they were intimately wed together). Underlying the difficulties of the tremendous expanse of the Empire in lands and people was the ever illusive task of grounding the locus of authority, originally with the Republic (510 BCE), but ultimately in the Emperor (ca. 50 BCE). The imperial cult arose, slowly, but steadily in response not to a necessarily religious need, rather the imperial cult functioned as a means of perpetuating the Imperial ideology, a tool for the dissemination of Empire, if you will. Granted this functioned primarily in the East, often arising from the indigenous peoples seeking the favor of the Empire via the Emperor. With Augustus a new age had dawned in which the Emperor himself would function as the locus of Rome's authority, as the symbol of the Empire par excellence. Thus, a two-way relationship was forged: a) from the provincial areas toward the Empire (centripetal) and b) centrifugally from the Emperor as "savior" (Σωτήρ) or benefactor by providing games, food, and drink. Hence, the socio-political constellation revolved on the axis of the ancient universe--the Emperor himself. There is no little significance to the fact that the "government/emperor" oppressed the people through the extraction of monies from the provincial areas to fund the perpetuation of Empire building (wars, construction, etc.). The Imperial cult offered individuals on a local level a venue to evidence their patriotism to the Empire. Here they would come and offer prayers for (and sometimes to) the emperor, they would give offerings, they would participate in a sacerdotal system of spending in order to show their religious affection for their nation via the emperor. In fact, the mantra of the day became "Caesar is Lord." That is not to say, "Caesar is the unique creator, monotheistic deity who is holy and will save the world from sin" (that would be anachronistic. Rather Caesar is the supreme Lord in the sense that he saves the people from their own peril--lack of food, etc. (Often at the Imperial games the Emperor would distribute meat to the populace, etc.).

However, the first Christians refused to say "Caesar is Lord" because they followed a different Lord. Their claim, while possibly including the theological freight of restoration to God through Jesus, certainly first was socio-political (because remember in the first century there is no separation--religious and political are inseparable). So what was the real issue? I submit to you that fundamentally faith = allegiance. Following Jesus is a fundamental commitment of one's allegiance (socially, politically, spiritually) to have no other allegiances than Jesus. First Christians were murdered because they would not pledge an oath to Caesar. Evangelicals often appeal to the claim that Christians opposed the oath for spiritual reasons, i.e. it offended their religious commitment to Jesus; but does that not prove my point?

Now, what does any of this have to do with the "pledge of allegiance?" For those of you who are not American or have not lived in this country, this may or may not make much sense to you; but I was raised in the United States, indeed, the deep South for that matter. Every day at school students would stand, face the American flag, place their hand over their heart and say, "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." Today, I can no longer in good conscience pledge allegiance to the flag or to the nation. In fact, I think that if one takes Jesus seriously, takes his followers seriously, then in rough terms I find very little difference between the Imperial Cult's oath's to Caesar and the pledge of allegiance.

Here is my rationale:
Purpose and Function:
The Oath to Caesar functioned in order to: a) perpetuate the Empire's ideology and power structure, b) to identify, articulate, and perpetuate individuals personal commitments to the Emperor (a metonymy for the Empire), c) to foster Imperial unity of purpose under one monarch; and probably other reasons that I can't presently think of.

The Pledge of Allegiance functions in order to: a) perpetuate the ideology of the American Empire, b) to identify, articulate, and perpetuate individuals personal commitments to the Empire (flag a metonymy for America), and c) to foster American unity and a sense of patriotism toward one's place within the empire.

If first Christians died because they wouldn't simply say, "Yes, I am a patriot. I love my country and my leader, Caesar is Lord" then neither can I today fail to perceive that being a follower of Jesus necessitates that no other governmental allegiance may be held for where my "treasure is, there will my heart be also."


T. Michael W. Halcomb said...

great post. i quit saying the pledge about a year ago. from a theological standpoint, even though i am not one, i the jehovah's witnesses have some great things to say about this; you may check that out. they even call it idolatry. good stuff.

Rob G. Reid said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I have a great deal of respect for the country for several reasons; however, patriotism is a much more complex and troubling issue theologically speaking.

Derek Spalla said...

Dear Rob,

Great post. I stopped saying the pledge about two years ago. I work as a teacher at a Christian school that now says three pledges every morning. One to the American flag, one to the Christian flag, and one to the Bible. My homeroom students have noticed of course and I have explained it very simply. They seem to get it. Things seem to be coming to a head for me now though. Two of my administrators are extremely patriotic towards the United States.

My own daughter is in the 6th grade at the same school and does not participate in the pledge. Last week her homeroom teacher told the students they must know the pledges for a grade. So now I am going in to talk to the homeroom teacher about our convictions. You can pray that I have words of wisdom as I witness even to my fellow brothers and sisters.

Kind Regards,


Rob G. Reid said...

Thanks for taking the time to post. I resonate with you, and I support you in your stand. Unfortunately, Americanism has subtly overtaken Christianity where the two are hardly distinguishable from each other at times. The understanding of course is that Christianity then becomes something else.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks for this post, especially how you connect your scholarly work in the 1st century context to your personal situation in 21st century America.

Rob G. Reid said...

Thanks for your encouragement.

Darrell said...

Thanks for your posting about pledging allegiance to the American flag. I am in the context of my patriotic community in Ohio somewhat of an oddball. My allegiance (read: loyalty, solidarity, trust and lots of other trust words) is to King Jesus and His Kingdom.
The wonderful book of Colossians, which I'm currently teaching in a Sunday school class to some who're quite patriotic are begin challenged, I hope, slowly and gently to the contradiction of Jesus is Lord and America is first among their loyalties. My Mennonite background has been helpful to identify where loyalty lies in practice in my faith. I am also indebted to my favorite author N.T. Wright for his clear teaching related to this subject.