Wednesday, July 05, 2017

I Pledge Allegiance

Yesterday in the United States we celebrated our nation's independence.  My Facebook feed was mixed between friends sharing pictures of barbecues, parades, and fireworks and pastors/authors writing about the co-mingling of patriotism and faith (pro and con).  All day I was wrestling with the feeling that I had to write something, but what more is there to be said?  Then I saw this article on the Babylon Bee: 'Dozens Accept America as Lord and Savior at First Baptist Dallas Service' (which is satire, in case you weren't sure).

For a little background, the pastor at First Baptist Dallas is Robert Jeffress, a very outspoken Trump supporter.  Last week he held a church service with his church adorned with the American Flag and worship songs centered on patriotic themes (including, without any hint of irony, Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land").  Then on Saturday, a choir from the same church sang a hymn based on President Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again" at a "Celebrate Freedom Rally" in Washington, DC.

photo credit: KNEB-TV via The Blaze
I've always been uneasy with the assumption by many that faith and patriotism (both likely to be blind) can coexist in the heart of a sincere disciple of Jesus.  That's not to say that we shouldn't make political decisions based on our religious convictions, or that it is impossible to love both Jesus and America.  But idolatry is probably mankind's greatest temptation, and we frequently elevate our politics, our patriotism, even our religious convictions (for just one example, see all the debate over Biblical inerrancy) to a degree of allegiance higher than our confession of Jesus as Lord.  So I struggle even with placing my hand over my heart to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because it calls into question where my allegiance truly lies.

Like I said, this debate is nothing new for those who follow these sorts of things.  But my intention behind this blog is to call these things out and to call us higher- that our allegiance isn't to red or blue, right or left, rather it is to a Savior-King and his kingdom.  And I want to do that not by cutting down those with whom I disagree with politically, or mock the sincerely faithful that unfortunately are a product of a corrupt religious system, but by encouraging us to focus our attention higher and develop a deep conviction regarding the Kingdom of God.

So I think the recent book by Matthew Bates titled Salvation by Allegiance Alone is so critical and timely.  His thesis is simple- what if the Greek work often translated as "faith", pistis, could better be translated as "allegiance".  This opens up a host of implications, not the least of which is the notion of what we consider to be patriotism.

While this may seem like a politically-motivated reach, there's a lot of quality scholarship behind his assertion.  But I want to point out two specific examples while thinking about what it means to "pledge allegiance".  The first is from 1 Maccabees, where rival King Demetrius asks the Jews to "keep faith" (Greek pistis) with him over Alexander the Great.  He is not asking for a confession that leads to salvation, rather for a pledge of allegiance.  The second is from Jewish general/historian Josephus who writes about how he urged a rebel leader to "repent and believe in me" using the adjective pistos.  Again, this can be interpreted as to "repent and pledge allegiance" because Josephus wasn't offering any type of spiritual salvation.  So if you think about it, isn't that what Jesus is calling each of us to do in Mark 1:15 when he proclaims, "The kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!"

Another clue for interpreting "faith" or "believe" in this way is Jesus' own words above linking belief to the "good news" (AKA the gospel) and the kingdom.  The word we often translate as gospel or good news, historically gives the connotation of declaring a military victory or the coronation of a king.  So the "good news" Jesus is referring to here isn't personal salvation but the inauguration of his kingdom and the defeat of sin, which becomes accessible to us through faith in Jesus.

If you're in a war (spiritual in this case) and a king is offering you salvation (or more accurately deliverance) in exchange for a confession of faith, what then does this "faith" mean if not allegiance?

So that brings us back to debate over faith and patriotism that arises this time every year.  What does it mean to pledge allegiance?  What does it mean to salute the flag?  What does it mean to be patriotic while at the same time being a believer who has made a confession of faith, or rather allegiance?

Jesus challenges us in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, "no one can serve two masters." (Matthew 6:24)  In context he is talking about money, but his words are true whatever the other master may be (Abraham Lincoln applied this idea to politics when he quoted Jesus from Mark 3 that, "a house divided against itself cannot stand").  Jesus furthers this point with the parable of kings at war in Luke 14:31-33 where if you know you can't win with the army you have you go to the opposing king to ask for terms of peace.  What do you think the other king will request if not undivided allegiance.

It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for a church to teach that we need to have undivided faith in our savior Jesus Christ.  But if we change the word's intent to ask for undivided allegiance, a church suddenly becomes a cult, or overly-political, or unaccommodating.

So I'll just leave this here for you to chew on.  You may have lit off all your fireworks and already packed away the red, white, and blue decor, but the next time you hear the National Anthem, or God Bless America, or stand to recite the Pledge consider what it means to declare to have faith in Jesus.  Is it just a intellectual ascent, a cultural acceptance, a routine religious ritual, or does it mean something more?