Friends, I have wrestled over sharing this with you. I know some of you may not be ready to hear this word. Some of you perhaps are ready, especially those who have been going through our study of Revelation this summer. I share this as a means to offer a different perspective as we enter into the celebrations for this weekend. I also share this as one who has served in the military for 8 years and has given much thought and reflection over the differences between gratitude for something (we should always be ready to give thanks and praise to God for our many blessings) and allegiance to something. They are very different. And so I offer this from my heart in the hopes that it can lead to fruitful discussion (please feel free to comment!) and perhaps lead us all into deeper conformity to Christ, the head of our Church. Grace and peace to you all!
Another civic holiday is upon us, the Fourth of July, and churches all across America will once more bring into question their allegiances. Many churches will deck themselves in red, white and blue while parading the flag down the center aisle only to then direct everyone’s attention to it as they pledge their loyalty. And few will see little problem with that.
I have been teaching the book of Revelation to an adult class at church. Many of the chapters I have written study notes that can be found on this blog. It is impossible to walk away from a study of Revelation without engaging questions about empire and the church’s collusion with her. At nearly every turn in Revelation we find John, the Pastor, asking his churches, “Where does your allegiance lie? With Rome or with the Lamb?”
The first century church was faced with some interesting dilemmas. They were becoming increasingly non-Jewish which served to bring them under Roman scrutiny (Rome gave certain allowances to Judaism simply because they had a penchant for things that were ancient). Christians were not Jews and yet they were also not part of the many Roman mystery religions, causing them to stand out like a sore thumb.
In Rome there were certain codes the citizens were expected to live by. This way of life was known as the Mos Maiorum, or the “customs of the ancestors.” Within this code of life was a practice called pietas, or offering proper respect and honor to the gods and goddesses of Roman civic life. Pietas was shown in a number of ways, from attending celebrations in honor of Caesar, attending the games, partaking of the market economy, offering incense and offerings to the various gods, attending religious cultic festivals and so forth. While Jews were exempt from these practices and allowed to practice their religion (so long as they did not cause trouble and paid their taxes to Rome), Christians, who were no longer protected under the umbrella of Judaism, were becoming increasingly suspect. Don’t they want peace? Don’t they want things to go well for Rome? According to the Roman tradition, things would go well with Rome so long as the citizens adhered to the Mos Maiorum, and especially observed pietas. When things went badly with Rome, even natural disasters such as earthquakes, famines, floods or fires, guess who got blamed? The Christians who were not properly honoring the gods.
Life in the 1st century for a Christian was not particularly easy given this context. It is quite natural for the people to ask their pastor, “What if we just offered a small offering on our way out of church to one of the temple gods? What if we just attended a festival now and then honoring Caesar? What if we just blended in a little bit, offering some small example of pietas so that we don’t get in trouble with Rome?” Their pastor is uncompromising in his answer: NO! In fact, he calls the entire system that is trying to seduce them into thinking they are safe under it’s wings a beast from the pits of hell – a drunken, blood-thirsty whore who cannot and will not give life but only death and destruction. It is a beast that has come from hell and will return there. As such, he warns his flock in the seven churches, “Come out of her!” There is no refuge there, John assures them, but only death. John’s thrust throughout Revelation is an attempt to shock the church out of her complacency while also reassuring them that God, not Caesar, is on the throne.
There is a certain Mos Maiorum that exists in our culture today. A certain pietas that is expected of citizens of this country we are at present blessed to live in. Our pietasis not offering sacrifices to mystery gods or attending festivals honoring Caesar but being a good patriot, serving in the military, waving our American flag at home and in church, singing national anthems and of course, saying the pledge of allegiance whenever the flag is raised. To not do any of these things will provoke a curious stare at best and outright anger and hostility at worst. Don’t you want peace? Don’t you want things to go well for America? Are you not a patriot? Recently I heard that a pastor told a congregation at a funeral that all Christians are patriotic Americans. This is a problem if we are to take the Revelation of Jesus Christ seriously. We have become a nation that has been baptizing people into becoming good citizens rather than disciples of Jesus Christ.
As we approach the Fourth of July churches across the nation will have a choice to make. They, just like the people of John’s churches in the 1st century, will have to decide where their allegiance lies. People in pews throughout America will be asking, “Isn’t it OK to offer just a little offering to the country? Isn’t it OK to pledge my allegiance to something other than Christ just this one time? What’s so bad about that?” Again, John’s answer, if we are to take the testimony of scripture seriously, is NO! You cannot serve two masters, John would tell us. Our allegiance is either to the Lamb of God or it is to something else entirely, something John describes as a beast, the whore of Babylon.
So I will refrain from pledging my allegiance to a flag or anything other than Christ this year. Not because I feel that love of country is wrong or sinful (it is perfectly OK to have certain loves, and certainly OK to be a good citizen, and it is certainly OK to be very thankful and grateful for the freedoms we have and the people that made, and make, that possible) but because I feel a line is crossed when we move from love to allegiance. So rather than allegiance to a flag or a nation I want to offer my own rendition of a pledge, one that I think the Pastor, Prophet and Poet John would give his consent to. Would you join me in this pledge?
I pledge allegiance to the Lamb who sits upon the throne and to the Kingdom for which he stands. Heaven and Earth, reconciled to God, in ministry and service to all.