Allegiances We Don't Honor

We people are fond of making allegiances. Schoolchildren are required to daily recite a pledge to the “United State of America and to the Republic for which she stands. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Millions of boys have taken the Scout’s oath: On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. (One of the items auctioned off in the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s evil empire was a Boy Scouts “Be Prepared” medal. Apparently, Madoff forgot that bit about helping others and being morally straight.)

For generations physicians have pledged all sorts of things they never intended to honor. They promised to partner with the ones who taught them and to financially support them if need be, and to act as healers only: “I will apply measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice. I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.”

And politicians of every gender, race, age and theological persuasion swear to upholding the laws of the land to the benefit of the people.

Isn’t it disturbing to consider how little meaning these oaths really have when it comes to the day-to-day job of living?

Believers the world over have been reciting the words of the Apostles’ Creed for centuries as a public confession of their allegiance to the babe born of the Virgin. The Creed affirms what makes a Christian a Christian.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

Hard to imagine any Christian finding fault with that, isn’t it?

But there he stood, the pastor in that stumbling church, on a Sunday morning, trying to explain the thing he figured he’d never have to be explaining.

“I’ve received so many phone calls this week about the book we are studying leading into Lent that I need to address this,” he said.  “The holy catholic church mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed in the first page of this book does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, but rather to the universal church.”

A woman from the back row shouted: “It’s not capitalized, right?”

“No,” the pastor answered. “It’s not capitalized.”

As the age-old Protestant-Catholic Elephant violently reared back its mighty head, the worship team called the congregation to order:

Savior I come
Quiet my soul remember
Redemptions hill
Where Your blood was spilled
For my ransom
Everything I once held dear
I count it all as lost

In their midst stood a woman singing who has endured a lung-transplant and kidney failure, the result of taking too many anti-rejection drugs. And another woman, two seats over, wondering why instead of fussing, people weren’t praying for this one among them.

Then she remembered something another pastor wrote recently:

Things that followers of Jesus, perhaps meeting in caves and forests, in places like China and Pakistan — knowing that their faith may cost them their lives — are not discussing:

Can I go to a club on the weekends and drink and still be a Christian?

Should I go ahead and buy that $70 sweater at American Eagle? (It would be my 15th sweater.)

Should we put my old, widowed mother in a home or let her live with us?

Should I go to the prayer meeting this Friday night? After all, I don’t have to be at the meeting for God to hear me. And it IS four miles away. Plus, where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom, so I’m free not to go; and, after all, I might only be going out of performance.

Should we upsize our house? I had another kid, and if we don’t move, two of my kids will have to share a room.

Should I get my teeth re-enameled? Whitened?

What tattoo best expresses who I am as a Christian? The real me?

The list goes on.

Yes. We Americans, we Christians, consider our oaths sacred cows that we hold dear.

We’ll argue them to the death.

We just don’t have any intentions of living by them.

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  • Diane

    All I said was, “OUCH!” But when I pushed send, it said my comment was too short… I’ll say it again, “OUCH!”

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Haha. That’s what you get for trying to be brief.

      • There is not any one, single word that can summarize any post ever written by the fine KSZ – that is why one word posts are not allowed on this blog.

        • Diane

          But that is my immediate response to much what K.Z. writes on this blog, because it usually slaps me upside the head! Why do I keep coming back for more is the question? It’s because iron sharpens iron and I need to hear what’s being said.

  • Alison

    How do you do it, Karen? You have this almost supernatural ability to cut through horrendous piles of BS and get to the truth. This one cuts to the quick, but in a good way. If we lived what we believed, instead of endlessly arguing about what we believed, the world would be compelled, lives would be changed, and hearts captivated by the love of Christ. Thanks for this.

    • Gloria

      Alison you said exactly what I wanted to say but couldn’t find the words. Thank you Alison and thank you Karen! WOW!

  • Allegiance. Knowing the etymology of that word in the feudal system and its connotation of owing everything to you liege lord, including your family and your life, I reserve it for God alone as do my Mennonite friends. Most Americans today, I’d bet, would probably tell you that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by our nation’s founders along with the Declaration and the Constitution. Hardly. I’ve wished for many years we could replace it with something I wrote for myself and say in its place when others say the pledge: “I recognize and I accept the privileges and the responsibilities of citizenship in the United States of America, and I pledge my very best efforts in the faithful exercise of both my whole life long.” For me, it ends the confusion of national idolatry, the confusion of symbol with its antecedent. I place my hand over my heart when the flag is presented and the national anthem is played, not because a piece of cloth is there but because the flag calls to mind the abstract ideals of an empowered, self-governing people living under the rule of constitutional law (as opposed to tyrannical plutocracy and autocracy). It is this ideal that commands my respect and my best efforts to translate from concept to concreteness.

    Words matter. They must matter. They have to matter. That’s why as a 24-year-old Airman First Class with a brand new 22-year-old wife on my arm I made a vow as we walked from the altar down the aisle to greet our guests. We had memorized our traditional vows so that we said them to each other as complete statements from our hearts. My new silent vow to myself was that I would remember that wedding vow and repeat it verbatim to my wife on our 25th anniversary. I did so when that day came 15 years ago. I can still say that vow verbatim. Over the years it’s been a superb and humbling reminder to me what I promised 40 years ago. Words matter.

    One of my greatest conflicts of conscience was the oath of enlistment. I didn’t promise to uphold the country, a party, a president or an ideology. I promised to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to faithfully execute the lawful orders of my superior officers. Since I considered the Commander-in-Chief at the time to be a formidable domestic enemy of the Consitution and the war we were engaged in to be illegitimate, there would have been things that I would have had to say “No, sir!” to, had I been ordered to do them.

    Fortunately as a Cold Warrior with real and numerous enemy nuclear, chemical, biological and conventional WMD under our purview, I could comply with what I was asked to do without a violation of both oath and conscience. Again, words matter. If not so, we would never have written the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, numerous laws. We would not have courts to decide exactly (well, maybe somewhat approximately) just what all those words mean and how to apply them.

    It might be really good for us to take a time out in our churches and coffee klatsches to consider the words that define our lives. I was ordained into the “holy catholic church”, the church of the whole shebang, on January 29. More words. I take them as seriously as all others. As the bishop said before placing his hands on my head, for this office I am accountable to God. It doesn’t go any higher than that. At my age, that accounting will some sooner rather than later. Soon and very soon…

    Yes, it would be good for us to review our vows, our promises, our oaths, our pledges. And before we ever presume to send another person to lay down their life in our name, we first ought to be completely clear ourselves just what their oath of enlistment requires of them and what citizenship requires of us. Yes, they can be ordered to lay down their lives–provided that a legal test is met from stem to stern. Convenience has nothing to do with it. And no laws or legalisms are legitimate unless they are first on the side of the right. Strange that we task our soldiers with making that interpretation with every order when the responsibility and the authority both clearly rest with us. Our job.

    That is, after all what we said this country was about when we built it. Words mattered then. They still do. They are all we have to give definition to the ideals that I hope always fly overhead like a flag that never touches the ground over which those ideals reign under the dominion of God.

  • Wanda

    I have to admit that as I finished reading it, the word “Ouch” quietly came out of my mouth…I see, like Diane.

    But once again you hit at the heart. Good stuff. “By thy words thou shalt me justified, by thy words…..” uh oh.

    As usual, dear sister Karen, good stuff. Love WV

  • Wanda

    “be” not “me” ooops

  • Steve Taylor

    I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord … “I am an American Fighting Man …” But what do you do in the in-between spaces???

    As the once good airman stood with these new Russian friends, this Russian family, he remembered …

    “Echo, Victor, India, Lima, Delta, Alfa, Yankee … Standby.”
    “Echo, Victor, India, Lima, Delta, Alfa, Yankee … Standby.”
    “Echo, Victor, India, Lima …” and on and on and on …

    The airman delivered the words in the well-practiced voice of the professional, sung them out with clarity and precision. For his message, delivered with surety and measured tone, was meant to convey a word of immeasurable proportion. It was a fine art, no doubt, the art of the master, delivered with no less care than a Rembrandt. It was brought to existence by the precise movement of those who had perfected this dance, this song of the New Age. Yet his art was not the beauty of prose, but the prelude to an act of horror, an act of nightmarish consequence.

    He was enmeshed in an activity in which he had partaken hundreds of times, as he and six other men and women had hurdled through the sky high above the Pacific Ocean on an airborne command post that provided the control for hundreds of nuclear weapons pointed at Russia.

    And had the airman ever read those words for real, great locks would have been blown, giant blast shields would have swung aside, and immense vehicles ferrying the destructive power of a thousand generations would have slid from their protected silos buried deep within the ground.

    Had the airman read those words for real, those vehicles and their horrific cargo would have ended their journey in fire and explosion and nightmare, and most of the folks in the room where he now stood would have died in a most horrible way.

    As the now middle-aged airman stood here among these beautiful Russian brothers and sisters and remembered, as he stood awashed by the wonder of their music delivered in the voice of God, he knew, he knew with absolute certainly, that had he ever been asked to read those words for real, he would have done his job.

    He would have done his job.

    Later that day, there at that Annual Conference of the Russian United Methodist Church,someone who knew his story took him down front and introduced him to Demitri Lee, the District Superintendent of the Moscow District.

    They said, “Tell him your story, tell him your story.”

    As the middle-aged airman began to speak to Demitri, tears began to run down Demitri’s face and Demitri’s shoulders begin to shake, and then he reached over and grabbed the once-young airman in the tightest bear hug.

    In a broken voice, Demitri began choking out an explanation, “We never knew the truth, we were taught we were to hate you. We never knew the truth.”

    “But my brother,” the airman replied with equal emotion, “That’s my line.”

    And Demitri Lee wept. Demitri Lee, the retired two star Soviet general, one of the ones that the airman spent most of his adult life learning to kill, one of the princes of that nation which had been called “the evil empire,” wept. And the airman who would once have willingly rained nuclear annihilation upon his enemy’s world, now wept with him. And there they stood, baptized in the tears of the One who would weep for us all.

    Soon, the singing began again. It was a song the airman had heard many times, a song he had sung a hundred times before. The words were the cry of the hopeful, the voice of faith offered by a beautiful people who had for so long been denied faith.

    “Здесь я – Бог. Это я Бог? Я услышал Вас звонящий ночью. Я пойду Бог. Если Вы ведете меня. Я буду держать ваших людей в моем сердце.”

    “Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

    And in this place of the enemy, in this place of song, there were no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor Russian, nor American. There were no longer those who struggle against one another. There was no longer any need for arms and missiles and bombs and war. There were just those clinging together who found that because of this Jesus who would not stay tucked safely away in creeds and formulas, they could do no other.

    I believe in God … the creator and sustainer of the cosmos, the narrator of all that is, the almighty to whom all flags bow.

    I believe in Jesus. Lord. The one who said, “Love your enemy.” The one who said, “Gouge out your eye.” The one who said, “Be ye perfect.” I believe in this Jesus, the one who refuses to dismiss us over to our own devilish acts of hate. I believe in this one who calls me “brother.” The one who calls Demitri “brother.” Jesus Christ, God’s son, who through his life, death, and resurrection, makes brothers and sisters of us all.

    I believe that I didn’t kill my brother Demitri. Thank God.

    • Steve– I don’t have time to search out the Cyrillic on my keyboard for a reply, but vas ponyal, vas ponyal. What you have written here is the deeper fulfillment of “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by/thru me.” The common interpretation “my religion’s true, yours is false unless you’re like me” is not the point. The point is that unless our relationship with God is powerful enough to demolish war it’s not complete, not fulfilled. Spasibo!(thanks)

      • Steve T

        Yep, knew you would understand and you are most welcome.