First, there’s the law of Israel, exemplified most clearly in the Decalogue, which prohibits the making of idols or graven images. Exodus 20:3-5: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
Then, there’s the wider orbit of the Old Testament, which witnesses to the human tendency to make idols of all kinds of things, then deny doing so. Luther famously remarked in the Large Catechism, in his explanation of the First Commandment, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe from the [whole] heart.”
That’s a pretty apt description of how we treat the flag, most days, in our culture. If you don’t believe me, just go to a baseball game, or the start of public school, or a funeral with military rites.
Let Your Yes Be Yes
Then there is Jesus himself, who says, “”But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. ” (Matthew 5:34-37)
To back him up, Jesus’ brother teaches much the same thing in his letter: “Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5:12).
Now, I do strive to be subject to the governing authorities. This is recommended in Romans 13:1 and Titus 3:1. It’s a pragmatic recommendation. Minority religious groups are best served by quietly obeying the law as much as possible. It does remind me that early Christians had to think carefully about how they would act when they were in public near any type of police authority.
It’s also a kingdoms doctrine recommendation. Authority is given by God to earthly authorities, and so we are to obey them, be subject to them, as “God-given.”
Except that of course there are limits to this subjection. We’re celebrating the limits to it today, July 4th, Independence Day, the day representatives of the United States “absolved themselves of allegiance” to the British Crown, never mind that the British Crown and most of the rest of the world would have considered such a declaration of independence a violation of the biblical witness and divine command to be subject to governing authorities.
Returning to the present case, I have for quite some time now become convinced that Jesus’ teaching, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or “No, No'” is one of the central and most disjunctive statements in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s quite apposite, for what Jesus is up to in that Sermon is a theology of the cross, calling things what they truly are, rather than calling the good bad or the bad good. He’s reforming how his listeners thought about pledges. He’s conforming them to his own practice and faith.
When I mention that I don’t pledge allegiance to the flag, many people I know think I am calling my bad action good. What I’m actually trying to do is call a thing what it is. I’m trying to avoid idolatry. It’s not easy, most days.
I Do Like Flags
The truth is, I like the flag. I like flags. Many of them are quite beautiful. One of my favorite pieces of art, ever, is the Jasper John’s flag. Including one of his odder versions, the White Flag.
I just don’t pledge allegiance to the flag, anymore than I pledge allegiance to a quilt, or the paintings of Mark Rothko.
Finally, if we take the biblical witness as example, there’s precious little if any pledging of allegiance to nations of any type going on in Scripture. Our allegiance, if we have allegiance, is to God (Isaiah 19:18). There’s a fair bit more swearing than allegiancing in Scripture, I’ll admit that. But never, as far as I can tell, to things like flags. That’s just not done.
And there is pledging. But in the Old Testament witness, it’s rather complicated, and something over time that simply falls apart. There are instructions in the Pentateuch on how to properly make a pledge to the neighbor. But by the time of Proverbs, you have, Prov. 17.18, “It is senseless to give a pledge, to become surety for a neighbor.” After that, pledges wain, and by the time of Jesus, you have the radically new teaching, “Let your Yes be yes.”
Now of course, we do have that whole debate about the pledge including the words “under God,” which is supposed to help situate our allegiance-swearing in a better theological position. But it doesn’t. It’s still pledging allegiance to a flag.
I think in general we’re better off without the pledging of allegiances of any type. As Jesus teaches, simply let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Empty promises, or promises elevated to sentimental religious fervor, introduce complications. We have truly gotten off course when not only the nation, but Christians who now think this is a Christian nation, believe that pledging allegiance to the flag is a particularly Christian thing to do. It’s not. Quite the opposite.
We can see the complicating nature of all of this at work in our current conversations about the Confederate flag. What does that flag mean, anyway, and how much allegiance is properly still given it, if any? Once you’ve pledged your allegiance to it, made it holy, considered it a place in which to hold trust and heritage, how can you let go, without feeling a deep sense of, for lack of a better term, religious betrayal?
I’ve recently been reading Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music: Sixth Edition. In an early chapter on The Band (in which he gives indication of how deeply The Band exemplifies so much of American culture in their lyrics and biography), Marcus reports a final interview he has with Dominique, Robbie Robertson’s wife, while they are in Woodstock. He ends the chapter with these words.
“America is a dangerous place, and to find community demands as much as any of us can give. But if America is dangerous, its little utopias, asking nothing, promising safety, are usually worse. ‘Look at this,’ Dominique said, taking in her house, the trees, the mountains. ‘It’s beautiful. It’s everything people ought to want, and I hate it.’ Then she grinned. ‘This country life is killin’ me,’ she sang, turning a song we both had heard too many times on its head. ‘I gotta find my way back to the city, and get some corruption in my lungs.”
I’ll fully admit that my discomfort with pledging allegiance to the flag risks the creation of a little utopia. Perhaps I should go back into the city, and get some corruption in my lungs. But on these patriotic days, I just can’t get it out of my head, that perhaps more Christians should consider that Yes, Yes invitation of Jesus, and stop their hand before it tragically covers their heart.
Said otherwise, perhaps the best way to celebrate the peculiar kind of independence native to our nature is to actually exercise it.