(This blog is an adaptation of a recent presentation I gave at the Sawmill Retreat Center in Huron, OH, for a clergy and rostered leaders’ event for two combined ELCA synods. The theme of our days together was that of discipleship).
We have a wonderful lot of of family lore about my father’s mother.
She and my grandfather came over from Denmark when they were in their early twenties, and happily settled in South Dakota.
Grandma was extremely thankful for the opportunities that the United States gave her, and she loved Brookings. She set up her own drapery business, and she became renowned and beloved for her hospitality and her cooking and her good-humor.
But her heart, truth be told, her heart never ever stopped beating for Denmark.
Even so, she did decide to become an American Citizen; she realized that they would never return permanently to Denmark, Brookings life had been good to the both of them, and their family was well settled into American life.
But despite all of those truths, amused family rumor has it that when, in the naturalization ceremony, Grandma was asked whether she renounced loyalty to all other nations, she said yes, all the while crossing her fingers behind her back for her beloved Denmark.
We have a bit of a kerfuffle going on in our little town of Sioux Falls. It concerns a recent decision of our school board to maintain that all children must recite the Pledge of Allegiance (allegiance, by the way, has its origin of meaning bound to Anglo-French legaunce, namely the loyalty of a liege to his lord). A similar bill is now being introduced in Pierre, right now, during our state’s legislative session, regulating that time must be made every day for the Pledge to be said.
You can imagine all the feathers flying; the Vets’, the atheists’, the libertarians’, the conservatives’, and the ‘liberals.’
And it’s also kerfuffling in my daughter’s school.
Because three years ago, on her own, when she was seven, Else (whose middle name, by the way, is my grandmother’s first) announced that she had decided to refuse to say the Pledge.
I was pretty sure that I saw my grandma’s glint in Else’s eyes.
“Why, baby girl?” I asked, trying badly to suppress my glee that already she was rabblerousing.
“Because there clearly isn’t justice and liberty for all. More than that, I don’t think it’s right to pledge allegiance to anything but God.”
Have you ever noticed that the phrase usually uttered is “God and country,” but not nearly so often with the addition of a tiny word, “then,” as in “God and then country?”
It happens, of course. But far and away, it’s the former. In fact, I did a quick and unscientific google search. I got over 1,200,000 hits for “God and Country,” and all of a whopping 217,000 for “God and then Country.”
Let me be clear: Else and I are not anti-America. We are grateful about so much that the United States offers and stands for, not least of all the principles of liberty and justice for all.
We are, though, anti-allegiance-extortion, and we are against the myth that America is synonymous with God.
So I have supported Else’s decision, and every year, I go to my daughter’s teachers to introduce myself, and something of our unique family situation, and to tell her that oh, by the way, Else does not want to say the pledge out of principle and has my full support.
Some could argue that she absolutely ought to say it; not via coercive force, but rather via conviction. The notion of liberty and justice for all is an ideal to which we are to aspire, and it is a reminder about our core identities.
Extremely good point.
But not good enough for Else and me to back down.
So then this Pledge fracas breaks out, and we decided as a family that the time had come to do some more research.
Turns out that the Pledge was written by a man named Francis Bellamy.
He was (get this!) a Christian socialist!
Turns out that Bellamy was a Baptist minister and a Christian socialist.
In 1891, he was hired by a man named Daniel Sharp Ford who owned a small printed mag called the Youth’s Companion. The Youth’s Companion had slumping sales, and so they decided to try and bump up their numbers by tying their subscriptions to a donation of a flag to every school.
A year later, subs were down again, but the Youth’s Companion chief marketer had an idea: yoke the flag deal with the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival. Naturally, a ritual needed to be created for a grand event, and so Bellamy crafted not only a pledge, but also a salute.
We know it as the hand on the heart.
Originally it was (ahem) a hand in the air.
Like the Nazi salute.
Anyhoo, it wasn’t until about 60 years later that the “under God” was added as an antidote to the purported crushing threat of communism ever looming upon American society.
Turns out, Bellamy really liked the notion of “a strong government to protect the weak masses from the powerful corporations.” Throughout his career, he “was a leader in three related movement groups — the public education movement, which sought to celebrate and expand public schools, the nationalist movement, which sought to nationalize public services and protect them from privatization, and the Christian socialist movement, which sought to promote an economy based on justice and equality.”
Suddenly, Else and I could see a possible path toward saying the Pledge. The point of the pledge was to make our nation emulate Jesus’ callings to protect the poor and the weak against the rich and powerful.
We could pledge allegiance to that.
But, still, not to the flag.
Dollars to doughnuts, many political conservatives would positively flip out knowing that the pledge that they are so vehemently defending was written by a Christian socialist who fought against corporations and for big government and public education and the poor and believed that the flag should stand for such things (and anyway, I can’t figure out why they don’t constitutionally recoil at Government forcing people to do anything, but that’s a different blog in a different setting).
In fact, the Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article here listing constitutional as well as religious objections for forcing a diverse group of citizens to say the later-added “under God,” when many people don’t have a god (e.g., atheists), or have many gods (e.g., Zoroastrians and Hindus), or have a really broad notion of God (e.g., Buddhists).
For political and religious reasons, then, I can’t imagine why political conservatives (many of whom are religious conservatives) are planting their flag, so to speak, on the mound of this issue.
Upshot, though, for this blog: Else doesn’t want to pledge allegiance to a thing, even to the republic for which it stands.
She doesn’t want to be a disciple of a flag.
Neither she nor I want her to feel compelled to say the Pledge while surreptitiously crossing her fingers behind her back.
She wants to pledge her allegiance to Jesus.
She wants to be a disciple of Jesus.
Remember that God did not say that there are no other gods. God said that we should have no other gods but God.
Luther, of course, said that God is that in which, or in whom, we place our ultimate trust.
Theologian Miroslav Volf would be proud of Elsegirl, but he knows her acted-on beliefs take great courage.
Much like Jews and Muslims, Christians can never be first of all Asians or Americans, Croatians, Russians, or Tutsis, and then Christians. At the very core of Christian identity lies an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures. A response to a call from that God entails a rearrangement of a whole network of allegiances…Departure is part and parcel of Christian identity…(Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, 40)
Volf’s belief, and to continue to splay my cards out on the table, my belief too, is that the Christian’s core identity has its sole allegiance to God and God’s future (51). In God we Christian disciples trust (I can’t and shouldn’t speak for Americans as a whole).
That is our primary identity. As Christians we trust in God.
Not in America. Not in America above all other nations.
But in God the God of all creation, which includes, of course, all peoples.
No Others exist in the Christian community.
We are a people claimed by, formed by, defined by the risen Christ who came for all, and by the Jesus who fed, welcomed, healed, forgave, taught, visited, and who taught to give to the poor, to clothe the naked, and to turn the other cheek.
And Christians, by their very faith allegiance, not to mention their name (Christ-ians), become ambassadors, become disciples of this particular way of being in the world…a way that, while on occasion might gel with the nationalistic goals of the United States of America, may also, in fact, preclude them.
That’s nicely radical.
There are numerous reasons why the case to force children to say the Pledge of Allegiance is sloppy political, historical, and constitutional thinking.
But there are theological reasons as well.
I think my daughter is right.
I want Else to pledge allegiance to God.
But if she does that, I want her to know who that God is, and be a disciple of the same: the God who wants to redeem the poor of their poverty, and the rich of their wealth; the meek of their fear, and the strong of their hubris; the hungry of their empty tummies, and the full of their gluttony; the naked of their cold and their shame, and the clothed of their excesses and lack of shame; the excluded of their isolation…and the included of their isolation; the hopeless of their despair, and the oblivious of their detachment.
This is the God who might compel Else to speak up against her nation, and who might call her to stay silent in the Pledge, and who might cause her to stand up and applaud her nation when it gets it right.
It’s a trouble-making God.
And a God who offers promise to the troubled.
Not to mention liberty and justice for all.