This summer the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of an atheist who did not want his 9-year-old daughter at public school to say “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The man brought the case because he thought the phrase violated a First Amendment guarantee that the government will not “establish” religion. The Supreme Court dismissed the case on a technicality: The man did not have legal custody of his daughter.
Regardless of what the courts say about specific words in the Pledge of Allegiance, followers of Jesus Christ should ponder the wisdom of saying the pledge at all. Political allegiance in this country has religious overtones that sometimes shade into idolatry. In the long shadow of Sept. 11, millions of bumper stickers have “God bless America” superimposed upon the flag. When reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, even civilians stand at attention and put hand over heart. Politicians of both parties who helped launch the current war in Iraq want to be seen as God-fearing and churchgoing believers. American presidents swear to defend the Constitution by putting their right hand on a Bible that says, “Swear not at all.”
The New Testament is explicit about Christian obligations to government: respect rulers, pay taxes and obey laws that do not conflict with allegiance to Jesus. Christians are not anarchists. Like Jeremiah, we “seek the welfare of the city” and the country where God has placed us (Jeremiah 29:7). But allegiance in this country is so closely tied to military might that it should raise questions for followers of the Lamb.
A Christian pledge of allegiance
I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ,
And to God’s kingdom for which he died—
One Spirit-led people the world over, indivisible,
With love and justice for all.
By June Alliman Yoder and J. Nelson Kraybill
The phrase “under God” hardly makes the Pledge of Allegiance more appropriate for Christians. That phrase was not in the Pledge when it first appeared in 1892. Politicians inserted the reference to God in 1954 but not because they wanted to follow the Sermon on the Mount or other teachings of the Son of God. Rather it was politically expedient for a nation fighting atheistic Communism to claim God on our side. Mention of God in the pledge gives the impression that God blesses American dominance in the world.
Christians in the early church generally refused to give allegiance to the emperor. The earliest confession of faith, ‘Jesus is Lord” (I Corinthians 12:3), used exactly the same terminology as those who proclaimed, “Caesar is Lord.” Of course that was an era when the emperor claimed to be divine and was worshiped as a god.
No American president claims divinity, but many Americans give government the kind of allegiance that belongs to God alone. The nation has followed without much hesitation as Democrat and Republican administrations have led us into enormous bloodshed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. We have supported political leaders who seemed prepared to pay almost any price—including the risk of nuclear annihilation-to protect sources of cheap oil and other scarce commodities.
We do well to remember the courage and conviction of believers in the early church who would not pledge allegiance to the emperor. In the year A.D. 298, enemies threatened the Roman Empire on several fronts. For reasons of state security, the government increased pressure on soldiers and others to demonstrate allegiance to the “divine” emperor. In the country we call Morocco, protocol required the centurion Marcellus to lead his troops in giving allegiance to Rome on the emperor’s birthday.
An ancient account states that, “Marcellus rejected these pagan festivities.” He threw down his soldier’s belt (which carried his weapons) in front of the legionary standards (the Roman eagle and images of the emperor). Then he spoke in a loud voice in front of his troops: “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the eternal king. From now I cease to serve your emperors and I despise the worship of your gods of woods and stone, for they are deaf and dumb images.”
The record says the soldiers under the command of Marcellus were “amazed,” and promptly arrested him. An account of his trial in October 298 records the following exchange between the judge Agricolanus and Marcellus:
Agricolanus: “Did you say the things that are recorded in the prefect’s report?”
Marcellus: “Yes, I did.”
Agricolanus: You threw down your weapons?”
Marcellus: “Yes, I did. For it is not fitting that a Christian, who fights for Christ his Lord, should fight for the armies of this world.”
Agricolanus: “What Marcellus has done merits punishment according to military rules. And so, whereas Marcellus, who held the rank of centurion, first class, has confessed that he has disgraced himself by publicly renouncing his military oath, …. I hereby sentence him to death by the sword.”
Marcellus (being led out to execution): “Agricolanus, may God reward you.”
There is debate among scholars about why many Christians in the first centuries refused to serve in the military. Was it because Jesus said we should love our enemies? Was it the biblical injunction against killing? Was it because at the summit of the military hierarchy stood an emperor who claimed to be divine?
Probably all of the above played into the courageous decision of Marcellus not to pledge allegiance to emperor and empire. Similar issues of violence and patriotism that shades into idolatry should give Christians in the United States pause about pledging allegiance to flag or country today.
Marcellus died on Oct. 30, 298. I honor his decision not to pledge allegiance to emperor and empire.
Such symbolic acts penetrate the soul, affecting us in ways we cannot fully anticipate. Worship of God and the Lamb should be our pledge of allegiance, the regular ritual that shapes hearts and minds in the likeness of Christ.
This article used by permission.
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