About 10 years ago, when I was a seminarian at Gettysburg Seminary, I attended a series of lectures whose theme was “Luther and War.” A rather touchy subject given our location on the battlefield (and yes, the seminary predated the battle), but also because we had a number of military chaplains there studying for their Masters in Divinity. One of my top 10 cranky theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, spoke. He said something which was jarring to me that day. He said, “American Christians are more ‘American’ than they are ‘Christian.’” Wow … ouch! I felt myself pushing back against that, but I also had to recognize that I was raised in a family which believed the highest form of patriotism was being loyal opposition during Vietnam. But I’ve mulled over his comment in these 10 years and the fact I can remember it clearly as if it were yesterday says something. He was speaking about divided allegiances between country and Christ and it is the subject of divided allegiances which Paul is addressing this morning in his letter to the church in Corinth.
Paul says he’s heard from Chloe’s people that they are breaking into factions based on who baptized them. “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Apollos” is telling us the Corinthians have forgotten their allegiance is to Christ and him alone. It’s not hard to see why they are struggling with this. After all, the people of Corinth are converts from a Greco-Roman culture where there was panoply of gods. The worship of the Emperor as a “god incarnate” and the civic religion of empire worship was what they knew. Confusion happened often in trying to understand who Jesus Christ was and what monotheism and belief in a Triune God meant. We even hear in the 14th chapter of Acts how Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for “gods come down as humans” when they healed a man in Laodicea. The residents there named Barnabas “Zeus” and Paul “Hermes” (because he did the talking) and the priest of the Temple of Zeus comes out and the whole community tries to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas! Paul kind of freaks out and screams “NO!! We are just mortals like you! Don’t do this!” but even with the protestations, they couldn’t prevent the locals from offering sacrifice. With this kind of confusion possible, it isn’t hard to see how the Corinthians could end up with divided allegiances.
Paul expresses his frustration in this portion of the letter when he exclaims he thanks God he “baptized none of you” (with a few exceptions, of course). He then goes on to exhort them to lay down these divided allegiances, repent, and turn back to the truth that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ, and him alone.
It would be tempting to believe this issue of divided allegiances is only a problem with Gentile converts and somehow worked its way out so it isn’t an issue today. However, we would be naïve to believe that as there has always been the temptation to divide our loyalties and swear our ultimate allegiance to temporal things. Allow me put this into our modern context. While we would not say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Cephas” today, how many of us would say “I belong to the Democratic Party” or “I belong to the Republican Party” or “I’m with Bernie” or “I’m with her”? You see, politics is one way we Christians can find ourselves embroiled in the same problem of divided allegiances which lead to fractiousness. When political party or ideology becomes where we put our ultimate trust, we have made them our god and this is the sin of idolatry regardless of whether you are on the left or the right.
This morning I am deeply troubled by the inaugural address of our new president, Donald Trump. In that address, he said:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and, through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when god’s people live together in unity.
For much of Christian history, our faith has cozied up in the service of empires and nations putting political leaders, whether emperor, king or president, over our allegiance to Jesus Christ. We know this as “Christendom” and history has shown it to be an unholy alliance. Whether the Church was supporting the militaristic empirical desires of the Holy Roman Empire in the Crusades, or the subjugation of the Native Peoples in the New World by the Conquistadors, or the tacit support of Hitler, or the National Catholicism of Francisco Franco, or the Moral Majority in our own country – every time we have forgotten the message of Christ and put it at the foot of Nationalism, we have grieved the Holy Spirit and crucified our Lord once again.
The marriage of Christian language to the civic religion of Nationalism has a long history, but it really began to amplify in the 1950s. During the 1950s, we entered the Cold War which posited our nation as a “God-fearing Christian nation” against the Russia (the USSR) which we called a “godless Communist nation.” In the service of anti-communist rhetoric, our country added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and put the words “In God We Trust” on our money. It may seem like a small thing but its effect was insidious. For a nation founded on the principle of “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”) and the belief that Church and State should be separated, we now had a nation which was putting God in service of our political agenda. I never knew of a time when these phrases invoking God were not in the Pledge or on our money – this happened 10 years before I was born. I never questioned it … until I went to seminary and was ordained. I have now come to realized just how our faith in Jesus Christ has been co-opted in the service of another god: namely the Nation.
I believe we are at a very important spiritual cross-road in this country where it is imperative we deeply examine both our faith in Christ and the religion of Nationalism. I think it’s helpful to see Nationalism as a religious practice because I found it very helpful in detangling how Christianity has been caught up in its web. Nationalism has its own liturgical practices like saying the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the National Anthem. That might sound odd to you, but consider that each of those actions asks you to take a particular physical posture, stand and put your hand over your heart, just as our church’s liturgy asks you to take a particular physical posture in the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer. Anyone who violates the accepted norms of physical posture during the Pledge or the National Anthem is publically castigated and shunned. Nationalism also has its own set of “Holy Days” (from which we derive the word “holiday”) and interestingly, they all occur during the Church’s Ordinary Time: President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving. When the Church appears to “go silent” the religion of Nationalism rises to the fore.
Now please let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying you should refrain from saying the Pledge of Allegiance or not sing the National Anthem. What I am encouraging you to do is to raise your awareness of how religion, especially Christianity, has been used in the service of the civic religion of Nationalism. Spiritualizing the nation and using the Bible and Christian imagery to support the nation state creates divided allegiances which can often be at cross-purposes with faith in Jesus Christ. Whether you say the Pledge or sing the National Anthem is your own personal choice but be aware there are Christians who cannot do this because of their deep moral reflection on their ultimate allegiance to Christ alone. Whatever your decision on these matters, make sure what you do is done thoughtfully and prayerfully not just merely an act of blind obedience and without reflection.
In light of our current culture, I believe it is a Christian imperative to think deeply and reflect prayerfully on how our allegiances are being divided by Nationalism and political ideology. We are not called to worship Nation, king, or president. Our true citizenship was given at the font in baptism and it is citizenship in the Kingdom of God – any other is temporal and passing. Our total allegiance is to Christ and this is what it means to follow him.