“Seek the welfare of the city” (Jer 29:7)
Christian proponents of a variety of doctrinal statements, ethical stances, and public policy positions often proclaim their viewpoints “biblical” either because they assume that the status quo ante must represent the divine will or because their position seems best to reflect a single biblical passage or a small grouping of passages. One could argue that, without reflecting the whole of the biblical witness in all its complexity, nuance, and scope, any such position will inevitably over-simplify, at best, or worse overlook important biblical “data.” Typical Christian voices in the controversy currently raging over professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem of the United States, it seems to me, commit all of these errors: they elevate Paul’s call to obey governments (Rom 13) to supreme importance; they assume the problem-free compatibility of patriotism and Christian faith; and they do not contemplate the relevance of a range of biblical texts dealing with questions of allegiance, idolatry, and responsible citizenship as a believer.
Although rarely mentioned in the context of the current controversy, the following series of biblical vignettes (including one from deutero-canonical literature –which, although not authoritative for Protestant Christianity – provides significant insight into the attitudes toward the possibility of combining loyalty to God and loyalty to state prevalent around the birth of the church) “address” the questions involved in it with surprising force. While the import of each should be rather self-evident, I will conclude my summary retellings of them with a few remarks concerning Paul Tillich’s notion of “ultimate concern” and nationalism as idolatry.
The Three Young Men in Nebuchadnezzar’s Fiery Oven. The first half of the book of Daniel deals, in great part, with a strategy for negotiating the dilemma facing exilic Jews in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, namely: Does participating in civil society as an exile, “seeking the welfare of the city,” require one to shift one’s ultimate loyalties from the God of Israel to the gods of the dominant culture? Conversely, can one be a good, productive, contributing citizen while reserving one’s “allegiance” for one’s Lord?
Just after Daniel had interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2:36-47) when the scribes and sages of Babylon could not, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged Daniel’s/Israel’s God and promoted Daniel to high office in Babylon. Further, on Daniel’s recommendation, Nebuchadnezzar also appointed his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for high office. Some time thereafter, Nebuchadnezzar erected a large idol and issued a proclamation demanding that everyone in the empire worship it on signal or face immolation. Accused by members of the royal court, the three young Israelites explained simply and straightforwardly “we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have erected” (Dan 3:18). They would not venerate an idol established to symbolize the supremacy of the state in violation of their commitment to the God who is Most High. God delivered them from the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar again acknowledged the greatness of Israel’s God, and the young men received a promotion.
Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Just a few chapters later, Daniel 6 recounts an incident of court intrigue involving Daniel, himself, and his rivals at the now Persian court of King Darius. Determined to prevent Darius from promoting Daniel to be Prime Minister of the empire, but unable to find any cause for accusing Daniel “because he was faithful [to his work, to the king]” (6:4), his rivals set a trap. Knowing his practice of praying three times daily, they persuaded the king to issue an edict prohibiting everyone in the Persian Empire from addressing a petition to anyone, human or divine, other than Darius for a period of thirty days. Almost immediately, Daniel went to his upper prayer room to pray. Daniel would not yield to claim that absolute loyalty to the state required absolute loyalty to its head. He persisted in his conviction that his God, the true King of Kings, superseded any human authority. Of course, his enemies caught him in flagrante, as they knew they would, and brought him before the king. Distressed that the dragnet had caught faithful, competent Daniel, but unable to rescind the edict, Darius ordered Daniel to the lion’s den, accompanied by Darius’ own prayer that Daniel’s God deliver him. God did. Darius threw the conspirators into the lion’s den and issued yet another decree calling upon all in his empire to fear “the God of Daniel, for he is the living God…his kingdom shall never be destroyed” (6:26).
Haman and Mordecai. The book of Esther, also set in the context of the Persian court, reflects the concerns of Jews in the Persia era to demonstrate that, although ultimate loyalty to God limits the loyalty one may give to human authorities – whether the state, its symbols, or its human leaders – Jews could still be relied on to “seek the welfare” of the society in which they lived. Esther makes this assertion clear early in the book by juxtaposing the account of a plot against the life of King Ahasuerus exposed by Mordecai, the Jew, Esther’s relative (2:19-23). Mordecai has at heart the legitimate interests of the king and of the state. Immediately, the book turns attention to the promotion of Haman, the Agagite, to the post of Prime Minister. Despite the king’s command that all do obeisance to the new Prime Minister, Mordecai staunchly refuses, prompting Haman to devise the scheme to eradicate the Jews that becomes the focal point of the book. Incidentally, the only justification for Mordecai’s refusal given in Esther is that he was a Jew (3:4). Esther may assume knowledge of the Daniel accounts treated above. In any case, Mordecai asserts and illustrates that good citizenship does not require that one do “obeisance” to the state, its symbols, or its representatives. Ironically, as the book closes, Mordecai has just become prime minister.
Mattathias Refuses to Sacrifice to Antiochus’ God. By the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler of Palestine in the early 100’s BCE, the question of the Jews loyalty to their occupiers had attained new urgency. For a number of reasons related to his weakened status on the international stage, Antiochus determined that, among other approaches, he would subdue the Jewish population Palestine, finally, and that he would do so by, essentially, requiring all Jews to “convert” to Hellenism. He outlawed Sabbath observance and prohibited circumcision, for example. He also expected, as a sign of their allegiance to him/his kingdom, that Jews would participate in the royal cult, that is, they would make sacrifice to Antiochus’ god. The apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees (2:15-28) records a visit by a Greek official to the village of Modein, home of the priest Mattathias and his family, for the purpose of securing these sacrificial “oaths of fidelity.” When a Jew from the village stepped forward to do as demanded, Mattathias’ anti-idolatrous zeal prompted him to kill both the apostate Jews and the royal official. Mattathias, his sons, most prominently Judas, later known as “the hammer” (ha-maccabi), and others fled to the hills. From there, they staged the “Maccabean Revolt” that led to Hanukah and culminated in a period of just over a century of Israelite near-autonomy.
Render to Caesar. One of the controversy encounters between Jesus and his opponents revolved around the question of the degree and nature of loyalty due the state (Mark 12:13-17; Matt 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26). In an effort to entrap Jesus into sounding either like a Roman sympathizer or a rebel against Rome, his opponents inquired about the propriety of paying Roman taxes. Jesus asked them to produce a Roman coin and then Jesus posed a subtle, but powerful, counter question: whose image (Greek εἰκόν, eikon, from which we get the English “icon”) is on the coin and whose inscription (Greek ἐπιγραφή, epigraphe, from which we get the English “epigraph”)? The image, the icon, of course, would have been a depiction of one of the Caesar’s and the inscription would have probably read Kaiser kurios, “Caesar is Lord,” or some variant thereof. Roman emperors employed coins as a propaganda tool to publish their claims to the absolute loyalty of their subjects. They regularly appropriated to themselves the titles “lord,” “savior” (soter), even “god manifest” (phaneis). Romans hailed the news of Augustus’ birth as the gospel (evangelion, “Good News”). Against the backgrounds of Daniel, Esther, and Maccabees, Jesus’ “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” sounded a note of defiance. For a devout Jew of any period, any object bearing an image and a claim to lordship is an idol. In this case, in the person of the emperor, the state claimed allegiance due only the true God, the true Savior.
When early Christians confessed in the words of what seems to be the earliest Christian confession of faith, “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom 10:9), then, they proclaimed their ultimate allegiance to God and not to Rome or its emperor. Paul, citing an early Christian hymn, looked toward the day when “in the name of Jesus, every knee will bend…and every tongue will confess that kurios Iesous Christos (the Lord is Jesus Christ), to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11, my trans.). As heirs of the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Daniel, Mordecai, and Mattathias, the early Christian martyrs died because of this confession, because they would not confess Caesar as lord.
Homo religiosus. Cultural anthropologists sometimes observe that human beings characteristically seek meaning through devotion to something other, grander than themselves. It is as though humans have an innate religious impulse. The 20th century systematic theologian argued that everyone has an “ultimate concern,” something or someone that matters most, around which one organizes one’s life, an object of devotion and allegiance. Tillich argued that idolatry involves investing “ultimate concern” in a penultimate object. In less-technical terminology, Isaiah warned the Judeans of his day that idols, objects made with human hands, cannot hear, see, or move. They cannot save either. They are creations, not creators (cf. Isa 40:18-19; 41:7).
It is not possible to serve two masters (Matt 6:24), to have two ultimate concerns. On the other hand, human beings regularly confuse the creation with the creator (Rom 1:23) and place faith in something short of the true Lord and Savior of us all.
Can contemporary Christians “seek the welfare” of the societies in which we live without confessing the state as lord of our lives? Better put, can one pledge allegiance to any state or any symbol of the state and simultaneously confess Jesus as Lord?
With God’s help, I intend to go wherever Jesus calls me and to do whatever he bids me do. I cannot and will not say the same thing for the United States of America. Its flag may beckon me in directions that I cannot go.
Personal Post Script. Since the days of my seminary studies of the Bible, early church history, theology, and the Radical Reformation, I have not said the Pledge of Allegiance, saluted the flag, or sung the national anthem. I usually stand, quietly and respectfully, because I do respect the ideals codified in the US Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. I do not consider even the Constitution to be a document that can command my allegiance, however. Its authors designed it to draw its effectiveness from playing competing human self-interests against one another, not to nurture and amplify Christ-like hesed/agape. I love the US deeply, but not with blind devotion. I believe that I owe it to God and my fellow human beings to be as critical of my culture and society as the Gospel of Jesus Christ necessitates. If I see my country in the wrong and do not criticize, I am not seeking its welfare.