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A Series of Biblical Vignettes A Propos Pledging Allegiance

“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.

Eclipses, Hurricanes, and an Integrated Christian Worldview

The sun will be turned to darkness…before the coming of the … day of the Lord.

Joel 2:31

Eclipses, hurricanes, and earthquakes have dominated the twenty-four hour news cycle in recent days and weeks. Total solar eclipses seem infrequent and are magnificent, but entirely harmless (unless, of course, viewed with the naked eye) and predictably regular; hurricanes and earthquakes, especially when of the magnitude of Harvey and Irma or the earthquake that took place a few days before I sat down to write this (9/11/17), occur with greater regularity, but can cause great damage and loss of life, and are notoriously unpredictable.  All share the capacity to evoke in human beings a sense of awe and wonder, even of fear and dread. They eerily remind us of the power of nature.

For the same reasons, they also tempt some to see them as portents and to seek in them some dire expression of God’s explicit will.  Surely, such demonstrations of power represent divine warning (eclipses) or divine wrath (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, epidemics), some say. Recently, for example, none other than Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz (see, Pastor Mark Blitz (see, and no doubt scores of other lesser-known preachers and pastors have declared the recent solar eclipse to be a divine warning for America to repent.  Further, Blitz has likened Harvey’s impact and import to those of the biblical Flood (see and by now, no doubt, someone has incorporated Irma into the scheme. Such equations of natural phenomena with the admonitory voice of God are, it seems to me, dangerous, disingenuous, and detrimental.

The danger in such pronouncements takes at least two forms.  First, it engages in victim-blaming, disregards God’s reputation for justice, and manifests little awareness of the complex biblical discussion of the question. One need cite only three texts to illustrate that God’s administration of justice in the world is far too nuanced, even mysterious, to conform to the “sinners merit punishment: you have suffered disaster:: you are a sinner” syllogism. As early as Gen 18:25, Abraham insisted on the converse position that, as the Judge of all the earth, God would surely not commit the injustice of punishing the righteous along with the unrighteous. Job rejected the syllogism as championed by his “friends” until, in the end, God affirmed Job as in the right. Jesus reminded his disciples that God “manages” the weather, in particular, with no intention of micro-targeting it.  Instead, sun shines and the rain falls on both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45).

Pronouncements such as those cited above are also dangerous for those who make them. They bespeak a spiritual arrogance, suggesting, as they do, that the speaker knows the mind of God to a degree of intimacy surpassing understanding. Yet the Bible repeatedly warns against too readily assuming the role of divine spokesperson (cf. Deut 13; Jer 27-28; Mark 13; etc.) and specifically against fascination with signs, seasons, and times (esp. Mark 13 and parallels; 1 Cor 1:22; Gal 4:10). All preachers and teachers must struggle against the temptation to identify our opinions and biases with the will of God.

Such pronouncements are also disingenuous. Assuming for the moment and for the sake of argument that hurricane Harvey represented God’s warning to someone, how would we know whom God intended to address?  Lotz, Blitz, and others like them blame the whole gamut of “liberals,” especially those in or sympathetic with the LGBTQ community, for Harvey. Yet, Houston, the largest city in TEXAS, hardly makes the best target for such a warning – it is no San Francisco. Far from a hotbed of liberalism, it is home to mega-churches such as Second Baptist (arguably, the largest Baptist church in the world), Lakewood Church, and Windsor Village UMC whose pastors are among the SBC’s fundamentalist leadership (Ed Young) and the nation’s leading advocates for the so-called “prosperity gospel” (Joel Osteen, Lakewood; Kirbyjon Caldwell, Windsor Village).  If I were so inclined, I might suggest that God’s warning addressed a different audience.

I am not so inclined, however, because such pronouncements are also detrimental to the cause of Christ because they contribute to the popular perception of Christianity as anti-intellectual, even superstitious. One need not deny the evidence of science in order to believe in a creating, sustaining, loving God.  The time has long past for some Christians to abandon their warfare with science. Solar eclipses occur, on average, twice a year. They occur because of the geometry of the solar system.  They are geometrically predictable. Individual eclipses are visible only from parts of the globe, but that, too, is geometry.  I believe that God created the geometry, but I see no evidence that God manipulates its regularity to send messages. Instead, I view them, even or especially in their predictability and grandeur, as I view the birth of a child – mundane, everyday, natural, yet profound signs of God’s creative power.  Hurricanes (and tornadoes) are less predictable in occurrence, but also result from the geometry and geography of the world. In a world with a tilted axis, with oceans covering almost three-quarters of its surface much of it along the equator, with a sun the size of ours and at our distance from it, and with continental–sized, asymmetrical, and unequally distributed landmasses, there must be hurricanes (and tornadoes).  – Incidentally, as my mother used to remind me, when I complained of the heat and humidity in the South, without them, we could not grow tomatoes and okra. I love tomatoes and okra: no hurricanes, alas, no tomatoes. – There have been hurricanes for as long as the world has been so configured.  Again, I believe that God created the geometry and the geography, but I see no evidence that God manipulates the temperature of the Atlanta Ocean off the coast of Africa and the steering currents to target hurricanes for the purposes of punishing or of sending messages. Earthquakes occur along fault lines where two tectonic plates meet. They produced the Rocky Mountains, the European Alps, the Appalachian mountains, the Jordan River Valley (Rift), and Death Valley – all wondrous, majestic, and beautiful. When they shift and if people live in the vicinity, there will be disaster. They are going to shift because God apparently decided to shape the world through the mechanism of tectonic plates.  Yet again, I believe that God created the geographical parameters of this world, but I see no evidence that God manipulates tectonic pressures to send messages to the Californians or the Mexicans or the Italians or the Japanese.

Still, the Bible does contain a “doctrine” (the word may be too strong) of the (nearly inevitable) relationship between a deed and its consequences.  According to this viewpoint, it is not so much that God “punishes” people for their wrongdoing as it is that wrongdoing warps the world in which one lives and (nearly) inevitably “comes home to roost.”  This is the idea in the mind of the author of Lamentations 1:14 who has a personified Jerusalem say, “[God] bound my wrongdoings into a yoke, God’s hands tied them together, God placed them on my neck…” (my translation). Can you imagine opening the door to find God standing there with all of your wrongdoings tied into a bundle and hearing God say, “These are yours; I have brought them back home to you”?  It is the idea behind discussions in Leviticus 26 and Jeremiah 3, for example, of sin “polluting” the land.

If I hear a warning from God in hurricanes Harvey and Irma it is this: by our treatment of the environment and our hubristic patterns of housing development, to name just two of our “wrongdoings,” we have sown the wind.  Harvey and Irma are the whirlwind.  God’s message is not that God manipulates God’s world, but that we have abused it and brought imbalance that is already weighing on our necks.

Plain Language is Difficult to Misinterpret, but Easy to Ignore

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deut 30:11-14 RSV)

This summer, I have been blogging about the harm done by propagating misinterpretations of scripture. In most cases, the scripture passages in question have at least been tricky enough to open the door for such misinterpretation – although not enough to excuse it.  Recent events at Charlottesville, just a few miles to the west of my Continue reading Plain Language is Difficult to Misinterpret, but Easy to Ignore

Perpetual Poverty?

“…you always have the poor…”

(Mark 14:7; Matt 26:11; John 12:8)

The two most recent entries in this blog have examined how people have used poor biblical interpretation of, admittedly, difficult texts to justify and undergird racism and misogyny. This entry turns attention to the ways in which some have perverted a saying of Jesus – who elsewhere called the poor blessed and equated how one treats the poor with Continue reading Perpetual Poverty?

Eve’s Curse

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all Continue reading Eve’s Curse

The Curse of Ham: An Admonitory Case-Study in Misreading Scripture

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah Continue reading The Curse of Ham: An Admonitory Case-Study in Misreading Scripture

No Stream without a Source

Part II

In the most recent entry in this blog, I reacted to Brent Strawn’s, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment by offering reflections concerning factors that may contribute to the phenomenon Strawn describes.  This second entry on the subject will examine some of the dangers for believers and for the church inherent in Continue reading No Stream without a Source

No Stream without a Source

Part I

A few days ago, an email brought to my attention a review of a new book by Emory OT professor Brent Strawn (The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment [Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017]). Strawn concludes from surveys of biblical knowledge, statistics Continue reading No Stream without a Source

To An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Luke’s record of the Apostle Paul’s foray into the philosophy of religion/apologetics (Acts 17:22-31) portrays an approach to evangelism that differed significantly from Paul’s typical practice. Earlier in the chapter, Luke recounts Paul’s visits to the synagogue in Thessalonica, where “as he was accustomed,” Paul argued for faith in Christ based on his Continue reading To An Unknown God

Wise Expenditure of Energy

“A fool expends all his [sic] energy,                                                                                                               but a wise person keeps it in reserve” (Prov 29:11, my trans.)

In January a few years ago, a colleague and I attended a conference in the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida.  We had made our flight arrangements separately, but ended up booked for the same return flight. I reached the airport first and went to the kiosk to print out my boarding pass. The kiosk computer informed me that I needed to consult a ticket Continue reading Wise Expenditure of Energy