Do you remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance as a kid? When I was growing up, the Pledge was a standard part of every public school classroom. Each morning during announcements, we would be asked to stand and, turning to the American flag that hung at the front of the class, every student and teacher would place hand over heart and recite the creed.
I pledge allegiance
to the flag
of the United States of America,
and to the republic
for which it stands:
with liberty and justice for all.
Technically, no one was required to say the pledge of allegiance. But to say that it was strongly encouraged would be an understatement. It was not presented as an option, and no child in their right mind would want to expose themselves to the kind of questions that would be raised by not participating.
An Opportunity for Faithfulness
My parents never told me that I wasn’t allowed to stand for the Pledge. It wasn’t a rule. But they helped me understand that each morning’s recital was an opportunity to practice faithfulness. In the face of enormous peer pressure, I had a choice to make. Would I recite a statement of faith directed to the nation-state, or would I remain true to the only-sovereign God?
I actually had several options. I could stand – hand on heart – and recite the Pledge. Or, I could just stand, but say nothing. (This way, I wouldn’t actually say the nationalistic creed, but few would notice that I wasn’t fully participating.) Then there was the nuclear option: I could make the choice to remain seated.
I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance early, probably in late grade school. By that point, I was able to understand the concept of idolatry – that the American flag was not an appropriate object of my allegiance; only God was. But it took me longer before I would have the courage to remain seated. As long as I was on my feet during the Pledge, I remained invisible. I could avoid saying the words I felt so uncomfortable with, but I could still dodge the social consequences of dissent.
I Will Not Stand
By the time I reached high school, though, I began to sense that even standing for the Pledge did violence to my conscience. I became convinced that I could not participate, even passively, in this act of worship directed towards a nationalistic symbol. My ultimate allegiance belonged only to God.
Full disclosure: I was a pretty rebellious teenager, so bucking the status quo came more naturally for me than it would have for some. But it was still hard. Every morning at 9:00, I made the choice to publicly separate myself from the shared faith of the rest of the class. Every day, I sat while others stood. It was uncomfortable every time.
I did have to stand my ground (so to speak) with a few teachers that didn’t seem aware that the Pledge wasn’t mandatory, but they eventually let it drop. I was occasionally harassed by other students, who assumed that I must just hate America. The idea that the Kingdom of God was my primary allegiance didn’t compute. But overall, I met surprisingly little resistance to my conscientious objection. People got used to it.
Becoming a Cross-Bearer
Still, there were social consequences. I was never a what you would call a social butterfly, and refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance certainly didn’t help me make friends in a world that values social conformity. By the time I was a teenager, I understood that. I was willing to accept the repercussions of my counter-cultural actions.
In this way, I began to discover what it means to carry the prophetic cross of Jesus. In some small measure, I learned to participate in the public shame of the crucifixion, the violent resistance that always meets us when we shift our allegiance from the authority of Empire to the kingdom of God. I was learning to be a cross-bearer.
In our culture that places such an emphasis on obedience and reverence to the idea of America, we all have a choice. We can choose to be flag-wavers or cross-bearers. Here is how the prophetic intellectual Cornel West describes flag-wavers:
They want the acceptance of the US nation-state; they want the acceptance of the mainstream. So they are silent on drones; they are silent on the centrality of the new Jim Crow in terms of Black life; they are silent on the trade union movement being crushed; they are silent on the Wall Street criminality.
When we choose to be flag-wavers, we rationalize our choice to participate in the domination system. We tell ourselves that we are powerless to challenge the death-dealing structures that hold our people captive. By conforming, we hope that we can work within the system for at least some incremental positive change. We stay silent on some of the most alarming examples of systematic violence and oppression, seeking to maintain our own credibility with our peers – and, above all, with those in power.
Silence is Death
But silence is death to the prophetic tradition. When we stand up for the Pledge, even if we don’t recite the creed, we lend courage to no one. We set an example for no one. We confine our radical imagination to the inside of our skull. And imagination is a species that cannot survive long in captivity.
Our silent conformity to the spirit of this age presents an existential challenge to the possibility of a movement for justice and gospel peace in our time. Again, in the words of Cornel West:
…If we don’t come to terms with this challenge, then we end up being just these deferential flag-wavers, thinking that somehow we are keeping alive the Black prophetic tradition. This self-deception must be shattered – in each and every generation.
It is time to shatter our own self-deception. Are we to be cross-bearers or flag-wavers? Will we prioritize comfort, or faithfulness? Are we willing to expose ourselves to ridicule, to lose the respect of those around us if that’s what it takes to be true to the subversive, life-giving message of the gospel?
Where does our allegiance lie? Will we identify ourselves with the flag, filling our lives with patriotic gestures meant to reassure our neighbors that we, too, share the values of Empire? Or will we have the courage to become troublemakers, those who choose to take up the cross of Jesus, the anti-flag that lays bare the blasphemous violence of Empire?