How Many Allegiances?

Greg Boyd blogs about participating in a recent debate with Shane Claiborne and Chuck Colson on the issue of Christianity and Government. Since Greg doesn’t allow comments at his site, I’ll post some comments here. He reports:

Chuck believes Christians have a “dual allegiance” to God and country. I and Shane argued that the only allegiance followers of Jesus should have is to Jesus. We cannot “serve two masters.” (By the way, Shane is coming out with a book entitled Jesus for President. I think this is a brilliant title and said so in the debate. I pointed out that one of the reasons the confession “Jesus is Lord” is rather meaningless today is because we don’t refer to those over us as “lords” any more. So it doesn’t seem that the confession of Jesus as Lord rules out having other people or things rule us. But if we instead confessed “Jesus as President,” it would immediately become clear that this confession rules out pledging allegiance to any other president, nation, the military, etc….Way to go Shane!)

I’ve used “dual allegiance” language before, so I’m wondering if Chuck Colson and I really got it wrong. After all, if Jesus said we can have only one master, and identifying someone or something as being due allegiance is the same as ascribing “master status” to that person or institution, then any talk of dual – or even multiple allegiances – would clearly run afoul of Jesus. But do we have to say that all allegiance relationships reach “master status?”

I believe that it is appropriate, within the realm of Christian teaching, for me to give my wife exclusive allegiance when it comes to all the other women out there. There is no room in Christian ethics for me to go messing around with other women. I am committed to her in a way I am committed to no other woman. I want her to prosper, flourish, succeed, and have a happy and holy life. In taking this stance toward my wife, am I running afoul of Jesus? Have I set up my wife as my master? Some might read Luke 14:26 that way – “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” If the literal reading of that verse is the standard of giving Jesus true allegiance, then I have run aground and strayed from the true path.

But I have no evidence that the Christian tradition in its majority (or even a large minority) has read Jesus in that verse so literally. We continue to perform marriages as if it is ok for a man and a woman to pledge allegiance to each other. Sure, we don’t use the word “allegiance,” but neither does Jesus. It’s a word imported from our political discourse and modified to, in this case, Christian and familial contexts. I don’t know Greg Boyd, but I don’t think he would have a difficulty saying marriage and the commitments it entails is ok – or else I read his post on his wife wrongly. So maybe we can get by with having something called allegiance to Jesus and to my wife. Must I stop there?

Suppose I am a baseball player by profession. My job entails working hard and doing all within my powers and the rules of baseball to help my team win. I want my team to win. I want the teams we play to lose. I have an allegiance to my team that I don’t have to other teams. Have I now strayed from Jesus? While I don’t think baseball teams use “master” language – any more than the rest of us in modern America – they might talk about having a “boss.” Can a Christian have two bosses – Jesus and a manager? Or must the Christian reject the commands of all managers and coaches – any who might try to stand in a boss relation – in favor of Jesus? “Sorry coach. I can’t bunt now. Jesus wants me to swing for the bleachers.”

Allegiance to wives or baseball teams – that doesn’t seem like too much of a problem. Surely it doesn’t get to the level of allegiance to Jesus or one’s country. So let’s try another example.

Should we have an allegiance to our immediate community, whether conceived as a neighborhood, town or city? Such an allegiance, unlike an allegiance to one’s baseball team, wouldn’t require taking a stance against any other neighborhood, town or city. My locale could flourish quite well at the same time others near and far flourished. But could I wish my locale well, could I work toward the prospering of the people around me and offer allegiance to Jesus? Or would it be better to ignore the people who lived in my neighborhood, town or city and devote myself entirely to Jesus? Maybe the problem isn’t an allegiance, an attachment to the flourishing of my neighbors that’s the problem. After all, Jesus had some quite positive things to say about loving our neighbors. Maybe the problem lies in attachment to our neighbors as more than individuals, as some sort of collective. As a pastor in Pittsburg, I can have an allegiance to the people of Pittsburg, I can employ myself in various ways to seek the well-being and prosperity of the individuals who live here, but the collective entity we know as Pittsburg, maybe that’s another story. When it comes to the organization, structure and activities of the town and schools, I should do nothing.

Obviously here we are shading over into politics, having moved beyond the merely individual. As I read the New Testament, I see that giving attention to select individuals and ignoring the organization and activities of political entities, whether neighborhoods, towns, regions, kingdoms or empires would be following Jesus’ example. At no time do I see Jesus attempting to influence or control the rulers or ruling of any of these entities. While I see Jesus doing nothing directly against Caesar (to justify one of the charges against him), I can’t imagine Jesus at any time pledging allegiance to Caesar or his empire. He exhibited no allegiance to the political entities of Nazareth, Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem or Rome.

Is Paul any different? I see Paul using his Roman citizenship from time to time, but I don’t see him doing anything to enact the agenda of that empire. A typical sign of allegiance to the empire was a symbolic offering of incense. No big deal, the Romans said. You can still believe in and worship your own gods, even a god has apparently nutty as that Jesus fellow. Just offer a pinch of incense. For most Christians it was a big deal. So big they’d rather go to prison or be killed than offer it.

How do we explain the gap between Jesus’ neglect of political organizations, Paul’s strategic use of his Roman citizenship, early Christian refusal to “pledge allegiance to Caesar” and our mostly thoughtless involvement in politics today?

One possibility is that Caesar, whether local or national, is today a Christian, not a pagan. The reason Jesus, Paul and others didn’t pledge allegiance to the political entities of their day was that they weren’t Christian. After Constantine/the Protestant Reformation/The American Revolution – take your pick – it’s now ok to do so. I don’t see it.

Another possibility is that while current Caesars aren’t necessarily Christian, they are relatively benign. The original Caesars were happy to call non-allegiant Christians. Current Caesars are tolerant of us. We can have our churches (as long as Caesar doesn’t need the tax revenue he could get from giving our property to some other enterprise), we can worship as we please, just as long as it doesn’t have too much impact on public (i.e., from Caesar’s point of view, “real”) life. I think this view is popular, but amounts to wishful thinking.

Since I’m running out of time to write (have to go home and cook dinner before tonight’s meetings), let’s try a quick – though temporary – ending to this question. Let’s start with Jesus.

Though Jesus did not do what we would call “pledging allegiance” to a political entity, he was a participant in the story of God and Israel, the real life story of God’s action through his chosen people to bring salvation to the whole world. More than a participant, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was the climax of that story. When I give my allegiance to Jesus, I am becoming a willing participant, under his direction, in that very story. I take up his agenda as my own.

What we think of Political entities, Rome, Jerusalem, Texas, the USA – each of these not only have their constitutions – implicit or explicit – but each also supposes and enacts a particular narrative or story line (with an agenda of its own). Some of these entities insist (the level of insistence various from occasion to occasion) that there is no division (other than logical) between their people, their constitution, and their story. Therefore, if one pledges allegiance to the entity, one is pledging allegiance to each of these. If one describes oneself as allegiant to the people but not the agenda, one is deemed confused or not “really” allegiant at all.

I’ve read a fair amount of history. I have not yet discovered any incarnations of Caesar whose agenda, whose implicit story line – has no conflict with the story of Jesus. While I’m an American, would rather live in America than anywhere else, think our political system is better than most, and would like to see my fellow Americans prosper, I see that the story of America is not only not the story of Jesus, but there are also conflicts between the two stories. If my being allegiant to the story (agenda) of Jesus is primary – and I think it must be for a Christian – then I cannot be fully allegiant to the story (agenda) of America. When there are conflicts, I will have to submit my participation in the life of America to the agenda of Jesus.

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2 Responses to How Many Allegiances?

  1. Kim says:

    I think you’re spot-on here. The terms “dual allegiance” sounds terribly close to “equal allegiance”, but it doesn’t have to mean that. I know Christians who think that being “in the world, not of the world” means not voting or participating in the political process at all. I wish I could understand how this is compatible with “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and the injunction to be salt and light in a world gone rancid and dark.

    C.S. Lewis wrote a little essay called, “Why I am not a pacifist” that is relevant when contemplating the odd juxtaposition of a Christian and war. According to the History channel, at least, these two have always been strange bedfellows — back to the time that the Barbarian tribes sacked Rome. Apparently both sides claimed to be Christian. And, which side was more righteous — the ruthless germanic peoples or the decaying-from-within Romans? Which cause was God’s — those starving to death as they crossed the frozen Rhine or those determined to avoid rape, pillage, and violent death by Barbarian hands?
    If we think we can possibly be so openminded as to consider all perspectives, we’re kidding ourselves. We take our perspective and we take our chances.
    It’s late and I have no idea if I have made any sense whatsoever. Cheers!

  2. joan says:

    Maybe I’m crazy, but Obama’s pastor, Rev. Wright-
    his words seemed refreshing fresh air , an
    unabashed minority view of American History.
    This was in the papers around March 15,2008.

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