Updated on 30 June 2011
“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (The Book of Common Prayer)
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands . . . ” (The Pledge of Allegiance)
When we enter into the worship of the triune God, we give witness to the truth that we are citizens of a commonwealth wider than that of the nation of our birth. We are, as members of the body of Christ across time and space, Christians without borders.
We pledge allegiance not to any earthly power or principality but to the sovereign God of the universe made known to us in a first-century Jewish peasant-revolutionary.
In the liturgy we enact a story of salvation and freedom that subsumes all other stories. Baptism (the Christian’s Dependence Day since we acknowledge and celebrate our reliance on others) grants a new identity that transcends all other identity markers. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, “Those who are baptized no longer belong to the world, no longer serve the world, and are no longer subject to it. They belong to Christ alone, and relate to the world only through Christ.”
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a renewed nostalgia for the pledge of allegiance and the American flag emerged in the culture at large and in churches across the country. These were potent symbols around which Americans could unite in their sorrow in spaces both secular and sacred.
In the post 9/11 context of American Christianity, a kind of hyperpatriotism continues in worshiping communities across the theological and liturgical spectra, revealing, at best, a deep confusion about the relationship between church and nation and, at worst, a willingness to set aside the Church’s historic confession that Jesus–not Caesar–is Lord.
Nationalism in the years since World War II has come to be linked ever more closely with consumer capitalism. Citizenship in the modern Western nation-state is predicated less on the cultivation of a virtuous populace and more on ensuring access to the market which, not surprisingly, is now the template for the citizen’s relationship with the state.
Insofar as the Church in America has willingly (though often unwittingly) underwritten the doctrine of the consumer-citizen and encouraged an idolatrous devotion to the nation, it has betrayed its distinctive, baptismally-derived witness as a politics in its own right.
Baptism initiates us into a community whose mission is to communicate to the world a “deep vision of the extravagant splendor of God” (Marva Dawn). Our task is to witness to this God and not any other god. The god who presides over American civil piety, as acknowledged in the pledge of allegiance, is a vague and nebulous deity–a cipher, really, whose content can be determined by the parochial interests of a nation determined to guard its own power and interests.
By contrast, the triune God in whose name we are baptized is a God made known through the people of Israel; in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; and in the ongoing mission of the Church. This God seeks to renew and restore the whole created order, not to preserve powerful republics. This God calls us to a life lived after the pattern of Jesus, and through baptism our lives are united with his and are offered back to us as gifts so that we might become conduits of the love, mercy, and justice that is the Trinitarian life of God.
This is the freedom we seek to enjoy–on the 4th of July and every day of our lives.