Exo 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Exo 20:5a “You shall not bow down to them or serve them…”
I’ve generally considered the first and second commandments (of the ten commandments) to be purely “vertical”. They exist to direct my relationship with God. But recently I have been wondering if perhaps I have been thinking too narrowly about these. These commandments do implicitly call us to serve God, but they also (and more directly and explicitly) direct us to have our allegiance and worship of God *displace* other allegiances. And perhaps this call significantly affects how we actually order our perspective and choose our actions and priorities with others, which is the horizontal side.
I’ve be thinking about the nature of allegiance as a Christian. We have often puzzled about why our kids say the pledge of allegiance at AWANA, where they also memorize verses (about the one and only one true King and kingdom that we are to serve). Recently I read this great post where Richard Beck suggests that making a pledge of allegiance to others besides God is idolatrous. I am also reading “I Told Me So“, a book showing how we deceive ourselves and how “groupthink” can be one of the key mechanisms we often use to deceive ourselves. To summarize: allegiance to fallen, error-prone powers, systems, and gods is a dangerous thing. Virtually all the major atrocities of the world were enabled by masses that were driven by allegiance, rather than independent objective judgement. The holocaust and many other genocides didn’t happen because each person individually decided that they were going to start killing, they were enabled by allegiance to a country, an allegiance that suppressed any resistance to the horrific movements. Perhaps the 1st and 2nd commandments are more than just directions on worship, but they are also there to protect us against these types of movements.
We must remember, our actions, words, and pledges are more than just noises, they can have meaning and consequences. For example, if our allegiance is to our country, it dramatically affects our priorities and judgments. Let’s consider an example of how we assess a country’s action: our country responds to a terrorist activity that results in 3,000 deaths by engaging in a war leaving 30,000 dead on the “other side”. If our true allegiance is to our country and its security, this response can certainly be justified, it results in greater security for America, and the impact outside the borders is not that important to the one we are serving. However, a total and sole allegiance to the God of all creation, of every person, is totally different, and completely transforms the perspective. Not only is the end goal no longer our country’s security, but it is now the good of every person, for the glory of God is our goal, and responding to death, by a ten fold increase in death no longer makes rationale sense with this vision in mind.
There are also related effects. Nationalist allegiance often co-mingles with nationalist pride, and can blind us from humbly learning from others. Can a country with the worst health care, highest levels of poverty, and highest levels of incarceration among developed countries learn anything from others?
America’s pledge of allegiance certainly seems more innocuous with the addition of the “under God” statement. And surely adding allegiances, as long as we don’t violate any of God’s commandments can’t be that bad? Can’t we have allegiance to God and country? In missiology we call this synchretism. Here is what Jesus thought about this:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Mat 6:24a
Now I know that most of us aren’t really intending to replace God when we pledge allegiance. Perhaps we consider it more of just a statement of commitment to help our country, or honoring those who sacrificed for our country, or simply being respectful. These are all fine and good things. I certainly want to join with other’s in giving honor and gratitude to those who have given for our country, and commit to make our country better (as defined by God’s vision).
My dad was collegiate basketball referee, and so he stood and listened to the national anthem before every game. He told me that he always took that time as an opportunity to pray. Perhaps that’s one of the best pieces of advice I have heard for being faithful to God while still showing respect and honor for our country and those who died for it. When allegiances are being sung or pledged, that’s a perfect time to remember where are true and sole allegiance really lies without being disrespectful.