Many of you know that last week my husband was granted US citizenship. It was interesting timing as these thoughts have been rolling around my head for quite some time. And as they called the people within the stadium to rise to their feet and place their hands on their hearts to pledge allegiance to flag, I could not do it. I thought of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to bow down to the idol of King Nebuchadnezzar. I thought of the many times that God warns His children not to worship any other gods. I thought of the words of Paul who told us very clearly that our citizenship is in Heaven. And I could not rise, place my hand over my heart, and pledge my undivided allegiance to a flag made by man, representing an empire created by human imagination. Whether the pledge says “under God” or not, the pledge is to an empire and not to God Himself.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that my husband will carry the same passport as the girls and I, as it will simplify and streamline many of our travel obstacles. I also greatly appreciate many of the simplicities of life based on how things are set up here. But I struggle with the empire values, and cannot pledge my allegiance to it, because this could all be removed in an instant, and I would still pledge my allegiance to Christ the Messiah, regardless of which passport we carry. Now before you stone me for being an ungrateful traitor, let’s take it back to Scripture.
Jesus had warned his followers that they were to live the kingdom of God in this world, regardless of where in the world they were, and that the world would hate them for it. They were not to blend in to be like everyone else, but were to live distinct lives, severed from the peoples of the nations. The powers that be would drag them before governors and courts, beat them and insult them, feed them to beasts, and hang them on crosses. Look at what happened to Jesus himself. And hate his followers is what the world did – at least for the first couple of hundred years.
The young early church lived within the messy collision of kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Rome. The more the early Christians reflected on the life and message of their Messiah, and the more they tried to live the way of the gospel, the harder they collided with the state and its hopes and dreams, militaries and markets. In fact, Christians in those first few hundred years were called atheists because they no longer believed in the Roman gospel; they no longer had any faith in the state as savior of the world. They were called “renegades” and “rebels,” “enemies of the human race.” They refused to serve in the Roman military, refusing to pick up arms against another human being, just as Jesus himself told Peter to lower his sword against the Roman soldier. And so they themselves became the targets of violence and persecution.
Before there was Christianity or Christendom or even really a church, the movement of people following after Jesus became known as the Way, because their way of living stood in stark contrast to the ways of empire. They believed that new life through Jesus had begun, right now. Jesus’ constant reiteration of his vision of the kingdom of God coming on earth still rang in their ears. They believed the kingdom’s coming was so immanent, they could not help but start living it now.
Take a look at Acts 4:32-35:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.Among themselves, they had completely eradicated poverty and formed a treasury for all. They had become a nation unto God while living in the midst of the empire, completely subversive to the empire around them. There was no welfare from the government. There was no outside aid or government funding. God provided resources through His Church. They were forsaking all that the empire had to offer, choosing rather simplicity and contentment to build and edify each other. Those who had too much gave it away, and those who had too little were brought up to par.
I found this quote from a first century follower of the Way and found it quite compelling:
“We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”So, as beautiful as this sounds, it leaves me wondering what happened? How did this fall apart? The problem is that the followers of the Way went from being on the fringes of the empire, the outcasts and rebels of the society, to being baptized into the empire. The system that Jesus himself had rejected became the backbone of it all.
In the year 306 AD, a Roman Emperor named Constantine took over power. He was a military conqueror, and as legend has it, in the year 312, won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after seeing a sign of the cross and hearing a voice say, “In this you will conquer.” It is interesting, considering that for Jesus the cross meant refusal of worldly ways of conquering. But the battle was won and in 313 AD the Edict of Milan was passed, which granted religious tolerance to all religions, especially Christianity.
Emperor Theodosius ruled Rome from 379 to 395 and proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of the Empire, making it a crime not to be a Christian. It wasn’t long after that that the persecuted became the persecutor, and the church became the church of the militant and triumphant. The kingdom of God that had been known through a king who rules with a towel draped over his arm to wash feet, riding a donkey, and carrying a cross had become the empire of Christendom. In the name of the one who taught us to love our enemies, the church began to burn its enemies alive.
Now, these days we certainly aren’t burning our enemies alive, not literally at least. But I can easily say, the church is not known for the servant love that Jesus demonstrated. Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal and powerful. We saw this in the persecuted Church of Ethiopia this past summer. The Church is small and struggling, and yet loving and growing, and loving and growing. They are being forced to return to Jesus for absolutely everything because the powers of the government oppose them. And so they grow and struggle and give all they have, and love and grow and struggle and give all they have. It is amazing and humbling to see.
You see, when the empire took over Christianity, the doors of the church flew wide open for all to enter, but at a very great cost. Repentance, rebirth and conversion were exchanged for cheap grace, and the integrity of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus faded. The humility and servanthood that He taught and demonstrated were overlooked for power and influence. Christianity began to face an identity crisis as they tried to make disciples of all nations by imperial influence. Instead they baptized the empire itself, producing what so many liberal and conservative Christians today actually want – an entire empire run on the blood of Jesus Christ, a holy Christian state.
I found this quote in a very challenging book that I’ve been reading:
The greatest sin of political imagination is thinking there is no other way except the filthy rotten system we have today. Is it possible we can’t see the destructiveness of our economy and system not because we don’t know it’s terrible but because deep down we feel that it’s necessary and that therefore it’s hopeless to criticize it?These days we have a president, not a Caesar, and so we don’t actually call him Son of God. We call him president. And we say that we can support a president while also worshiping Jesus as the Son of God. But how is that possible? Scripture says that you cannot serve two masters.
For one says that we must love our enemies, and the other says that we must kill them; one promotes the economics of competition, while the other admonishes the forgiveness of debts. To which do we pledge our allegiance?
For Jesus and his followers, the central question was, “How do we live faithfully to God?” But then the Church inherited a kingdom. And it wasn’t the kind of servant kingdom Jesus imagined and incarnated, not the kingdom of the slaughtered lamb; it was the dominant and coercive force in charge of the world.
And instead of faithfulness, the question became, how do we run the world as Christians?
How do I run this profit-driven corporation as a Christian?
How can we make culture more Christian?
How would a responsible Christian run this war?
How can we put a Christian into office to influence the life standard of this whole empire?
The history of the church has been largely a history of “believers” refusing to believe in the way of the crucified Nazarene and instead giving in to the very temptations he resisted – power, relevancy, spectacle.
We are seeing more and more that the church has fallen in love with the state and that this love affair is killing the church’s imagination. For those who might disagree with that, think about how much of the conversation about the two current candidates has been about their religious views. Which man is more Christian? Which man votes more Christian values? What if I agree with a some of one, but not all? And some of the other, but not all? Churches have begun to endorse candidates from the pulpits, risking losing their tax-exempt status, saying it’s their God-given responsibility to name God’s candidate. I have to say that that is just hog-wash. It has no place in God’s church. Whether some would call the tax-exemption hush money or not, the Church has no business getting involved in worldly affairs such as this. We have seen it in country after country, where the Church itself becomes divided along party lines. Pastors start saying things like, “if you don’t vote for so-and-so, you’re not welcome in this church,” or even questioning a person’s salvation based on how they vote. That’s ridiculous!
The powerful benefits and temptations of running the world’s largest superpower have bent the church’s identity. Having power at its fingertips, the church often finds “guiding the course of history” a more alluring goal than following the crucified Christ. Too often the patriotic values of pride and strength triumph over the spiritual values of humility, gentleness, and sacrificial love.
Maybe we, as a body of believers, need to rethink our involvement in the business and ways of this world. Our responsibility and allegiance, first and foremost, belongs to the One who died for us. And this is not the Way that He modeled for us. Let us re-imagine what the Christian life could/should look like. I know for me, I want to be part of a revolution. My soul is hungry for a revolution. One that is marked by radical living, stunning humility and sacrifice, compassion and love, community and servanthood. I want to be a part of recreating the Way of Jesus, not just on Sunday mornings, or Monday nights, or life groups gatherings, but life and every aspect of it. Maybe you’d like to join me in exploring what that would look like. Maybe you’d like to imagine with me what it would be like to truly live set apart.
Grace and peace.