Freedom, National Identity, and Allegiance

During the month of July, with the penultimate National Holiday on Independence Day, it is a good time to reflect upon the meaning of freedom, national identity, and allegiance. The church has an interesting coexistence with patriotism in this country, which on one hand upholds the separation of church and state, and on another hand braids the two together like nowhere else in the world. It was interesting to host a tour of the church for a visiting TU professor from Scotland who was teaching on sacred architecture a few years ago. She was baffled by the presence of the US flag in our sanctuary. (Outside the USA, this is unheard of in other churches in the world—such that non-Americans might find the practice absurd and even offensive.) I was interested to note that one of our peer churches in our University Church Network, (University Park UMC in Denver) softened the correlation between faith and patriotism. Instead of taking the sometimes controversial tactic of simply removing the American flag from the sanctuary, the leadership at that church instead decided to add a United Nations flag beside the American flag, and an ecumenical flag beside the “Christian flag” in the sanctuary. Thus, the UMC’s commitment to multi-national cooperation and ecumenism was more accurately portrayed.
I am a patriotic individual. I love this country. But, I love it too much to stand by what we sometimes excuse in the name of patriotism. Love of liberty includes the willingness to criticize what you see as out of line with the “arc of morality.” That’s how we help bend it toward justice. The cause of freedom and justice requires that we be willing to talk with one another in civil discourse instead of confining ourselves to our pre-selected (by you or by the corporate interests that would have you?) echo chambers. We must be willing to have disagreement and still engage one another as citizens. With all that said, I sometimes reflect on the questions that the church gave me to be interviewed upon during the ordination process (which I went through between 2005-2008.) I wrote this in preparation for that interview in 2007:
What effect has the practice of ministry had on your understanding of the Lordship of Jesus Christ?
The practice of ministry has deepened my understanding of the Lordship of Jesus Christ because it has given me the responsibility of proclaiming this Lordship over and above nationalism or consumerism or any other idol that our community sacrifices to in place of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Shortly after being appointed to Morris in July of 2006, I preached a sermon the week of Independence Day called “the Declaration of Dependence.” During the Children’s sermon, I asked the kids if they knew the pledge of allegiance, and drew their attention to the American flag we have in our sanctuary. I then explained to them that God calls us to give our allegiance to Christ, and how much more powerful an allegiance this is than our national allegiance. In a faith where we believe “there is no longer Jew nor Greek…for we are one in Christ Jesus,” (Gal. 3:28), I think it is especially pertinent in our era of hyper-nationalism to be prophetic about our citizenship in the Kingdom of God over and sometimes against our national identity and interests. To counter our national obsession with independence and individuality, I instead preached about the Biblical call to submit to God and recognize the interdependence that exists among God’s creation.
As the early Christians committed themselves to Christ as Lord and thus turned their attention to alleviating the woes of the powerless and dispossessed people of the Empire, I see the direction of Christ pointing me toward the same ends. The Lordship of Christ reigns in a Basileia where the world has been turned upside down, and the powers and principalities that dominate the earth have been shaken out. Christ directs his disciples to carry out the healing and preaching that will facilitate the unveiling of this reality “in our midst.”
I associate the term “Lord” with the spirit of God who liberated the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. I also celebrate Paul’s correlation between the Lord and freedom in 2nd Corinthians 3:17, which states, “The Lord is the Spirit; but where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is free-dom.” If “Lord” is the name for the experience of liberation and for free life, then the name is misunderstood and brought into disrepute if it is interpreted in terms of masculine notions of rule. Instead of affirming a Lord who rules my life in a coercive manner, I celebrate Jesus Christ as the Lord who gives freedom. When I state that Jesus Christ is Lord, I am giving my loyalty to the Risen Christ. I am committing myself to be the best disciple I can be.
I appreciate what Douglass John Hall writes in an article on the Lordship of Christ,
If Jesus is to be anything more than another name, another historical mythic figure for us; if he is to become in any sense “Christ,” “Saviour,” “Lord”; if his name and his story are to arouse in us anything like “faith,” then we shall have to encounter him and not merely some ideas about him…. Faith needs not only to hear about but in some real–if “different”–sense to “see” Jesus (John 12:21). (Footnote)
This is the freedom that the Lordship of Christ inspires. Christ leads by example. I call Christ Lord because Christ goes first where he wants me to go. As I follow the Lord, Christ’s leadership becomes more clear to my eyes. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Douglas John Hall. “We Would See Jesus,” The Living Pulpit (3:1, Jan-Mar 1994), 4.