One of the joys last Tuesday, during our first community dinner at Horizon House, was the opportunity not only to serve the meal, but to share it with club members, neighbors from Wakefield, and fellow parishioners. My table had some of everyone, with a wide-ranging conversation. Now, I don’t remember how we got onto the topic, but at some point several of us discussed the pledge of allegiance. We were an international table and I think it had something to do with the differences between the US and Canada.
I wonder, how many of you grew up saying the pledge of allegiance in school every day? So did I, at least through elementary school. I think in first and second grades we sang, too. Probably not the “Star spangled banner,” but more likely “My country ‘tis of thee.” Or maybe “America the beautiful.” In my case, that all ended by junior high, when we focused on other things.
There were some kids in my class who were able to opt out of saying the pledge. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they very politely sat while the rest of us stood and recited those familiar words, day after day. I don’t think they left the room, but maybe they did, at least some of the time. I once asked my dad, because I was too shy to ask myself, why those kids—who were my friends—didn’t have to share in saying the pledge. Dad said something to the effect that their religion didn’t permit them to pledge or swear an oath to anything but God. My dad, by the way, wasn’t too comfortable with the pledge, either. Like the Witnesses, he grew up in a religiously conservative church and always thought that pledging allegiance to a flag was kind of idolatrous. But he never made a fuss about it, which meant that I had to say it as well. There was no religious exemption for Lutherans, especially in Minnesota.
Interestingly, it’s an issue the Supreme Court has addressed twice. The first time was 1940, when it voted 8-to-1 that schools can force students to recite the pledge, despite any religious objection. Justice Felix Frankfurter, writing for the majority, ruled that the nation needed the loyalty of all people and that the pledge of allegiance was one way to reinforce unity and patriotism. “National unity is the basis of national security,” Justice Frankfurter wrote. He received strong criticism for the ruling, especially given the fact that he was Jewish and many thought he should be sensitive to issues of religious freedom. Justice Frankfurter responded, “One who belongs to the most vilified and persecuted minority in history is not likely to be insensible to the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution…. But as judges we are neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Catholic nor agnostic.”
This decision came as Europe was again being torn by war, and by the competing ideologies of fascism and communism. Americans wondered if and when we would be forced to join that struggle. By 1940 Germany had invaded Poland, Denmark and Norway, it had attacked France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and was close to taking them as well. The world was teetering on the brink. We likely can see why there was a concern for national unity and security.
Only, just days after the court issued its ruling, Jehovah’s Witnesses began to be attacked. Near Pittsburgh, a mob descended on and pummelled a group of Witnesses. Those fleeing were cornered by ax- and knife-wielding men riding the town’s fire truck yelling, “Get the ropes! Bring the flag!” In Kennebunk, Maine, the Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall was torched and days of rioting followed. In Litchfield, Ill., an angry crowd laid an American flag on the hood of a car and watched while a Witness had his head repeatedly smashed on it.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so deeply concerned that she pleaded with the nation’s citizens to stop the attacks. But by the end of 1940, the ACLU estimated that 1,500 Witnesses had been assaulted in over 330 attacks. Many Americans believed that the Witnesses must be Nazi sympathizers, or even spies and saboteurs, with their refusal to say the pledge. Ironically, though, one of the reasons the Witnesses refused to say the pledge in the US was to stand in solidarity with Witnesses being arrested and sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany for refusing to salute the flag there.
In an especially prescient insight in his ruling on the pledge he continued, “those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” Powerful, even today, or perhaps, especially today. This ruling is considered one of the court’s most significant and sweeping in its enumeration of the freedoms conferred in the Bill of Rights.
So, why recall this history today, when our minds are turning to Thanksgiving, or if you are a warden or member of the budget committee, maybe to our Stewardship In-gathering? Well, in part because I find it interesting—or maybe disturbing is the more appropriate—that the Supreme Court’s decision so long ago sparked a reaction similar to the one we are seeing across the country today following the presidential election. Both seem to have given permission to our fellow citizens to decide that some Americans are more welcome than others—based on their race or religion or orientation.
Swastikas, racial and anti-gay slurs painted on homes, churches—including some Episcopal churches, mosques, and school lockers, even in my own hometown in Maple Grove, Minnesota; women in headscarves verbally attacked; people told to go home or get out. These have all happened in the last two weeks. Those of us who appreciate the freedoms we enjoy have to combat against these appalling expressions of hate with all we have. And it has nothing to do with who we voted for in the presidential election, or whether we are Democrats or Republicans. But it has everything to do with who we are as a nation. Because when one religion or race is persecuted or excluded, we all are.
The irony, of course, is that when we say the pledge of allegiance we affirm “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty and justice for all. They are the most important American values. In fact, they are the only values articulated in the pledge, repeated by millions of American citizens every day. Yet, they often seem so elusive, especially in times of stress and uncertainty—whether in the 1940s or right now, just when we need to affirm and hold fast to these values more than ever.
I also reflect on this history, because today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a day when we are called to make our ultimate pledge—not to a flag, or even to a country, but to the king of our lives, to the king of our souls, to the one who gives us true life and true freedom, even when nations and governments fall short of their and our lofty goals. Today, on Christ the King Sunday, we pledge our allegiance to Christ and to his kingdom, to God’s kingdom. It is a kingdom into which all are welcome and none are excluded. It’s a kingdom in which there are no winners or losers, no rich and no poor, but all are united and reconciled in as one, in God through Christ.
Interestingly, Christ the King Sunday is a fairly new observance in Christian churches, though of course people of faith had long believed that Christ was the true and ultimate ruler of their souls. But the feast itself was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925, as a way to encourage and embolden the faithful, in light of rising secularism, communism, and fascism, in that tense time between the two world wars. It reminded Christians that their ultimate allegiance was not to a state, political philosophy, or world leader—whether king, president, or dictator—but instead always and only to God.
At the same time, through Christ the King Sunday Pope Pius urged nations to allow freedom for the exercise of religion and immunity from retribution from the state, while encouraging the nations and their leaders to respect and follow Christian teachings. I don’t know that Pope Pius’ expectations were fulfilled, especially at that fateful time. History would suggest not. But perhaps in terms of our own lives, our souls and our motivations, there’s more hope.
And there is that hope because, as we learn so powerfully in today’s gospel passage, to acknowledge Christ as the King of our lives, to pledge to him the allegiance of our hearts and souls, means that we do not bow or kneel before a king in a castle, or to one who commands powerful armies, or rules through fear and intimidation. Instead, we dedicate ourselves to a king who is crucified, who really is powerless by the standards of the world. It is to pledge our allegiance, to pledge our hearts and souls, to the one who seeks always to draw us to his heart and his soul, even when we make mistakes and fail to live up to our own potential.
In fact, it’s especially when we mess up, especially when we make mistakes, that Christ the king reaches out to us, from the cross, and promises—as he does to the man crucified beside him—that today we will be with him in paradise. Not some time in the distant future, not after we shape up or get our lives in order, but today. Now. At this very moment, as he reaches out to us in love. We might even say that he reaches out with liberty and justice. Liberty and justice that free us from sin and death, liberty and justice that free us from jealousy and despair, and liberty and justice that free us from mistrust of those who somehow seem foreign or different, but who are never foreign or different to God. Christ reaches out to us, from the cross, with liberty and justice that free us to live, fully, freely, abundantly, with him, in paradise.
What’s more, to claim Christ as King is to affirm that the way Jesus lived, and the way Jesus loved, without exclusion, without fear, without walls or borders, is our calling as well. To claim Christ as king is to be united to him, to be one with him, so that we, too, can reach out, from our own crosses, from the pains and disappointments and brokenness of our lives, to offer love and new life to neighbors in desperate need of them, who ever they may be, whatever their race, religion, or background.
Luke writes: “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’.”
It is to that promise, to that love, to that Christ and to that King, on the cross, that I truly pledge my allegiance this morning. Perhaps you do as well.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD