“Stand for the Flag. Kneel Before the Cross.”
So commands the most recent sign in front of my local, friendly neighborhood reformed church.
How devastating for Christians.
Let’s clear something up immediately: technically speaking, it’s an act of idolatry for any Christian to pledge their allegiance to any kingdom other than the Kingdom of God. The Christian eucharist (or communion, or the Lord’s Supper) is an oath – any other oath would, by definition, place you in open rebellion against God.
And that’s a place you really don’t want to be.
That isn’t some twisted liberal theology, by the way. It’s common sense.
Birthed by the early Christians, the sacrament of the eucharist was a reimagined Roman soldier’s oath (“sacramentum”) to Caesar. As Roman soldiers understood themselves as a new creation under Caesar – crushing all those that would defy his lordship, the early Christians subverted that rite of oppression with an inclusive (yet still legally binding) invitation to join an exclusive relationship as a new creation under the true lord, Jesus Christ.
Under this covenantal oath, the Christian belongs solely to Jesus Christ. As theologian Kerry Dearborn writes, ” … all other loyalties and identities are placed at Jesus’ feet.”
Consequently, they were persecuted for this disloyalty to Rome.
So what does that means for an evangelical in today’s America?
Do you renounce the flag?
Condemn the military?
Stop watching House of Cards?
Of course not. What it means is that you are continually on the side of the oppressed, not the empire. If you belong to the community of Christ, it’s incumbent upon you to both serve those on the margins of society, and then invite them along for the ride.
Need an example? Let’s finish where we began: kneeling for the anthem.
If you haven’t taken the two and a half minutes required to study why NFL players are kneeling, here’s a quick primer: racial injustice in America is real. Spurred by the anonymity of social media and a President who refuses to condemn it, white supremacy is becoming en vogue. Just ask the city of Charlottesville. Or any person of color you might know. The players are leveraging their enormous platform to bring attention to these societal ills, which have been proven to be legitimate over and over and over again.
You can’t turn on the television without watching a black man murdered in cold blood by the police, and worse, a judicial system that seems intent on turning a blind eye toward their actions – but has no qualms with imprisoning men of color at an alarming rate.
It’s fairly easy to suggest how the early Christians would have reacted to the crises we face today: with love and invitation, and certainly not with devout patriotism and judgement.
The gospels were written by those under boot heel of the Roman regime, and told the story of a nonviolent, itinerant rabbi who was eventually killed for political insurrection. His name was Jesus. He stood with those who faced gross inequalities, and promised that at some point, they’d be first. His followers were instructed to help carry out this promise.
But instead of acknowledging the obvious, the response from evangelical leaders to the angst in American society hasn’t just been underwhelming – it’s been reprehensible.
In fact, it’s been heretical.
And even worse, it’s actually served to undermine the gospel.
Rather than remembering their oath before God, those like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson, and perhaps even community churches like the one in your neighborhood, have instead committed a most egregious sin: they’ve nationalized Christianity, aligning with Caesar, and scoffing indignantly at the way of Jesus.
They’ve spit the body and blood from their mouths, and unapologetically worship at a star spangled cross.
The great challenge for American Christians, then, is this: it isn’t a matter of whether you stand. It’s a matter of where.