This is as cute as it is true. But biblically speaking, it’s more accurate to say there is a god, and it’s not Uncle Sam. From Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar to Herod and Domitian, Biblical authors use rulers to frame faith as allegiance to either God or the state. Unequivocally, God (YHWH, Jesus) demands and deserves ultimate allegiance and not Caesar.
Allegiance goes well beyond creeds or sterile doctrine and demands radical trust. After all, what does faith look like when the King is also demanding ultimate allegiance? Take for instance Christians in Europe during the Second Great War. For those who want “to save their life (pretty much everyone),” National Socialism posed a gut-wrenching challenge.
The story is clear: all too many Christians chose allegiance to self, nation and Caesar over God; including many Christians from my own pacifist faith-family, the Mennonites. Moving from a posture of survival to collaboration and then to perpetration, allegiance given to King Adolf destroyed millions of lives and the modern soul with it.
But did it have to be this way? Was there no theology that could have shouted “No!” loud enough to stop the war machine?
I believe there was. Mark was a storyteller faithful to God who lived in a similar context of imperialism and militarism. Centuries of oppression and exploitation were followed by the razing of his capital city (similar to the carpet bombing of Dresden and other cities). At that precise moment, this storyteller chose to tell the story of his leader, who had said a generation before, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, pick their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life must lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Listen to how that text sounds when another king besides God demands ultimate allegiance: become one of us, or die. Do you physically fight against the oppression? No. Well then do you collaborate or perpetrate crimes in order to save your life? No. The only option is allegiance/faithfulness to God alone with a corresponding absolute “No!” to the powers that be.
The nonviolent movement of the American South embodied this complex tension. The protestors and marchers who partnered with the likes of Martin King didn’t just test drive the philosophy of nonviolence. They were trained to be self-differentiated at the highest levels. Over and again demonstrators were trained by King who said, “When we march, don’t panic and remember that we must remain true to nonviolence. I’m asking everybody in the line, if you can’t be nonviolent, don’t get in here. If you can’t accept blows without retaliation, don’t get in the line.”
In other words, don’t fight the system with violence. But equally so don’t collaborate with the system of injustice. Instead, remain true to self and God. Self-differentiated non-retaliation of this kind performs two major acts. First, it loves the enemy. This is action based on your character not on a reaction to anothers. Labeeb Madanat of the Palestinian Bible Society challenged his own Palestinian Christian community last week with this message at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Israel/Palestine. Emphasizing love for enemies, he said regardless whose pain is greater, whose mistakes are worse, the Palestinian church must deny its pain, and embrace the pain of its enemies. He said Jesus wants our relationships to be defined by what he did for us (while we were still enemies). And summarized his thoughts saying, “For our Israeli friends, we have only one word, to bless, never to curse.” That requires amazing spirituality and trust in God!
Second, non-retaliation loves and trusts God. It’s essential to note the primary Christian response of victims of war/oppression (such as Hitler’s Nazism and the German Churches complicity) was a theological response. From Barth to Bonhoeffer the answer time and again was simply “Jesus is Lord.” And of course by that they did not mean to say “I am not,” but rather the overtly political “King Adolf is not.” We love (and trust) God through obedience to Christ alone.
Have our laments for the atrocities of the Holocaust included sufficient repentance for the Christian theology which enabled it?
For those of us not living as victims of war and oppression, what can we learn from those that are? From Shiphrah and Puah, Daniel and Shadrach, Jesus and Paul, Dietrich, Martin and Alex we learn that true faith is an unchanging allegiance to God and not nation or Caesar. The message for us all is to fear God and God alone.