The controversy that has erupted over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem was initiated by a protest focused on race and racism, but has emerged as a broader controversy revolving around allegiances – to whom or what our allegiances are directed, which objects of allegiance should be prioritized and which should be secondary or subordinate, what symbols of allegiance are most appropriate, what happens when different types or expressions of allegiances clash, how allegiance is rightly or wrongly pledged, with whom do we share our allegiances, who should be pledging allegiance, and when.
Some have offered critical engagements with how this controversy relates to Christian faith and allegiance to Jesus. But I can’t help but think that one reason we have a difficult time appropriately situating national allegiances in the context of Christian faith is because in our evangelism and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus we haven’t procured allegiance to Jesus in the first place, opting rather for “sinner’s prayer” evangelism, various brands of faux therapy, private religious experience, narrow political agendas, or a variety of other truncated gospels. This has made it easier for followers of Jesus to compartmentalize their faith and cast it alongside other compartmentalized allegiances – to a nation, a people, an ideal, or a set of abstract principles. It creates space for all sorts of other “allegiance tests” that fulfill our desire for belonging and solidarity with others. In Willie Jennings’s words,
“Allegiance tests are ancient, and today they exist among us in their most insidious and destructive forms at the intersection of racial reasoning and cultural difference. They exempt no one. They are presented to us at every stage in life. They are presented to kids who look, talk, act, or respond too much like kids from the other group. They are presented to adults who appear too comfortable or too friendly with cultural rivals or racial enemies. They move effortlessly through political parties, theological positions, social, and class tastes, working their way down to the choices we make in food, dress, entertainment, and pleasure…” (Jennings, Acts, 156).
This is why it’s vital that our proclamation of the gospel emphasizes that Jesus is the just and merciful king of all creation, and that we’ve been summoned as those who are loved, who belong, and who will be sent out as ambassadress of his righteousness and justice in an unjust world. NT Wright reflects on how the Apostle Paul proclaims this good news, explaining,
“Paul’s idea of ‘proclaiming Christ’ had little to do with offering people a new religious option, a new private experience of the love of God, and far more to do with the announcement to the world at large that the crucified and risen Jesus was its Lord and King, the one before whom every knee must bow. This is fighting talk, the sort of thing that gets you in trouble with the authorities, and that is exactly what we find in Acts and the letters” (Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”)
Along this same line of thought, in his book, What Saint Paul Really Said, Wright suggests,
“… if the heralding of this gospel was the authoritative summons to allegiance, it could not but pose a challenge to all other ‘powers’ that claimed human loyalty. That is why to retain, or to embrace, symbols and praxis which spoke of other loyalties and other allegiances was to imply that other powers were still being invoked. And that, according to Paul, was to deny ‘the truth of the gospel’” (61).
If Wright is accurate in his description of the gospel that Paul is proclaiming in his New Testament epistles (and I’m inclined to agree so far as “allegiance” is concerned), we might also consider what is meant by “allegiance,” and how this notion relates to faith. I recently listened to an intriguing interview with Matthew Bates, author of Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Bates argues, quite persuasively, that it would be more accurate of us to understand the biblical notion of faith as “allegiance.” Without going into the details of Bates argument, here are two snippets that can help us understand what he’s getting at:
“…the gospel is the power-releasing story of Jesus’s life, death for sins, resurrection, and installation as king, but that story only makes sense in the wider framework of the stories of Israel and creation. The gospel is not in the first instance a story about heaven, hell, making a decision, raising your hand after praying a certain prayer, justification by faith alone, trusting that Jesus’s righteousness is sufficient, or any putative human tendencies toward self-salvation through good works. It is, in the final analysis, most succinctly, good news about the enthronement of Jesus the atoning king as he brings these wider stories to a climax” (30).
“The gospel reaches its zenith with Jesus’s installation and sovereign rule as the Christ, the king. As such, faith in Jesus is best described as allegiance to him as king (77).
Whether one wants to start replacing the word “faith” with the “word” allegiance or not, the broader point should be taken seriously, that faith is about how we exhibit loyalty, love, devotion, and obedience to the King, Jesus, more than it is a collection of existential moments and religious “highs.” This allegiance touches everything; it cannot be compartmentalized. Living as members and heralds of God’s kingdom means that all of life must be lived with that in mind. If this is the case, then why would the gospel message we share entail anything less?
Proclaiming the gospel in terms of Jesus’ kingship and our allegiance to him would help to collapse the false bifurcation of “private” and “public” faith, urge us to think more precisely about our various “allegiances,” challenge us to more appropriately situate the various ways we pledge ourselves to movements, ideas, and people, and provide strength to resist the temptation toward false forms of belonging. And maybe it would help us to be more charitable when we encounter those who challenge the worldly allegiances that mean so much to us. May God always use such moments to draw us mercifully and patiently back to our first love, the one to whom all allegiance is owed, King Jesus.