I write today from Elk Grove California – Ground Zero of the pledge case. Like Michael Newdow, I too have children in this school district and I can guarantee you that they’ll be lots of amenin’ and applause throughout our fair city in the coming weeks.
But the celebration begs a popular question “What would Jesus Do?” or more appropriately, “What would Jesus pledge?”
Because as I remember, the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was tempted three times by a satanic figure who offered him an opportunity to hear entire kingdoms pledge their allegiance and bow at his feet. But he wasn’t buying it.
“Jesus’ refusal was curt,” reports the gospel writer “‘Beat it, Satan!’ He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.’” From that mountain precipice, Jesus rightly decided that his battle wasn’t about gaining the allegiance of worlds, but about giving purpose to the world.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m disappointed that Newdow lost, but I am disappointed that the entire issue seems to have distracted the faithful from our purpose.
Distracted, that is, into falsely believing that we are “one nation under God,” when we are not. We are a nation seeking God, choosing gods, creating gods, questioning God, discerning God, and eventually all of us will one day encounter God. But, as a nation, we haven’t placed ourselves “under God.”
At a time when the world seems to be warring over religion, there is little room for a religion that seeks to summarize their faith in two words. What our world needs now isn’t the half-hearted recessitation of a pledge – it’s the “single-hearted” devotion of people who express their faith not by pledges but by doing their faith. The truth is, that if you faith is in peril over the lack of two words, you’ve got big problems.
Am I saying that Newdow is right? Perhaps in some ways, he is.
Years ago, I read a book by Christianity Today editor, Marshall Shelley called Well-Intentioned Dragons. The book talked about understanding disagreeable people – “Dragons” as Shelley called them. I was intrigued by the chapter entitled, “When the Dragon May be Right.”
The premise was that sometimes even disagreeable people can find an element of truth. And however much Mr. Newdow may be a disagreeable person, (possibly seeking press over plausibility), he has stumbled on some degree of truth – namely that the constant repetition of a religious affirmation – forced or optional –in no way reflects a true degree of faith. Let’s face it, God just isn’t slogan material.
It seems to me that we’ve allowed a spiritual battle to be dragged into a secular court. And on that score, Jesus had some more advice. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift-wrap your best coat and make a present of it.”
Jesus was saying that the lawsuit isn’t the issue. The relationship is the issue. And in the flag case, the lawsuit wasn’t the issue. Again, relationship was the issue – relationship with the God who we are pledging and relations with those from other faiths or of no faith.
My guess is that before this decade is over, the “dragon” will return with an articulate child who has no custody issues. When they win that one, they’ll turn to the coinage, oaths of office, and on a personal note – the issue of military chaplains once again.
But, no matter what happens in future cases, God is not threatened by our freedom of choice. And whether people choose to be “under God” or not, he will always be too big to be described in a phrase and too big to be edited out by a phrase. To be God, he does not need pledges of support nor is he weakened by rejection.
**Scripture quotations from Eugene Patterson’s translation of the New Testament, The Message. © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 NavPress.