Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Pledge and the Creed

I finished a book last week. It's a good one - Desiring the Kingdom, by James K A Smith - I'm probably a little late to the party there. It was a really cool look at how our practices shape us as people. Specifically from a Christian perspective, it was an exploration into how our cultural practices - economic, educational, governmental, even recreational activities - work against formation in the Christian tradition; and how many of the practices labeled "Christian" are really just re-formations of secular liturgies with a baptized name and vocabulary.

In some sense it was challenging, in another it was telling me things I was eager to hear.

One thing I did think about, with my daughter soon moving up to the next level of school, was about how we're formed so specifically to be citizens of a culture. Saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day is a big, seemingly innocuous part of that. Most everyone grew up doing it. It's more than just a patriotic thing, though, it's very much a cultural practice that connects us to a larger picture of America and makes it easier for us to appropriate the expected patriotism later on.

One of the biggest problems in contemporary American Christianity is the notion that our faith is one part of our identity - that we're people (specifically a free individual) and all the other things are added to it - nationality, race, religion, occupation, family, etc. Some of those we hold more closely than others, but generally we like to be able to pick and choose how closely we hold each of those.

This notion itself is a stark divide from classical Christian conceptions of identity - where one's allegiance to Christ becomes all-encompassing, in many ways completely overwriting individual identity, certainly becoming THE primary means of understanding one's self: in connection to the people of God and Christ himself.

She's only just turning four this spring, so I'm not sure when exactly they'll start teaching the Pledge in Eva's school. I do know I really don't want it to be part of her life. We start forming and shaping the people our children will be long before they can understand what exactly these practices mean or what they do to us. Shoot - most adults don't pause one second to contemplate how our ingrained and traditional cultural practices shape and form who we are throughout our lives.

And I think that's the point.

We're using thing like the Pledge to create a child's understanding of reality and identity and the world around her in ways that make it difficult to even question later on. This is what commercial brands try to do, as well. They want you to so identify with the spirit of Nike or Apple that you'll feel disconnected or misplaced or not "you" if you ever stray from the brand.

Smith argues that everything we do with some regularity, whether we know it or not, is shaping us in the same way. We're being branded by our actions. The book details how deeply each of these may affect us and the good and bad (and in-between) of it all, but this Pledge thing really stuck with me - mostly because he contrasted the Pledge of Allegiance with the Apostles' Creed. It's a relatively short statement that sums up the basic beliefs and commitments of a Christian. It's older even than scripture itself and defines citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

Very political language is used in scripture to talk about God's people. That's intentional, because it's very clear that God's people are a people, a political unit, set apart and separate from all other political units. There are no American Christians or German Christians or Bangladeshi Christians, just Christians who happen to find themselves in a particular country.

What that means for us is difficult. It's a road we have to walk intentionally and carefully, because we really can't be separated from the nations in which we live, but we do need to understand how we, as foreigners, must navigate life in these lands. I have trouble with the Pledge specifically because it denies this dichotomy. I remember questioning the Pledge as a kid for exactly this reason - we're not supposed to give allegiance to anyone but God. I remember being told, "the Pledge says 'under God,' so it's ok; if there's ever a conflict between America and God, we'll choose God."

That sounds nice in theory, but one look at our cultural and religious landscape today proves it doesn't work out so well in reality. You can't be of two minds - our brain can't handle it (I believe it's called a psychosis, but I might've gotten the technical term wrong). We're driven to either separate the two into distinct spheres, never overlapping; or we're driven to combine them in whatever Frankenstein-moster-y way we can manage (ruining both).

I worry, though, about how the other cultural practices will factor in. I don't think my daughter will have trouble with the concept of allegiance. Once you explain the word, it makes sense that you can only give allegiance to God. The harder thing will be working against our cultural conditioning to fit in, go along, and not stand out. If everyone else is doing something, then it must be right. We ask our kids, "If everyone else were jumping off a bridge..." but we typically teach them to jump - not intentionally and not with out words, but with these culturally conditioned practices that become second nature (first nature, really).

What I'm realizing this week is that while we'll try to teach our daughter why we don't say the Pledge, I haven't done a good job of replacing that practice with something else. I'm not sure I could recite the Apostle's Creed. I mean I could explain the three sections and their theological importance and name the essential elements of each, but I don't know that I could actually say it correctly.

I'm realizing it's not enough just to combat one cultural liturgy; it must be replaced with something life-giving and formative in the Christian tradition. so I'm going to work harder to make sure I've got it down and begin to teach it to my daughter. I don't know yet if I'll connect it to the Pledge as an alternative; I just don't know if pitting them against each other makes sense for a young child's brain development. I do want her to be formed in this way, though.

I hold out great hope, however, because although she usually refuses to say it when we ask (she's 3.5 after all), I know she memorized the Lord's Prayer quite a while ago and without prompting. We say it each week in worship and she picked it up on her own. That gives me great hope that we're forming her and shaping her with Christ-centered liturgies and the very fact I'm worried about it is, hopefully, a good sign that we'll be able to do the best we can.

I'll leave you today with, well, the Creed - may it form you and shape you into the kind of person who loves like Jesus:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


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