Whom Will You Serve?
Published 5:01 pm Wednesday, November 9, 2022
Having been baptized as an infant in 1948, I’ve been a Christian longer than I can remember. At least, in name. (Getting baptized was my parents’ idea. I don’t remember being consulted.)
I would mature enough by the 1970s to confirm their decision and become a serious student of Scripture and Theology. Long enough to learn that as a Christian I was expected to put God first and trust in God alone – no rivals need apply.
“You shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) The ultimate allegiance of Jews and Christians must be to God and God alone. Before any “power or principality” that would lay a counterclaim upon their ultimate trust and loyalty. The central prayer of Judaism is the Shema Yisrael: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The Christian Nicene Creed begins: “I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.”
God’s interest in the Bible in exclusive loyalty is often portrayed as a strong jealousy, like that of a husband for his wife. The prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea referred to Israel’s worship of other gods as spiritual adultery.
I attended grammar school in the 1950s. My classmates and I began each morning by placing our hands over our hearts and pledging allegiance to the “flag of the United States of America”. In Middle School and High School, I reviewed moments in American history when that “star-spangled banner” flew proudly and to this day waves majestically “o’er that land of the free and the home of the brave”.
Public school systems throughout the nation expected their students to honor the nation’s history by giving their ultimate allegiance to its flag and traditions. A seemingly reasonable request for a nation whose forebears fought and died for the values of freedom and democracy.
That expectation became problematic for me, however, when I began to study Holy Scripture seriously and was introduced to the idea that God and God alone deserves my allegiance.
Maybe by now you can appreciate my dilemma. If forced to choose between America and God, which should I select? If given the choice between being bound by the platforms of the Democratic or the Republican Party or the political/economic dictates of the Bible, which would be more deserving of my allegiance?
After over 50 decades of studying and thinking about these matters, I have come to the conclusion that all claimants to the throne of God are suspect. For those who profess the Jewish or Christian faith, trust and devotion to the God of the Old and New Testaments comes before loyalty to ANY other god – even the gods of one’s own nation. “You shall have no other god before me.” Period. Mic drop. Full stop.
I sometimes envy those for whom this is not a problem – those who believe that loyalty to God and allegiance to the Nation can always co-exist, no matter what the nation may ask its citizens to do or believe. I doubt that is truly possible, but I understand the need to make the effort.
God could not, however, have made it any clearer. God and Nation may both be worthy of devotion. But not of equal devotion. The two should never be merged to the extent that they become indistinguishable.
As happens when local churches display flags on their properties and patriotic hangings in their sanctuaries to such an extent that national symbols overwhelm Christian ones and worshippers forget that it was upon an imperial Cross that Jesus was crucified.
After crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land and conquering the land of Canaan, Joshua, the Hebrew leader, counseled his people to reaffirm their devotion to Yahweh by choosing him, and only him, to worship: “… choose here and now whom you will worship…” The people were given a choice between Yahweh, the god of Moses, and the national gods of the land they now occupied. “But as for I and my family”, Joshua asserted, “we will worship the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) And the people said, Amen – “We, too, will worship the Lord.”
The scriptures and traditions of the Christian Church affirm without equivocation that there is only one God. Only one Lord and Savior. And it is to that God that Jews and Christians are commanded to give their ultimate trust, obedience and loyalty.
Polk Culpepper is a Washington resident and a retired Episcopal priest.