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By Tom Boogaart
I am coming to the end of a long teaching career at Western Theological Seminary and beginning to sort through the piles of notes, lectures, sermons, and essays that have accumulated over the years, much of the material forgotten and forgettable.
I recently went through a file of material from my year in Israel/Palestine and found some notes taken during a visit to the Holocaust Museum at Lohame haGeta’ot (the ghetto fighters) a kibbutz in the Galilee region of Israel founded by the survivors of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
The notes were of a presentation by a woman named Chava. Born in 1926, she grew up in Prague, now the capital of the Czech Republic, with her parents and sister.
Her ordeal began on March 15, 1939, when the Germans occupied her city and targeted the Jews. In the course of the next five years, the Nazis slowly and systematically stripped everything away from her. They began by restricting her freedom of movement and then taking away her possessions item by item, even her dog.
In 1942, she, her mother, and her sister were transported to Theresienstadt, a “model” camp established by Adolf Hitler north of Prague, to show a suspicious world how well he provided for prisoners. Thousands died of disease and malnutrition, but people were not gassed. In September 1944, he broke up Theresienstadt and sent all the prisoners to extermination camps.
Chava traveled in the next year to Auschwitz and later, as the Russian army approached from the east, to Bergen-Belsen. Her mother died eight days before the British liberated Bergen-Belsen, and a sixty-five pound Chava was near death. Her diminution at the hands of the Nazis was so complete that at the moment of her liberation all she had left was the will to live. She fought for her life in a hospital and later built a new life for herself in Israel.
Chava ended her story talking fondly about her country and her son, a high officer in the Israeli armed forces. She said with conviction, “I have found a home, a flag, and a nation. I am not a nobody anymore. The Jewish armed forces give me the security that I am somebody.”
She recalled how she had returned with her son to Bergen-Belsen and stood on the field where the remains of her mother are somewhere to be found. Overwhelmed with feeling, she said: “It was a proper funeral for my mother. Her grandson was standing there in a military uniform.”
A home, a flag, and a nation
These notes in my file refreshed my memory of Chava and the deep ambivalence I felt listening to her story. I had seldom heard such an emotional pledge of allegiance—“I have found a home, a flag, and a nation;” and I had seldom heard such a forthright statement about the redemptive power of weapons—”The Jewish armed forces give me the security that I am somebody.”
A part of me felt the truth of what she was saying, a truth forged in the crucible of her suffering. The nations of the world, including the Untied States, which closed its doors to Jewish refugees, stood by and watched as Chava’s world was stripped away. She knew that she would not have been so diminished if there had been some nation somewhere to claim her and defend her, and she was convinced that she was secure as long as there were men like her son with the will and wherewithal to defend her. This truth was branded on her heart as indelibly as the number on her arm.
Yet, a part of me felt horrified. Elevating the nation-state this way and committing to it as the source of security and life has led to countless, terrible atrocities in the history of humankind.
When people pledge their allegiance to the flag of their nation, they become its body and the agents of its professed values and interests. The Germans, many of them Christians, pledged their allegiance to their Father, Adolph Hitler, and the fatherland. They became Hitler’s agents in ethnic cleansing. Chava herself was a victim of such unmitigated nationalism.
Pondering all this anew, it strikes me that all of us pledge our allegiance to some power in the course of our living and that such a pledge determines the purpose and direction of our lives. The Germans of Hitler’s day made such a pledge, as did Chava, as do I. The moral issue is not that we pledge allegiance but to whom we pledge and to what values.
Provision, pardon, protection
I am a Christian, and I pledge allegiance to God and God alone. I, along with all my fellow Christians, do this every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer. In this prayer of allegiance, we begin by calling God our “Father,” a royal title identifying God as the King and Father of all people, and then we pray that the Father’s kingdom comes and his will be done.
Next, as a loyal subjects, we petition our Father for the three things that are the hallmarks of a true King: provision—give us this day our daily bread; pardon—forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us; and protection—lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Finally we conclude our prayer acknowledging the Father’s absolute supremacy and eternity—for the kingdom, power, and glory are yours now and forevermore.
Christians are citizens in the Kingdom of God and loyal only to our Father who alone holds all power and calls us to love one another, even our enemies. Any particular nation is an agent of God and commands our loyalty only to the extent that it embodies the loving purposes of the Kingdom of God.
As Christians in the United States, this is so easily forgotten, just as we so easily equate the values and interests of the United States with those of the Kingdom God