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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.

Chava’s Tale

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.”

Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis, which was denied entry at US ports in 1939.

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

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart recently retired after a long career of teaching Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

12 Comments

  • Kathy Davelaar says:

    Thank you, Tom.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Well written, Tom. Written carefully no doubt. For many the flag is an idol.

  • Bruce Garner says:

    Thank you for this. I had a religion professor in college who was German and who was very clear about something that took place in Nazi Germany. He told us that the downfall of the nation began when the churches allowed the Nazi flag to be brought into the churches. That comment continues to make me shiver and not for good reasons. I look back on my elementary and high school years, over 50 years in the past for the latter. Every day we dutifully stood and pledged our allegiance to the United States flag. Those years included the pledge before and after the phrase “under God” was added. Something never really felt “right” about that. I think it was not until adulthood that I realized what was amiss: “with liberty and justice for all” was not a reality then, nor is it now.

    We process the American flag into church on Independence Day, Veterans Day and Memorial Day. My preference is that we not do this, but we do. I always remind the person with the flag that it is never to be higher than the top of the processional cross. God is always above country. Some seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew or ascribed to that concept.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    Tom this is beautifully written and expresses our call to a higher authority than that represented by a flag. I recall my niece Jeanette refusing to say the pledge in elementary school because she said her allegiance was to God alone…such wisdom in one so young.
    Than you for this and Godspeed in your retirement. You will be missed.
    (I remember seeing you at the kibbutz in Israel in 1996 when our group from Central Reformed stayed there briefly.)

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    You didn’t pledge allegiance to your wife, Tom? (assuming you are married) Allegiance is defined as “devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause”. It is not wrong for Christians to pledge allegiance to other than God, just not ultimate allegiance. Pledging allegiance to your country is honorable, not sinful. Of course we are all capable of placing proper allegiances improperly above God, but it is not realistic to say that Christians have no allegiances other than to God.

    • Nate says:

      Eric, You’ve missed the point. The point is that idols take many forms. Nationalism is a form of idolatry with devastating historical consequences.

      • George E says:

        No, Nate, Eric understands. You’ve missed tom’s statement about “… commands our loyalty only to the extent that it embodies the loving purposes of the Kingdom of God.” Eric recognizes that allegiances are appropriate when they fit into the Kingdom.

        To make blanket statements about nations or allegiances is not to smart. It depends on circumstances.

        Worse than condemning all secular allegiances is insisting that a nation should abandon Christian values in favor of some progressive ideology and then counseling against national allegiances because all nations are like Nazi Germany at their cores.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Hi Nate,

        I understand the larger point, but Tom also throws the baby out with the bathwater when he says the following: “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.” The word “alone” means something. So I think you have actually missed my point, but I won’t hold it against you. 🙂

    • Jessica Groen says:

      Monogamous marital bonds are not an oath of a “liege fealty,” classically defined as a feudal relationship between a vassal and a superior. I don’t have ultimate loyalty to my husband, nor do either of us regard the other as a superior in essence, status, or power. In the same way, while I participate in life as a citizen of US, there isn’t in me a vassal’s devotion to its perpetual existence, no matter the cost to human health and life. A pledge to any nationalist principality, its flag, and its constant appetite for willing and unwilling human sacrifices to reify its borders and and hoard its resources should always sit uncomfortably with those who have recognized Jesus Christ as humankind’s cosmic King, their brother, and their liege.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Allegiance is defined by Merriam Webster and popularly understood to be “devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause”. You may have your classical definition, but we don’t really do “feudal” relationships here in 21st century USA, particularly to the extent that we don’s have a feudal system. More simply that you seem to want to allow, one can be pledging devotion (not complete) and loyalty (not total or ultimate) to the nation and governing authorities that God has instituted and graciously given to us. No need to just highlight the worst about government and act as if there is nothing to be thankful for. Christians of all sorts express devotion and loyalty to many things in the earthly kingdom without placing them above their heavenly King. It’s really not that hard to hold that balance, even if some loose sight of it.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Thoughtfully written … I certainly appreciate Chava’s take on the matter. But you’re absolutely right in pointing out the potential dangers in her allegiance. For most Protestant Christians, the allegiance question has been unexamined … but these days require of us more responsibility.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection, Tom. For such as time as this, I needed to read this as I reflect and pray about the current state of our nation and our congregations.

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