September 1, 2019

Deuteronomy 6:1-8 

I learned it in first grade. You probably did too. Thereafter I said it or heard it every day I went to public school for the next twelve years. You probably did too. Once we entered our classrooms, put away our books and lunch pails, the teacher told us to stand and face the flag in the front of the classroom for the Pledge of Allegiance. You probably did too. “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

We all said it the same way, standing with our right hands held over our hearts. But your grandparents probably did not, at least not in the same way. For starters, they did not put their hands over their hearts. When school children first starting reciting the pledge, they saluted the flag with their right hand outstretched toward the flag. During World War II, federal legislators became alarmed that our flag salute closely resembled the Nazi “Heil, Hitler” salute, so the legislators changed the salute for civilians to our customary hand-over-the heart gesture. 

Your grandparents did not recite the same words to the Pledge as we do. Until 1923 there were two distinct versions of the pledge. A Civil War veteran, Captain George Balch, wrote one version back in the 1880s. He wanted to encourage school children to become more patriotic. He encouraged schools to display an American flag in every classroom. Plus, he composed a pledge for school students to recite while standing and saluting the flag with hands stretched out. His pledge was simple and short: “We give our heads and hearts to God and our country: one country, one language, one flag!” The Daughters of the American Revolution and veterans of the Union Army, the Grand Army of the Republic, recited this version of the pledge until the 1920s.

Meanwhile a Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy, composed a different pledge, because he thought Balch’s pledge was too childish. He published his version in 1892. Bellamy’s original pledge read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which is stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” He teamed up with educators and publishers who likewise wanted to promote patriotism among school children. They thought a daily routine of reciting the pledge in unison, while saluting the American flag would instill devotion for the nation in school children. Bellamy had originally wanted to include the words “with equality for all,” but he sensed that his co-sponsors did not want the pledge to suggest that women and African Americans deserved to be treated as equals, so he dropped the word “equality.”

Bellamy’s version caught on. In the 1920s advocates for the Bellamy pledge changed the words “my flag” to the “Flag of the United States” so that immigrants would not confuse loyalty to the flag of their birth country with the flag of the their newly adopted country, the United States. Two decades later during World War II, as a way to promote patriotism, Congress officially endorsed the Bellamy version of the pledge in 1942, at the same time they changed the salute from an outstretched hand to a hand-over-the-heart gesture as a way to distinguish American patriotism from Nazi nationalism.

The last Congressional change in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance came a decade later in the 1950s, when our nation was engaged in what was called the Cold War, a series of confrontations with Communist countries.  Spearheaded by the Knights of Columbus, many Americans wanted to distinguish the United States from Communist countries who promoted atheism. They successfully urged President Eisenhower and Congress to insert in 1954 the phrase “under God” into the Pledge as a way of installing in school children that loyalty to America and free enterprise were under divine sanction.

Although the way we recite the Pledge of Allegiance is not the same way our grandparents may have recited it, some features of the Pledge have remained consistent. The Pledge has consistently stressed exclusive loyalty to one flag symbolizing one nation. We consistently teach young children the pledge by reciting it day after day. Of all the lessons children learn in public school, instilling love for the United States of America by reciting the Pledge is one of the few lessons consistently taught at day after day, year after year, across all the grade levels.

Long before George Balch or Francis Bellamy came up with the idea of reciting a short statement for promoting allegiance to their flag and nation, the ancient Hebrews had a practice of reciting a short statement for promoting allegiance to their God. We heard it earlier from Deuteronomy 6:4. Their “pledge of allegiance” reads: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” In Judaism, this sentence is known as the Shema, because the first word in the English sentence, “Hear,” comes from the Hebrew word.  Shema. How we use and view the Pledge of Allegiance can help us understand how devout Jews use and view the Shema.

Similar to the way we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day, many observant Jews recite the Shema every day, in fact they recite it four times a day: twice in the morning prayer service, once in the evening prayer service, and before going to sleep. One of our son’s wise violin teachers used to tell him: “Only practice on the days you eat.” Civics teachers could say, “Only practice patriotism on the days you eat.” Devout Jews could say, “Only practice religion on the days you eat.” Daily habits instill and reflect lasting values.

We teach children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a young age. Long before they can define the meaning of words such as allegiance or republic or liberty, children memorize the Pledge. We don’t wait for them to make up their minds about whether or not they want to be patriotic, we impress it upon them. We are wise to teach the oldest lessons to the youngest children for children can apprehend what we mean long before they comprehend what we say.

Just as we teach children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a young age, so the Jews began teaching their children about God as soon as possible. In Deuteronomy 6, shortly after stating the short Shema, Jews are commanded and told how to teach the pledge of faith to their children. Parents are to teach the words about God to their children and talk about them, “when you are at home, when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

Learning can occur at any time at any age, for children learn on the run, not just when and not even chiefly when they are old enough to sit still in a classroom. One of the frightening parts of being a parent is that our children, even when very young, are picking up lessons from us all the time. They pick up our words, our gestures, our mannerisms, our values long before we realize.

Because Lisa and I wanted to be comfortable praying with our children and wanted our children to be comfortable praying with us, we started praying aloud for them so they could hear us while they were still in the womb. I had to become accustomed to praying with them long before they realized or could learn from what I was doing. We are indeed wise to teach the oldest lessons to the youngest children, lessons such as love for God and love for country.

Although the way we recite the Pledge of Allegiance is not the same way our grandparents may have recited it, the purpose of the Pledge has remained consistent. The Pledge has consistently stressed exclusive loyalty to one flag symbolizing one nation. The meaning of being one nation is suggested in that long word, indivisible. The Pledge affirms that the nation will not be torn apart as was proved by the outcome of the costly Civil War, a traumatic memory that both Balch and Bellamy recalled living in the late 1800s. But the importance of being one nation, according to the Pledge, goes beyond stating that that United States is a one-of-a-kind nation, a unique nation standing for liberty and justice for all.

The significance of affirming one nation is that one can only pledge allegiance to one nation at a time.  Pledging loyalty to America excludes giving loyalty to another nation. That singular loyalty accounts for why supporters changed the wording of the Pledge back in the 1920s. Before that time the Pledge simply affirmed loyalty to “my flag.” But since recent immigrants conceivably could affirm their loyalties to the flags of their foreign homelands, sponsors of the Pledge made explicit that the immigrant children pledged loyalty to the flag of only one country, their new homeland, the United States. Patriotism, like marriage, only permits one lover at a time.

Just as the Pledge of Allegiance evokes exclusive loyalty to only one country, so the Shema evokes exclusive loyalty to only one God. The Shemasays, “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The Shemamay simply be affirming that the LORD is one of a kind or affirming that only one God exists. Jews affirm both. But, the effect of the Shema, similar to the effect of the Pledge of Allegiance, is to call for Jews to give their loyalty and love only to that one God.

About one century after Jesus lived, the Jews living in Judea staged a rebellion against the Roman armies, the same foreign armies that occupied Judea during Jesus’ lifetime. Their revolt failed and the Romans executed the leaders of the Jewish revolt. As he was being executed, Rabbi Akiva, who had inspired the revolt, recited the Shema. To show his intense love for God, he held out that final word one for as long as he had breath. Since then it has been customary for many Jews to prolong that final word one when reciting the Shema, as a pledge of their total loyalty and exclusive allegiance to the LORD.

We know how American citizens voice our exclusive loyalty to our country by reciting regularly and teaching our children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I have shared how Jews voice their exclusive loyalty to the LORD by reciting regularly and teaching their children to recite the Shema. This past week I wondered if Christians have a similar way to pledge our allegiance to Jesus. Repeating such a pledge regularly could be instructive for our children and inspiring for us in our desire to follow Jesus.

We don’t have a saying to recite, but we do something that serves the same purpose. To explain, let me give you some history.

Centuries ago, in the ancient Roman Empire, when a man became a soldier, he made a pledge. He swore not to turn his back on the enemy, not to desert his post and to obey his officers. Once the candidate made that pledge, for the next part of his life he belonged to the Empire. The Romans had a special name for that pledging or swearing-in ceremony. They called taking that pledge the sacramentum.

Some time later, when the Christian movement had spread throughout the Roman Empire, early Christian thinkers searched for a special name to describe the ceremony when candidates pledged to follow Jesus. The ceremony had a few stages. First the Christian leaders would baptize the candidates by dunking them under water or by pouring water on their heads. Then the leaders smeared some olive oil on the candidate’s forehead. Next the candidates swore or pledged to follow Jesus, to resist God’s enemies. Finally the climax of the ceremony came when the candidates shared in their first Communion, eating the bread and drinking from the cup.

The early Christians borrowed a well-known word to describe this ceremony. The called the swearing-in ceremony sacramentum, or as we know it, sacrament.

Thus, every time we observe Communion, this sacrament, we are enacting over and over our pledge of allegiance to Jesus. We are showing our loyalty to Jesus. We are teaching young children the pledge of devotion to Jesus by reenacting this sacrament with them month after month. We are instilling in them and fostering in ourselves intense love for Jesus by recalling how much he loved us and how he gave himself for us. We are demonstrating what our Lord lived for and died for and we are challenged to do the same for him.

May we be as eager and moved by showing this pledge of allegiance, by taking this bread and this drink in memory of Jesus, as we are moved and eager to pledge our allegiance when we stand to salute the flag. If truth be told, may we be even more eager.