As a kid, I learned the words by heart: “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.” Hand over heart, we would solemnly say the pledge in unison. But it’s a sure bet that few if any of us as elementary school students knew what we were saying. We recited the words by rote in sing-song fashion; I know now that the stress and intonation was all wrong, making hash of the meaning, just as we sometimes mangle the Lord’s Prayer. What did we understand of the principles of liberty or justice?
Or even more basically: what did we know of allegiance?
As a democratic republic, America has never had a king. But we know of allegiance, even when we don’t speak of it as such. More and more, it seems, we live, breathe, and embody a culture that teaches that our primary allegiance is to ourselves and our in-groups.
What would it look like to remember, always, that our primary allegiance is to God?
Not that such allegiance must necessarily supplant submission to human authority, as Jesus himself demonstrated in response to Pilate. But the question of allegiance is at the heart of the conflict between Pilate and the chief priests. Pilate knows the right thing to do: Jesus is innocent, and should not be made the patsy of his jealous opponents. But his first allegiance is not to justice, but to himself. The chief priests know this, and dangle the bait: Save your own skin, Pilate. You can always claim you did it out of loyalty to the emperor.
And the chief priests themselves? What of their loyalties? It is precisely in their role as chief priests that their allegiance should be to God and God’s prophet or Messiah. But when Pilate confronts them, when he asks incredulously if they really mean for him to crucify the man who is supposed to be their king, they shout back the most damning confession possible: “We have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15, NRSV).
What John wants us to see, of course, is that their allegiance is not to God but to themselves, to the status quo. This sorry scene is but the culmination of all the rejection that has gone before: the attempts to arrest or even kill Jesus, the refusal to recognize the meaning of his miraculous signs.
We have no king but Caesar. Truth be told, they despise the empire and its emperor. They despise Pilate, his puppet governor. If they could oust the Romans without sacrificing their own positions of power and privilege, they would, without hesitation. They only make a pretense of being loyal to the emperor to suggest that Pilate is not, in order to force his hand.
This much, however, is true: they have no king. One wonders what the prophet Samuel might have said, had he been there: First, you rejected God as your king by clamoring for an earthly king. But God let you have one anyway. And when in due time everything fell apart, you prayed once more for God to send his Anointed One to rule over you.
Well, he did. And look what’s happening.
We should never be too complacent in assuming that our allegiances are in proper order. How can we know?
Here’s one suggestion: we could ask ourselves, honestly, whether we are willingly participating in injustice.
That should give us a clue, if we’re willing to recognize it.