The mass choir without the masks got all the attention during Vice President’s visit this past Sunday to Dr. Robert Jeffress’ First Baptist “Church” in Dallas. The worship- I mean, idolatry-that Sunday was themed “Freedom Sunday” and included germy renditions of the anthems from each branch of the military services. Last year for Freedom Sunday, Jeffress’ choir unveiled the new “praise” song “Making America Great Again.”
Where’s Woody Guthrie when you need him?
“Pastor” Jeffress’ persistent golden calf shenanigans got me thinking of Monty Python and Pliny, the Roman Governor, in that order.
I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian? It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions. There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.
Reggie finally demands,
“All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”
To which the reply comes,
And Reggie has no answer.
Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Rome not only knew how to dig a sewer and pitch an aqueduct, they knew better than many Christians today know the fundamental claim of Christianity.
Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor, Trajan, offering explanation for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he’d encountered called Christians.
Some he punished. Some he tortured and executed. Still others, those who were like Paul, Roman citizens, he transferred back to Rome.
But what about those Christians who, in the face of persecution, offered to cease being a Christian?
You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.
To prove to Roman authorities that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense before a statue of the Emperor while confessing “Caesar is Lord.”
And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renouncing Christians to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private. Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession. Pliny didn’t gather them all together, have them close their eyes and bow their heads, and ask them to raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar.
No, he required a public display of loyalty.
He insisted upon a public pledge.
When so many Christians today think being a Christian is about inviting Jesus into their hearts to be a personal Lord and Savior (whatever that means) or having faith in him, and when so many others think it’s primarily about following Jesus’ teachings or, even worse, that it’s about belonging to an institution, Pliny saw that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as present-tense Sovereign Lord was the fundamental claim of Christianity.
What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to their faith.
Christianity, Rome helps us see, is about choosing between rival and irreconcilable claims upon us.
If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is “Lord” was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then it follows that to repent and confess Jesus meant to reject and condemn the another’s lordship.
So it’s not just roads and sewers and medicine and peace, Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding that the core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.
And allegiance, Pliny points out for us, cannot be offered in a vacuum. To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Affirmation is a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes an other contending for your loyalty.
Most often defined as faith or belief, the pistis word group in the Greek New Testament can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.
If the stage we occupy in the Creed and Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then the strongest and clearest definition of pistis/faith is allegiance.
Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him.
Caesar cared whether his subjects were loyal to him.
Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not trust so much as allegiance.
Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works,’ a personal Lord and a Cosmic Lord, moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.
Imagine what becomes possible when in recasting pistis in terms of allegiance.
For example, the Apostles Creed makes more obvious what is at stake in the profession:
“I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”
It works at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…”
And at the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”
Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.
Or Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who gives allegiance.”
If faith is a matter of believing in Jesus, then Christians can disagree about the relative importance of racism, immigration, or poverty, dismissing it as ‘political.’
If faith is a matter of allegiance to Jesus, then how we address those issues might be debatable but that they merit our attention is no longer negotiable.
Translating pistis as allegiance just might be the way to make the Christian faith great again.
Stanley Hauerwas asserts that the essence of Christianity is:
“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”
Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos then the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, an allegiance that requires a readiness to call BS when we see it.
You do not have to believe in Jesus’ Lordship to know that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.
Or, simply working to dilute, confuse, or qualify our allegiance.
Again, witness Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” of Dallas
When the Risen Jesus commissions the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he tells them the way they will manifest his lordship is by baptizing and making disciples of all nations; that is, Jesus commissions to plant churches. The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge.
The ordinary practices Jesus has given us are the ways we stand before all the golden calves, be they statues of Caesar or Robert Jeffress’ civil religion pageantry, and call BS.