Football player Colin Kaepernick, with a cross decorating his arm and Bible verses tattooed on his chest, started a conversation by refusing to stand for the national anthem ritual.
How do we speak to an imperfect nation? How do we respond to injustice? When do loyalty to God and patriotism collide?
Our Mennonite history has stories of clashing loyalty. With Bible verses tattooed in their hearts, Mennonite young men refused military training for World War I. In army camps, fellow inductees ridiculed them for refusing to wear a uniform. During World War II, instead of crosses, yellow paint decorated Mennonite church buildings, labeling conscientious objectors as unpatriotic cowards.
Today we live in comfort. Tensions between conflicting loyalties are subtle. For most, standing for the national anthem is an acceptable ritual, after all we (who are white) especially benefit from living in this nation.
Rome had no national anthem, but Jesus knew about clashing loyalties. He faced the imperial-tax question. The Herodians saw the tax as simply the cost of Rome governing Israel. After all, the Romans were keeping the peace. Others found the tax an offensive reminder of Israel’s oppression and humiliation. The poor didn’t have a chance. Religiously devout Jews were uncomfortable even holding the patriotic coin engraved with Caesar’s image and proclaiming Caesar’s divinity.
Questioning Jesus about paying the imperial tax is a trap. If he says “pay,” Jesus looks like a traitor to Jewish values. If he says “don’t pay,” he could be arrested for sedition.
Jesus cleverly answers, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” We are left to sort out allegiances.
Imagine Jesus being asked, “Tell us, is it right to stand and pay homage to Caesar’s anthem?”
Jesus responds, “Sing me the words.”
The questioners are quiet. They know the words speak of bombs bursting and flags glorified. The historians in the crowd remember the anthem’s connection to slavery. The British had offered freedom to slaves willing to join their fight against the colonies. The rarely sung third verse states: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave . . .”
Kaepernick doesn’t cite historical racism or wars as his objection to standing. Instead, he has said, “This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening right now.”
Our nation has a tainted identity. Police seem ready to enforce a racial divide. Justice for all is too often lacking. Our military regularly destroys lives in the name of freedom and national security. As followers of Jesus, we need our antenna tuned to discern our allegiances.
Being in the world and not of it is in our Mennonite blood. What does it mean today?
How do we remember our allegiance is to a wider, more just world?
How do we find our bearings in a lopsided system that begs for our loyalty?
How do we declare God is the ruler of all?
How do we make sure that being God’s people outshines being American or Canadian or whatever nation or tribe is competing for our loyalty?
How do we serve a God who desires justice and compassion toward all people regardless of nationality or color?
How do we thoughtfully choose our rituals?
Now if Kaepernick were to question the ritual violence of football, he could create an even bigger ruckus.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.