I Pledge Allegiance
A Believer’s Guide to Kingdom Citizenship in Twenty-First-Century America
- ISBN: 9780802871749
- Published By: Eerdmans
- Published: February 2018
I Pledge Allegiance is a primer in the upside-down way of Jesus, addressed to his would-be disciples in 21st-century America who have divided their loyalties among other lords and “benefactors.” Throughout his book, David Crump juxtaposes an account of American evangelicals’ moral compromises when confusing their nation for the kingdom of God—support for civil authorities’ use of torture is Exhibit A—with a presentation of “ethics as if Jesus mattered” (to borrow a phrase from Glen Stassen). Crump provides not so much an introduction to Christian ethics “textbook” as a text tightly focused on the Jesus-follower’s essential mindset, which he fleshes out in later chapters on economics and the possibility of Christian military service. A driving question is: How does it look when a citizen of God’s kingdom maintains ultimate loyalty to Lord Jesus while living under earthly governance in a world beset with numerous malformative “discipleship” programs?
For the reader unversed in recent literature orienting ethics around Jesus and the kingdom of God, Crump’s introduction covers all its bases and is rightfully jarring. When Jesus’s teachings about life in the kingdom (e.g., love your enemies, give to all who ask, and turn the other cheek) become the dominant frame of reference, one’s whole world—of practices, priorities, and values—is turned upside down. God is the primary agent bringing his kingdom into this world, and it does not naturally connect with the progress of human history or any particular nation. The kingdom’s best evidence in any earthly social context is “the distinctive, identifiable behavior of its citizens,” not express anxiety about realizing a certain (partisan) political platform in this or that nation (71). However, many are the paths from which everyday Christians can depart the upside-down kingdom, and many are the theologians who willingly (if unwittingly) guide them.
Down one of these paths are the many lost sheep who fancy themselves to be God’s culture transformers. Crump sets his sights particularly on those who evade Jesus’s explicit teachings and employ instead neo-Calvinist methods for conceptualizing an ideal social order as the supposed original designs of God for humankind and for deriving a divine command to take that order public (e.g., the “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1:26-27). “Christians, like everyone else,” he tells us, “can always find a way to turn their choices into necessities, baptizing their ideological commitments as expressions of the Christian mind” (xii). Moreover, Christian ethics that appeal to God’s original-creational designs are tremendously vulnerable to thinkers projecting the status quo or their romantic conservative ideal(s) into “the beginning.” As Crump notes, many Nazi-supporting Christians did so. Examining data that suggest the general population’s offense at conservative Christianity is about their aggressive politics and not their humble service to their crucified and risen Lord, he sounds the alarm. This activity is not what Jesus is talking about when he calls blessed those who are persecuted for his sake.
Crump’s work stands out amongst recent kingdom-oriented literature by directly confronting principal sources (e.g., Abraham Kuyper) and the more studious arguments underlying evangelical political activism. Nevertheless, his argument retains a decidedly “evangelical” feel. For example, Crump argues that neither a set of social conditions nor reasonable ethics distilled from scripture will make anyone a citizen of God’s kingdom and that “the ministry of evangelism is the closest any disciple can come to building the kingdom on earth” (78). He lands his appeal in an account of the church existing as a social ethic that he consciously connects with Stanley Hauerwas’s writings. Given Crump’s background in Christian Reformed and evangelical circles, however, I notice some affinity with Carl F. H. Henry, who also makes a case for the church existing as a social ethic. Henry, like Crump, insists on the centrality of personal evangelism and wonders how Christians might fittingly name their distinct hope and motivation while engaged in social activism.
Even as he professes that long-term faithfulness hinges upon keeping upside-down-seeing “kingdom goggles” on all the time, Crump is candid about the difficulty of doing so. Human beings habituated by the powers of a fallen world instinctively see things right-side up and (often unconsciously) resist efforts to make them see otherwise—preferring, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to read the Bible always for ourselves, never against. Crump lands on the idea that piety (i.e., reading scripture and praying) and Christian community are the best bets for preservation against the wiles of the world. Yet Kuyper's defense of the neo-Calvinist worldview appeals to the same sensibilities. At such an impasse, what might be said to bolster Crump’s case?
I suspect that the root of the problem lies deeper than Crump’s analysis, namely in thinking that we always already know what God wants from us. Just as kingdom vision is upside down, kingdom knowing is really a way of unknowing that preserves a properly creaturely relationship with God. What comes to mind is Bonhoeffer’s claim that the Sermon on the Mount should not become a new law to be obeyed on our own steam to please God. The kingdom citizen cannot get their personal worldview perfectly straight—that is, totally upside down—but can and should harken to the risen Jesus’s call and continuously seek Holy-Spirit-driven repentance.
In I Pledge Allegiance, Crump makes the fruit of his scholarship available to an educated lay audience in accessible terms with ample examples and apt analogies. He makes sharp incisions where they count the most and is sparing with inessential details. Though the book may read as partisan, the generous reader will see that doing ethics as if Jesus mattered subjects all Christians to the refining grit of the Holy Spirit. As I read it, Crump wrote I Pledge Allegiance to start meaningful conversations rather than finish them. It would play well in small church groups and could benefit undergraduate courses introducing or applying Christian ethics.
Jacob Alan Cook is Adjunct Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Friends University.Jacob CookDate Of Review:June 5, 2018