Not Pledging as Liturgy:
Lessons from Karl Barth and American Mennonites on Refusing National Oaths
Abstract: Controversy over whether Christians may offer national oaths-such as Barth’s refusal of Hitler’s loyalty oath and the Mennonite debate about the Pledge of Allegiance-can help the church better understand its relation to the state. The way Barth and Mennonites reason about church-state issues is sophisticated, but also has areas of weakness. One weakness is too great a reliance on the principle, “Obey the state unless it conflicts with obeying God”-a principle that provides neither criteria for determining when a conflict exists nor ethical practices to shape Christians into people able to make that determination. A superior understanding of the church’s relation to the state would take into account the way national oaths shape the character of those who say them. This could be accomplished by drawing on the concept of church practices, specifically by seeing national oaths as a kind of liturgy. Doing so provides compelling reasons for sometimes not pledging.
Shortly after September 11, 2001 the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill requiring all schools, public and private, to offer a teacher-led recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in every classroom on every day. Less than a year later, in an unrelated case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals prohibited recitation of the Pledge in all public classrooms, even when participation was optional. For many Christians these oddly conflicting positions served to revive a long-standing question: May Christians pledge their loyalty to a nation? During the twentieth century a variety of Christians have seen national oaths as incompatible with Christian faith. From a historical perspective these oath refusals can be very valuable because they inevitably produce theological debate about the church’s relation to the state. This paper will focus on oath refusal in two different historical contexts: Karl Barth’s refusal of an oath of allegiance to Hitler in 1934 and American Mennonites’ debate about the Pledge of Allegiance throughout the twentieth century, but especially during World War II.
Both historical contexts reveal Christians who boldly struggled to live out their faith, sometimes even in the face of imminent persecution. However, on at least one point the theological reasoning of both Barth and some Mennonites regarding national oaths is inadequate. Though they differ in many ways, Barth and American Mennonites both understand Christian obedience to the state according to the standard Protestant principle, “Obey the state unless it conflicts with obedience to God.” This principle is insufficient in two ways. First, it provides no criteria for determining when state and church loyalties conflict. Second, it lacks accompanying ethical practices to shape Christians into people who are able to make that determination. The principle does frame the issue in terms of competing loyalties: Christians must be loyal to the nation up to a certain invisible line, and loyal to God beyond that line. But if no account has been taken of how Christian characters is formed, then it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Christians to know where to draw that line.
Barth and the Mennonites involved in this debate would have done better to think about the church’s relation to the state in terms of certain church practices. Doing so shifts the focus away from competing loyalties and toward the realm in which both Barth and Mennonites have traditionally located ethics-the church. In the case of national oaths, the relevant church practice is liturgy, in which Christians make professions of truth in the context of public worship.
Consider, for example, the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. If liturgy is indeed the public profession of truth, then at least two functions are at work in the practice. First, the worshippers confirm that they subscribe to the creed itself. They are saying, in effect, “Yes, I believe as a point of fact that Jesus suffered under Pilate.” Second, the worshippers engage in an act of intentional moral formation. These public professions are true not just because their content is “correct” but also because of the effect they have on those who make them. By making professions of truth, worshippers are shaped into a certain kind of people, indeed a new people. Any concept of liturgy that ignores either of these two functions would be inadequate, and is for this reason that the concept can be helpful for addressing the question of national oaths.
By reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, I not only make certain assertions about this republic and its flag, but I am also being shaped into a certain sort of person. Notice that the same two functions are present as in liturgy: agreement with the Pledge’s content and moral formation. For this reason, Christians faced with the question of national oaths should not only ask whether they can honestly recite the words of the oath; they must also ask what sort of people they are becoming by making the oath. In the historical situations studied below, Barth and American Mennonites tend to ask the first question but ignore the second. They refuse a national oath only when the oath explicitly blurs the distinction between church and state-when a Christian cannot honestly say the words of the oath. What this overlooks is the possibility that Christians should refrain from offering a national oath, not because they cannot honestly recite the words but because oaths, as a type of liturgy, shape character.
The liturgical aspect of oaths is so significant precisely because the question of agreement with its content presupposes a measure of moral formation. Notice that an individual’s response to the content of an oath may change in response to world events, political crises and the like. Hence, I might conclude that I could, in all integrity, offer a pledge of allegiance in Germany today, but that offering the same pledge in Germany in 1939 would be dishonest. On the other hand, the character-shaping quality of an oath will generally not vary in the same way. For if refusing to pledge is indeed a morally formative practice, only by refusing to pledge at many times would I become the sort of person able to refuse to pledge at the crucial times. To put it another way, only someone who has been morally formed by practices such as pledge refusal is able to discern when obedience to the state conflicts with obedience to God.
Because of their strong reliance on the principle, “Obey the state unless it conflicts with obedience to God,” Barth and some Mennonites overlook that both of these functions are at play in national oaths. This is not to say that the principle (and its accompanying focus on conflicting loyalties) is intrinsically wrong, but rather that it is an unhelpful way to understand the church’s relation to the state in general, and to the question of national oaths in particular. The church must understand that not reciting national oaths serves a liturgical function. Standing silent during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance does not necessarily claim that a Christian cannot say those words. Rather, Christians who stand silently together at such moments may be doing much the same thing as when they stand together-not silently-in public worship and are shaped into God’s people by professing God’s truth.
KARL BARTH AND THE LOYALTY OATH TO HITLER
Historical Context of Barth’s Refusal
In many ways the church’s struggle against Nazism began in May 1932 with the founding of the German-Christian movement. The German-Christians were a Protestant sect that sought to blend Nazism with some aspects of Christianity. They preached what they called “positive Christianity”-that is, a faith that encouraged German, Aryan supremacy. Despite being relatively small in number, by September 1933 the German-Christians found themselves in control of the German state church. When Hitler united Germany’s regional churches into a single Reichskirche, the mainline churches elected a respected pastor of a community for the mentally ill as their national bishop. Hitler, however, promptly had him replaced with a longtime friend and German-Christian, Ludwig Mller, who immediately helped pass the “Aryan paragraph,” a measure banning anyone of Jewish ancestry from the pastorate. In response, outraged mainline Protestant clergy formed the Pastors’ Emergency League (PEL), the stated goal of which was to oppose the Aryan paragraph and other infringements on church freedom.
It is important to note that the PEL was intentionally not making a political claim about the injustice of Nazism, anti-Semitism or the like. Rather, its response carefully maintained the two-kingdom distinction that dominated German Lutheranism. Their objection was only to the state’s interference in church administration; the church wanted to be free to appoint its own bishops and set its own standards for pastors. Only in varying degrees, and usually to a very limited degree, did they oppose the Nazi government as such.
The two-kingdom doctrine was so entrenched that even the strongest opponents of the German-Christian movement could support the German war effort. For example, PEL founder Martin Niemller opposed Hitler’s church policies so decisively that he was imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps. Yet this same Niemller also voted for Hitler in the 1933 elections, sent him a congratulatory telegram upon his victory, and offered to fight in the war in order to protect “the very existence of Germany.”
One theologian who did not take this separation for granted was Karl Barth, who was then teaching at the university in Bonn. In January 1934, at a gathering of pastors who were about to meet with Hitler, Barth was shown the memo the pastors had written to Hitler. Barth replied-and by some accounts screamed-at the German-Christian pastors present: “You have a different spirit, a different faith, a different God!” Chaos erupted, the author of the memo turned pale, and the others tried to get Barth to retract his words. In their eyes, Barth was clearly an extremist.
As became clear at the meeting, Hitler viewed the PEL as extremist and as an enemy of the state. Rather than listening to what the pastors had prepared, Hitler tried to intimidate them by having Hermann Gring read from the Gestapo’s files about PEL activities, even including a transcript of Niemller’s phone conversations. The irony is that, while the PEL may have seen Barth as an extremist and opponent of the state, they did not see themselves as such. In a PEL newsletter following the meeting Niemller could still write, “It’s not true that the PEL stands in opposition to Adolf Hitler. On the contrary, it’s been emphasized repeatedly on our part that this struggle has to do exclusively with church matters, and that any opposition in state matters is an outlandish lie.” While it would be a mistake to judge Niemller too harshly, for he ultimately suffered for opposing Hitler, his response reveals how the separation of “religious” and “political” life was simply taken for granted even by faithful Christians.
As a leader in the Confessing Church (the congregations that opposed the German-Christians and refused to acknowledge the national bishop appointed by Hitler), Barth saw how even the Confessing Church was damaged by these beliefs. In 1939, reflecting on the overall inability of the church to counter Nazism, he writes:
Admittedly many of the best people in the Confessing Church shut their eyes to the truth that the Jewish question, and the political question as such and as a whole, has become today a question of the faith. Luther’s very dubious teaching . . . concerning the separation between the kingdom of Christ and all “worldly” spheres, lies like a cloud over the ecclesiastical thinking and action of more or less every course taken by the German church. Will the Gospel in Germany (and everywhere else too) ever be really free from the Babylonian captivity of this teaching’
The pointed jab at Luther with which Barth concludes this paragraph makes it easy to overlook a subtle distinction he makes in the first sentence. What the church failed to see was that state-issues had become faith-issues. Barth was not arguing that the Christians were failing to be good citizens, but that they were failing to be good Christians. In agreement with Luther, Barth believed the state and church to be different realms or spheres; but in opposition to Luther (or at least how Luther was interpreted in Nazi Germany), Barth believed that church and state do come into conflict. What most Christians in Germany failed to see was that the policies of the German state had become “a question of faith.” Barth’s way of putting this was not accidental. For him, opposing Nazism was a theological endeavor.
From the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, Barth saw him, and his church policy in particular, as a theological threat. Yet he also realized that the church lacked the theological resources to respond. Therefore he wanted to address the root cause of this deficiency. As he wrote, the concern was not:
how one could get rid of the German-Christian nonsense, if that was God’s will, but how it was possible to form a front against the error which had devastated the Evangelical Church for centuries . . . [the belief that] alongside God’s revelation . . . man also has a legitimate authority of his own over the message and the form of the church.
How is it that Barth possessed the ability to stand against Hitler to a greater degree than others in the Confessing Church? He suggests here that his view of revelation and his opposition to natural theology allowed him to see what so many could not. By identifying this as the root cause of the church’s failure to oppose Nazism, Barth was able to connect his political struggle with his own theological project, his proclamation of Jesus Christ as the sole center of Christian life.
In May 1934, just two years after the formal beginning of the German-Christian movement, the churches that opposed Hitler’s church policy sought to strengthen their position by unifying. At the first Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church, the delegates unanimously accepted a statement, written primarily by Barth, that became the most lasting contribution of the Confessing Church.
The Barmen Declaration, as it came to be called, contained six articles, each of which consists of a short scripture passage and a following interpretation. The first states:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
Reading this in the larger context of Barth’s work makes clear what he is saying: the church can do nothing but proclaim Jesus as he is revealed in scripture. But for Barth, this is a political claim. Focusing on Jesus as the center of the church was not a concession to a two-kingdom approach that divorces the church from the realm of the state, because for Barth the Nazi state directly opposed the claim that Jesus Christ alone is Lord. Barth makes this claim because he understands Nazism as a religion. In 1939 he wrote of “the double character of National Socialism as a political experiment and as a religious institution of salvation.” The demands it placed on the loyalties of German citizens were demands that only the church could rightly make, and if the church heeded those demands it was accepting a source of revelation outside of the Jesus revealed by the Bible.
Not everyone in the Confessing Church appreciated this interpretation, and Barth again found himself labeled an extremist for how he used theology to oppose the state. As it turned out, the theological language of Barmen, which for Barth did oppose Nazism, also made it possible for advocates of the two-kingdom doctrine to both support Barmen and not oppose Nazism in its role as state, but only for its church policies.
For such Christians, Barth’s belief that Barmen was a theological document with political implications was dangerous. Some of them still had hopes of receiving Nazi recognition as an official church, or at least of ousting the German-Christian national bishop. For them, “the greatest danger to the German Evangelical Church comes from Karl Barth,” and in 1938 the Provisional Church Government disassociated itself from Barth. Although he did not know it at the time, Barth’s belief that the theology of Barmen had political implications was about to be put to the test.
In August 1934 Hitler named himself Chancellor and President of Germany and subsequently instituted a loyalty oath to be required of all civil servants and government officials, including pastors and university professors. The oath read as follows: “I swear: I will be true and obedient to the Fhrer of the German Reich and nation Adolf Hitler, observe the laws and conscientiously fulfill my official duties, so help me God.” Barth was confident that, because of his public criticism of the Nazi regime, the oath requirement would be put to him in pointed terms. He was soon proved right.
On November 7 Barth was asked by the university’s rector to take the oath. Barth had resolved that he would do so, but only if he could add a stipulation “to the effect that I could be loyal to the Fhrer only within my responsibilities as an Evangelical Christian.” He proposed his modified form of the oath to the Rector and was rejected. In his words, “My hour had come. I was suddenly suspended.”
Because of his refusal to take the oath in the prescribed form, Barth was tried before a tribunal. The prosecution argued that Barth’s proposed amendment was unacceptable because the oath was intended to have “unlimited content” and, besides, “it went without saying that the Fhrer did not require anything that was against God’s commandments.” While the prosecution was presenting its case, Barth was apparently not overly concerned. He spent the time composing a rhyme about the event (“Karl, we know, is hardly vile / And yet he has to go on trial”) and skimming Plato, portions of which he insisted on reading to the judges. As expected, the tribunal found Barth guilty.
In December both the Confessing Church and the Reformed Alliance issued statements that made Barth’s refusal moot. They concluded that any oath that contains a reference to God necessarily “excluded any actions which would be contrary to God’s command attested in holy scripture.” Barth then told the university rector that he would now be willing to take the oath without his amendment because, according to this interpretation, the content of his proposed amendment was built into the oath itself. He was nonetheless dismissed simply for having raised the issue. Legal squabbles over the matter continued for some time, but Barth was eventually forced to leave Germany for his native Switzerland in June 1935.
Though he never actually took the oath, the fact that Barth was willing to do so, given the church’s interpretation, clarifies his position. Barth did not object to oaths in principle, nor even to an oath to a state. In fact, elsewhere he wrote proudly of how his native Switzerland was a confederation joined together by an oath, “a commitment taken under the call of God and in responsibility before him.” Nor was he opposed to swearing loyalty to Hitler as his Fhrer. His objection was simply that the content of the oath was unlimited, “making Hitler a god incarnate and offending most seriously against the first commandment.” Hence, Barth reasoned, if the oath was interpreted to exclude ungodly commitments, then swearing it is permissible. At various points during the late 1930s pressure was also exerted on Confessing Church pastors to offer the oath. The great majority did so, enabled by the same interpretation that had made Barth willing to offer it, and also by the fact that some were allowed to include a statement describing their own personal interpretation of the oath.
However, during the later 1930s Barth, now at home in Switzerland, appears to have modified his position on the oath. While he never confessed regret for having been willing to take the oath as interpreted by the church, the church’s interpretation begins to look weak. In the words of one historian, the church interpretation amounted to nothing more than a “circuitous way for its pastors to comply with the letter of the law, if not its spirit.” So in 1939 Barth wrote:
My thesis is that in the face of National Socialism there is no longer neutrality for the Church today, no longer delay with her Yes or No. Unfortunately the majority of the Confessional Church in Germany still think there can be. This is indicated by their behavior in the question of the Oath, and in some other matters. . . .
This dictatorship can no longer be understood as the carrying out of a divine commission . . . [a fact proved] just recently once again in connection with the question of the Oath.
Here is no mention of the fact that the oath is limited by its reference to God, as the church’s interpretation had stated. Rather, the oath is itself evidence that the Nazi state was no longer a legitimate state in the sense of Romans 13. This demonstrates a growing tension in Barth’s theology as to whether oaths can be so simply “interpreted” in the way the church had tried to do.
While historically this marked the end of Barth’s personal struggle with the Nazi state on the question of the oath, it clearly leaves some questions unanswered. Specifically, how could Barth be willing to take the oath because he was able to find way around it, so to speak, but then condemn those who did take the oath? The answer to this question, and a fuller explanation of Barth’s position on national oaths, rests on his understanding of the church’s relation to the state and how this relationship affected his political ethics as a whole.
Barth’s Doctrine of Church and State
&NBSP;&NBSP;&NBSP;&NBSP;&NBSP; In the context of such events as the Barmen Declaration and Barth’s dealings with the German-Christians it is easy to see how Barth opposed Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms. Nonetheless, his position cannot be interpreted as a wholesale rejection of this doctrine. What Barth opposed so strongly was an application of Luther’s doctrine that made room in the church for a source of revelation beside or in place of Jesus.
Barth addressed the reformers’ positions, or lack thereof, on political ethics in his 1938 essay, “Church and State.” There, Barth wrote of a “gap” in the theology of the reformers in that they taught that all earthly rulers are subject to Christ, but they do not actually say what Christ has to do with the state. Barth argued that this gap tends to push the church into one of two extremes. Either the church becomes excessively spiritualized and leaves no way for its conception of justice to impact the world, or it constructs a secular version of the gospel that refers to “God” but certainly does not have in mind the God who is Jesus’ Father. Barth wanted to avoid these extremes.
For Barth the essential, constitutive act of the church is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and, not surprisingly, he brought this into his view of the church’s political role. The church’s role is one of prophecy: “It is the preaching of justification of the Kingdom of God, which founds, here and now, the true system of law, the true State.” But the church may not then attempt to use force to establish this state. Only God can establish the true heavenly state. Until then, “there can only be witnesses.” The church can only witness Jesus Christ to the state by proclaiming his gospel.
Within this understanding, the role of the state is decidedly limited. The vocation of the state is to provide the relative freedom necessary for the gospel to be proclaimed. By understanding the state in vocational terms, and especially by connecting that vocation to the preaching of the Christian gospel, an important corollary follows: “Apart from the Church, no where is there any fundamental knowledge of the reasons which make the State legitimate and necessary.” That is, the church knows the state better than the state knows the state. It then follows that the church’s existence and vocation is more fundamental than the state’s:
States may rise and fall, political conceptions may change, politics as such may interest or may fail to interest men, but throughout all developments and all changes one factor remains, as the preservation and basis of all states-the Christian Church.
Because the state exists for the church and not vice versa, “the Church’s first and fundamental service to the State” becomes clear: “The Church need only be truly ‘Church’.”
Barth thus made two moves to fill the gap he saw in the reformers’ theology about the church’s relation to the state. First, the church is God’s primary way of dealing with the world; the state is secondary and exists only to serve the church by maintaining order. Second, Christians’ civic duties are truly Christian obedience, for they also serve the church. This allows Barth to avoid recourse to two kingdoms, one ruled by an earthly prince and the other ruled by Jesus. Christ rules all. He rules the church, which exists to proclaim his gospel and worship him, and he rules the state, which exists to serve the church. There is no question of Christians serving Jesus (in one area of life) and the President (in another area). The Christian can serve Jesus alone, though such service can be indirect (via service to the President) or direct (preaching the gospel, observing the sacraments).
This raises the question of when the Christian may disobey the state, and with this it is possible to return to the question of national oaths. In general, the Christian must obey and serve the state except when the state ceases to be the state. That happens when a state reverses the hierarchy, making service to itself primary and service to the church secondary. For this reason, the state may not make “any kind of inward claim upon its subjects and citizens. . . . When the State begins to claim ‘love,’ it is in the process of becoming a Church, the Church of a false God, and thus an unjust State.” Such a state must be disobeyed, but by disobeying that false state, the Christian in fact obeys the true state.
This same reasoning caused Barth to require military service of Christians. “A fundamental Christian ‘No’ cannot be given here, because it in fact would be a fundamental ‘No’ to the earthly State as such, which is impossible from the Christian point of view.” The state cannot exist without military defenses, Barth argued, so Christians must defend the state in which God has placed them. When he says “a fundamental Christian ‘No'” Barth implied that a “No” in this or that particular war may be given, but wholesale Christian pacifism is impossible.
Just as military service may be refused in a given case, Barth believed Christians may disobey a command to give national oaths in certain situations. “An oath to the State cannot be given (with true respect for the State!) if it is a ‘totalitarian’ oath (that is, if it is rendered to a name which actually claims Divine functions).” Notice how carefully Barth phrased this exception to Christian obedience. Refusing to offer an oath to a totalitarian state is not actually disobedience to the state per se, but only disobedience to a particular and perverted manifestation of the state. A state that makes claims that only the church may make, such as the demand for love, is not the state of Romans 13 that the Christian is commanded to obey, but “‘the Beast out of the abyss’ of Revelation 13.” It was clearly with this reasoning in mind that Barth, when on trial for his own oath refusal, told the tribunal that he was serving the state by his refusal: “By recognizing the state, the church affirms the limitation put on it for its own sake qua state, and the professor of theology appointed by the state is himself a state-appointed guardian of this limitation.”
Character Formation in Barth’s Ethics
What is markedly absent from Barth’s writing on Christian obedience to the state is any kind of principle or rule that indicates whether obedience or disobedience is required in a given instance. So in the case of civil obedience, Barth will say that obedience can never be given to a state that claims the devotion appropriate for the church, but he will not provide a principle to help Christians tell when a given state is doing that. This absence is intentional and is related to Barth’s larger understanding of ethics. Barth wanted to emphasize that, in any moment, the ethical issue is what God commands now. He believed that ethical systems tend to obscure this fact by developing general rules that must be applied to particular circumstances. This is dangerous because the rule itself can be given the authoritative status that should be reserved for God’s Word alone. In his study of Barth’s ethics, Nigel Biggar summarizes Barth’s position: “The main purpose of ethics in Barth’s eyes is to dispose the human agent to hear and obey God’s commands by disclosing the theological history in which she stands.” These divine commands must be understood vocationally; they answer the question, “What am I called to do'”
This method is visible in the structure of the Barmen Declaration. Each of its articles begins with a scripture quotation and then an interpretation of that Scripture for the present moment. More than this, the text is included so that the text is read in light of the world events at that time. As one writer puts it, Barmen unwaveringly proclaims: “For the present time we have been given this understanding of the Biblical text.” Surely this is the source of Barmen’s rhetorical and spiritual power. It is God’s one unchanging word applied to that moment of decision. Yet anyone familiar with the history of Barmen cannot but be troubled at this point, for in many ways the church that confessed it failed.
An ethics based solely on command and decision ignores the fact that those who hear the command and act out the decision are “storied” beings. They have their own moral histories and characters that affect how they hear and decide. The record of the Confessing Church bears this out. When Barth wrote in Barmen, “Jesus Christ . . . is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey,” it was for him a political challenge to Nazism’s totalitarian claims. But when less radical members of the Confessing Church read the same words, they merely appropriated them into the two-kingdom framework: let Hitler run the country as long as he leaves the church alone. To be able to hear God’s command rightly requires a measure of moral formation.
One way that Barth did address character was by saying that dispositions of character-such as joy, courage, and gratefulness-serve as criteria that help validate God’s command. When I act in response to God’s command, I should expect God to give me “the freedom to [obey] ‘joyfully, resolutely and with a good rather than a doubtful conscience.'” Another way Barth addressed character is by acknowledging that humans are not blank slates, but the sum of previous decisions. Here Barth is almost poetic:
I am gifted and burdened, freed and enslaved, enriched and impoverished, credited and committed, strengthened and weakened, inclined, directed, and determined, by the many earlier transitions I have made in the past right up to this point. I am what all my past life has made me.
Biggar makes both of these points in order to challenge the claim that Barth overlooked character formation. Though Biggar’s position is convincing for what it argues, it is troubling for what it ignores.
The real question is not whether Barth has some concept of how humans are affected by their own pasts-surely he does. Rather, the question is whether Barth is able to incorporate the practice of intentional character formation into his ethics, for that is what seems missing. Given that humans are shaped by their histories, are there ways the church can positively influence its members now so that later they will be able to hear God’s command? Or, if the way in which humans are disposed to hear God is through the disclosure of theological history, can the church play a role in shaping the histories of its members? The absence of such notions from Barth’s work helps account for his position on national oaths in Nazi Germany.
Barth on Oaths: A Summary
Barth was courageous to stand against the demand that he swear obedience to Hitler. As a Christian he could give only to God the level of commitment Hitler sought for himself. He did not even have to consider whether Hitler was a good or an evil man, or whether Nazism was a just or unjust ideology. Even if Hitler had not been evil, the mere fact that he demanded unconditional loyalty made his oath impossible for the Christian conscience.
Barth justified his disobedience to the state in his understanding of the church’s relation to the state. The state exists to serve the church and is, for its own sake and purpose, necessarily limited. Should it seek to be unlimited, wanting the church to serve it and not vice versa, then true obedience to the state requires disobedience to this particular state. Unfortunately, however, as the history of the Confessing Church in Germany made all too clear, this logic was susceptible to circuitous and legalistic interpretations that could easily justify otherwise problematic oaths.
In 1939, one year after being disassociated from Germany’s Provisional Church Government and five years after being forced to leave Germany because of the oath, Barth published The Church and the Political Problem of the Day. In the book Barth argued that events had reached a point that no Christian could be justified in maintaining a neutral position regarding Nazism, and he expressed clear frustration about the inadequacy of the Confessing Church to stand against Hitler, citing explicitly their willingness to take the oath. Although Barth demanded that the church not be neutral toward Nazism in 1939, he endorsed its politically neutrality in the early 1930s. Yet Barth failed to see what, in retrospect, seems plain: the church’s failure in the late 1930s was a direct consequence of its neutrality in the early 1930s.
Barth could bemoan the Confessing Church’s failure in 1939 in one moment, while crediting their neutrality in 1933 in the next, only because he lacked a concept of intentional moral formation by the church. What he failed to see is that a church that has been morally influenced by neutrality and the swearing of national oaths will almost always be unable to know when the line has been crossed-to know when it is 1939 and no longer 1933.
Barth does not appear to have ever fully recognized this irony. Years later, however, in his treatment of war in Church Dogmatics, he clearly developed the resources that would have allowed him to understand his wartime position on the oath and church neutrality in a new light. John Howard Yoder effectivelysummarizes Barth’s position on this point :
If the church as a matter of habit tolerates the use of force and planning for warfare on the part of the state, then she will not even know when the exception time has come when it would be justified for her to say a Christian “yes.” Barth acidly exposes traditional theology’s way of building into ethics the necessity of war. It was a type of theological thinking which intentionally made room for the historic vocation of the nation and thus provided the doctrinal scaffolding used by the architects of World Wars I and II.
This clearly suggests a development in Barth’s thought. Perhaps the events of the 1930s and 1940s shaped his own personal history to the point that he could see how greatly a church’s ability to hear God is determined by what it does as a matter of habit.
MENNONITES AND THE AMERICAN NATIONAL OATH
Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s clearly had global consequences. But for some Christians thousands of miles from Berlin, his influence was felt not only through war and genocide but through a seemingly insignificant detail of Hitler’s regime: the stiff-arm Nazi salute. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most direct link between the Nazi salute and these American Christians. In 1932, when Hitler demanded the salute of the swastika, Witness leaders in Germany concluded that such a salute would be idolatrous, and refused. In response, Hitler targeted the Witnesses for persecution and several thousand are estimated to have been killed, either by execution or in concentration camps. Thousands of miles away, Witness leaders in the United States were faced with a vexing dilemma: if saluting a national leader or symbol was idolatrous for Witnesses in Germany, should the same apply to them? Witnesses had not previously objected to the American flag salute or Pledge of Allegiance, but in 1935 they condemned the practice, both as a demonstration of solidarity with their German members and also as an attempt at theological consistency. Over the following decade, many Witnesses, Mennonites and others would be persecuted in American for refusing the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Pledge to the American Flag was written in 1892, and in the following twenty years many states and school districts made its recitation mandatory for schoolchildren. At that time the Pledge read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”-the words “under God” were not added until 1954, following a campaign by the Knights of Columbus. The recitation of the Pledge was accompanied by a salute, in which the right hand was extended toward the flag, palm upwards. As World War II approached, however, Congress noticed the disturbing similarity of this salute to that of the Nazis and therefore decreed, in 1942, that civilians recite the Pledge with the right hand over the heart.
Popular sentiment over mandatory pledging in schools was mixed. Groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Daughters of the American Revolution consistently endorsed mandatory pledging, even when schoolchildren objected for reasons of religion or conscience. In general, however, the pledge requirement received little support from the teaching profession. It appears to have been commonplace for university professors to mock the flag salute ceremony, though this was usually on grounds that the ceremony was useless, rather than that mandating it against conscience was wrong.
The American Civil Liberties Union consistently opposed mandatory pledging and sought to challenge its constitutionality. Unfortunately for the ACLU, Mennonites who objected to pledging usually also objected to litigation as a violation of their commitment to nonresistance. As a result, it was not until dissenting Jehovah’s Witness children faced school sanctions that the ACLU had the test case it wanted. In 1940 Minersville School District v. Gobitis reached the Supreme Court and the Court found against the ACLU and the Witness family that it represented. With only one dissent, mandatory pledging was found constitutional. During the following months, Witnesses throughout the country faced much persecution. This backlash and its troubling similarity to the persecution against Jehovah’s Witnesses then underway in Germany did not sit well with the justices. Three years later, on Flag Day, 1943 the Court reversed itself by a six-three margin in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, marking the end to almost forty years of mandatory pledging in schools.
The Pledge as an Oath
Although it was the refusal to pledge by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the World War II era that caused the most controversy and precipitated the Supreme Court decisions, the first schoolchildren to be expelled for refusal were Mennonite. Interestingly, however, the Mennonite refusal of the American Pledge was not based on a logic linking it to oath-swearing, a practice consistently opposed by Anabaptists. For Mennonites, not swearing oaths is, first and foremost, a question of truthfulness. If I swear in order to emphasize that what I am saying is true, does that mean I can lie when I do not swear? Swearing, whether in God’s name or not, tends to degrade all speech by favoring some. In its best sense, this is not a legalistic restriction, but an ethical practice: “The rejection of the oath binds one to absolute obedience to Jesus in full discipleship and always to live and testify in complete truthfulness.” Given this rich understanding, as well as the historical connection with national oaths, one might have expected Mennonites to refuse the Pledge because of this commitment to “complete truthfulness.”
As it turns out, Mennonites rarely, if ever, refused the American Pledge out of concern that it is a type of oath. Even though the substance of the Pledge is not unlike oaths in other countries, the fact that it begins “I pledge” rather than “I swear” seems to have kept pledging from being a violation of Jesus’ command. Thus, even the current Mennonite confession of faith, which as a whole avoids such hairsplitting over wording, allows the possibility of national oaths as an exception to the general prohibition against oath-taking. The statement affirms the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition of avoiding legal oaths, membership in oath-bound societies, profane oaths, and “oaths of allegiance that would conflict with our ultimate allegiance to God.” Note that this qualifier is added only for civic oaths. Legal oaths are prohibited not only when they conflict with allegiance to God, but at all times. Membership in oath-bound societies is prohibited not only when it conflicts with allegiance to God, but at all times. Granted that the American Pledge does not use the word “swear” and is therefore not an oath in that technical sense, nonetheless such a fine distinction over wording makes the prohibition of oaths look slightly more like legalism and less like sound theological ethics.
Early Pledge Refusal and the Position of George Brunk
While concern over oaths as such does not seem to have prevented Mennonites from offering the American Pledge, concern over the Christian’s proper relation to the state has been a major cause for refusal. One of the better known cases involving Mennonites and the Pledge occurred in 1930 in Newport News, Virginia. In that year a twelve-year old boy refused the raised-arm salute but did not, it appears, refuse to recite the Pledge. While the school board eventually excused the boy from the requirement, the ensuing controversy reveals much about the Mennonite attitude of that time. The main advocate for the boy was George R. Brunk, a Mennonite bishop, who offered two reasons why Mennonites could not salute the flag: the salute bears military connotations and is a form of icon worship.
The first argument, the military implications of the salute, is fairly straightforward and had been the standard reason given by Mennonites who refused the Pledge, such as in the first-recorded case in 1918. What makes Brunk’s position unique is how he employed theological reasoning that allowed him to both refuse the salute and endorse the Pledge. Brunk understood the salute as icon worship in a quite technical sense. Christians, he claimed, believe that “salutation and obeisance belong only to living intelligences,” not objects or pictures. According to Brunk, just as Protestants respect and honor Jesus’ mother but would not bow to her, Mennonites respect the flag but cannot salute it. This line of reasoning was clearly constructed to appeal to the patriotically minded members of the Virginia State School board. Brunk was, in essence, providing theological reasons that had civic implications: Mennonites both refuse the salute and respect the flag.
Brunk’s position was based on the technicalities of the actions involved in the salute, not on what the salute or Pledge represented-indeed, Brunk was apparently quite in agreement with the content of the Pledge. Part of his willingness for Mennonites to pledge was simply a desire to avoid harassment, which had been severe some years earlier when Mennonites (including Brunk’s sister and brother-in-law) refused to buy war bonds. As Brunk once wrote, “I am for the pledge . . . I am not hunting persecution.” More than merely avoiding persecution, however, Brunk saw the Pledge as valuable for what it taught. According to historian David Weaver-Zercher, Brunk “believed the pledge could serve a didactic function, instilling in Mennonites a correct conception of the state.” He believed that only pledging or only refusing to pledge would be inconsistent for American Mennonites. Pledging without saluting was, in the words of Brunk’s biographer, “the golden mean between two inconsistent positions.”
In the eyes of many Mennonites, however, Brunk’s position was an exercise in hairsplitting. Indeed, when he sought the support of the Virginia Mennonite Conference in the Newport News incident, he discovered that most conference leaders disagreed with his position. In previous cases in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Indiana, the Pledge itself had been the issue. Mennonites in those states had voiced opposition because of concerns that “a pledge of loyalty made in peacetime would also be binding in times of war.” Along similar lines, the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference produced a statement in June 1932 that opposed both the salute and Pledge because the Pledge was usually interpreted as a promise to take up arms, “if that should be deemed necessary by officials.” Brunk, on the other hand, concluded that because America recognized Mennonites as conscientious objectors to war, pledging to America promised loyalty only as conscientious objectors. Brunk’s approach to pledging advocated as much loyalty to America as was possible within the limits of the Mennonite conscience. In his words, “Go freely as far as is right.”
World War II-Era Pledge Refusal
Following the Supreme Court’s Gobitis decision that upheld school pledge requirements, the General Conference of the (Old) Mennonite Church responded by publishing a statement the following year, on August 26, 1941. A main goal of this statement was to provide Mennonites with a unified interpretation of the Pledge’s meaning so that individuals could decide for themselves whether or not they could pledge in good conscience. The conference interpreted the Pledge to be a nonmilitary gesture: “The pledge is understood to be simply a statement of loyalty to the American government.” Using Brunk’s own reasoning, the statement concluded that as long as the government provided exemptions for conscientious objectors, the Pledge “can involve no violation of the nonresistant conscience.” In disagreement with Brunk, however, the statement criticized the notion that saluting the flag was akin to worshipping an inanimate object.
According to the statement, “the Christian loves his country” and is obligated to pay honor and respect in whatever form is prescribed. “The only exception would be where a meaning is given to the act of honor that could violate plain Scripture teaching.” Overall, the statement was a good example of Brunk’s counsel to “go freely as far as is right,” even though, in allowing the arm-salute, it went further than Brunk was ready to accept. Mennonites are therefore taught that they must do what the state requires. Only in a case of clear scriptural prohibition may Christians disobey the government. This statement by no means represented the position of all Mennonites, but it is as close as the Mennonite Church has come to an official position on the issue.
Response to the statement was mixed. Brunk had died in 1938, but his son George Brunk, Jr. continued to publish his father’s journal Sword and Trumpet. It was there that he issued a strong critique of the statement for allowing the arm-salute, holding to his father’s perspective that the salute was a violation of the second commandment. He went on to describe how all previous statements by Mennonite churches and conferences had opposed the salute. He believed the conference must have been affected by a desire to “accommodate themselves to the court ruling [Gobitis] with insufficient thought.”
C. F. Derstine, by contrast, supported the statement in an editorial published in the Christian Monitor. Derstine sought to ease Mennonite consciences by attacking the Jehovah’s Witness claim, shared by Brunk, that the flag salute was idolatrous. Derstine’s tone is worth noting:
The religious cult, so-called, self-styled “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” have been given nation-wide notoriety, even international notice, because its adherents hold that the saluting of the flag constitutes “idolatry”… Such teaching must stem from ignorance of the Scriptures, and the significance of the American flag.
While arguing against Brunk’s position on the specific question of the salute, Derstine shared with Brunk’s overall support for Mennonites to give the Pledge. His vehement tone indicates how important it was for many Mennonites to distinguish themselves from the much-persecuted Witnesses, especially during wartime. It probably also confirms the charge that Brunk, Jr. had leveled at the statement’s authors: Mennonites at this time were feeling the weight of Gobitis. To live unharassed as American citizens, Mennonites were going to have to find a way to reconcile pledging with their faith. In differing ways, Brunk, the conference statement and Derstine all bear this out, seeking ways to make Mennonites acceptable to the American public as fellow citizens.
The only question Derstine actually asked in determining the appropriateness of the Pledge for Mennonites is whether the Pledge exalts rulers or objects to the position of ultimate authority. We cannot possibly find the salute or Pledge idolatrous, he writes, because “to be guilty of idolatry one must speak disrespectfully of God or give something or somebody else the supreme place which God alone deserves.” In support of all this he quotes the Gobitis decision, favorably and at length. What Derstine did not know is that in the time between he wrote his editorial and the issue reached newsstands, Gobitis would be overturned.
Nowhere in his editorial did Derstine raise the question that had been significant for many other Mennonites. That is, even if the Pledge does not actually equate the nation with God, can God be said to possess the “supreme place” if the nation possesses a position of (albeit secondary) authority? Instead, Derstine simply assumed that Mennonites may pledge so long as the object of the Pledge does not take the place of God. The subsequent issue of Christian Monitor contained a letter to the editor challenging precisely this aspect of Derstine’s thought. Ezra Stauffer, the letter’s author, argued that pledging loyalty to a nation in and of itself removes God from the supreme place. Even if God is the highest authority in a Christian’s life, by giving the state even secondary authority, God is therefore not the supreme authority. In other words, Stauffer believed that God loses the place of supreme authority when the state receives secondary authority because even limited state loyalty affects the Christian’s character.
In his rebuttal to Stauffer, Derstine suggested that “the difference in viewpoint is the meaning of the pledge.” In his view, “the pledge is merely an educational attempt to stimulate loyalty and respect. If others put more into it that that, then their position of refusal is proper for them to take.” But of course this simply ignores Stauffer’s point, because Stauffer agrees that the pledge is “an educational attempt to stimulate loyalty.” The real question is what sort of loyalty is being stimulated, and to whom. For Stauffer, it is impossible to foster such loyalty to the state without necessarily compromising loyalty to God.
At about the same time, the Gospel Herald published an article by Ira Landis arguing much the same position as Stauffer’s letter. However, Landis injected a new, perhaps unique, argument into the debate. Landis did not critique other interpretations of the Pledge, nor did he offer his own interpretation. Instead, he simply set the question of the Pledge’s content aside and contended instead that, from the perspective of theological and ethical formation, the Pledge and salute are harmful. He likened in-school flag ceremonies to teaching children to believe in Santa Claus. Just as the child will eventually learn that the story of Santa is not true, they will also learn that a Christian’s pledge of loyalty is not true. The problem is that having being formed by the Pledge will make it difficult for Mennonites to see that their professed allegiance to America is not true. “It will lead them to the point where for them our forms of worship and doctrines of practice are hypocritical forms without power.” Despite the fact that Mennonites are “the fortunate recipients of a four-hundred year heritage,” the Pledge can work to undermine that heritage of nonresistant faith. Where Stauffer and Landis excel, and where their opponents fall short, is by incorporating the question of moral formation within the larger question of pledging. They do not merely ask whether the Pledge’s words can be uttered honestly by Christians; they ask what effect uttering those words will have on Christians.
As the patriotic furor occasioned by World War II and the two Supreme Court decisions died down, a hesitancy towards pledging appears to have become more prevalent among Mennonites. However, subsequent statements still do not address the question of moral formation, as did Stauffer and Landis. The reason for this is that they still seem to accept Brunk’s principle, “Go freely as far as is right.” The fortunate difference of these later statements from Brunk, Derstine and the 1941 conference statement is that they hold that pledging may be going too far. The unfortunate similarity is that they assume that the “as far as is right” type of reasoning is a reliable way for the church to understand its relation to the state.
In October 1965, for example, the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section published the findings of a church-state study conference. It warned that Christians should not salute the flag or recite the Pledge “thoughtlessly or routinely, but rather sincerely and in the knowledge that their loyalty to the state is limited by their supreme loyalty to God.” Though the tone is cautionary, the reasoning is still based on the framework of shared loyalties: a limited loyalty to the state is appropriate, so long as loyalty to the church takes precedence. As Stauffer warned, simply conceiving of the church’s relation to the state in these terms runs the risk of undermining God’s supreme place of authority.
American Mennonites and the Pledge: A Summary
American Mennonites have often disagreed on the question of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. But in the midst of most of the disagreement, there has been a shared assumption about how Mennonites should determine whether or not to pledge: does the content of the Pledge elevate anyone or anything to God’s position of supreme authority? Christians have commitments to the nation that reach up to a certain line, but only God may occupy the space beyond that line. Most of the Mennonite writers surveyed here disagree about exactly where that line falls and whether or not the Pledge crosses it. Brunk even managed to draw the line so that the Pledge fell on one side and the salute on the other. Despite their disagreements, however, most still understand the task of theological ethics in this case to be one of rightly drawing a line.
This approach appears to be an application of a concept present in Mennonite confessions of faith throughout history. Statements from the 1600s to the 1900s have presumed a kind of dual loyalty by the church in relating to the state. The ethical task is to appropriately draw the line so that God receives primary loyalty and the state receives whatever loyalty does not interfere with the primary loyalty. Therefore, when these confessions address Christian obedience to the state, they instruct Mennonites to be obedient to the state as long as its requirements “do not militate against the law, will, and commandment of God.”
Predictably, when Mennonites apply this reasoning to the question of the Pledge, they seek to determine whether the Pledge crosses the line between obedience to state and idolatry. As a result, loyalty to state expands until it “bumps up against” the boundaries that surround the space that God alone occupies. Reasoning about the Pledge thus becomes a juggling act between loyalty to God and loyalty to state, an approach especially clear in Derstine’s article. The Pledge cannot possibly be idolatrous, he wrote, because “to be guilty of idolatry one must speak disrespectfully of God or give something or somebody else the supreme place which God alone deserves.” Landis and Stauffer are among the minority who challenge this understanding.
The need for an alternative to Derstine’s idolatry test becomes clear when one examines what is meant by respecting the state. The 1941 conference statement connected respect to honor and love. To respect the state means to express one’s affection for it, to be grateful for one’s membership in it, and so on. Stauffer rejected this definition. In his letter he wrote of the Christian “respect” for the flag, but he meant something quite different. Respect can either be a form of honor we pay to someone we look up to, or it can be a wariness or vigilance with which we regard something known to be dangerous. The son may respect his father and the sailor may respect the ocean, but in quite different ways.
At this point one might be tempted to ask: “May Christians love their country” (that is, “respect” in the father-son sense)? A better question, however, is “What effect does love-of-country have on how Christians relate to the state'” The issue is not that all forms of love of country are idolatrous, but that using the concept of “love of country” in theological reasoning leads inevitably to understanding God and country as loyalties that must be reconciled. In other words, it leads back to the principle, “Obey the state unless it violates your loyalty to God.”
The implication of this for pledging is that the dominant Mennonite position is inadequate. It assumes that the Christian has a primary loyalty to God, founded on love for God, and a secondary loyalty to state, founded on love for nation. The Christian can determine how to relate to the state by observing where the obligations to the state encroach upon the borders of obligation to God. What this ignores is that Christians will be able to rightly see where those borders lie only if they have already understood their churchly and civic practices as morally formative, as a kind of liturgy.
NOT PLEDGING AS LITURGY
All of this raises, on a more fundamental level, the question of how the Christian may best understand the church’s relation to the state. Where does the “first loyalty to God and second loyalty to state” refrain come from, and is there an alternative understanding that is more helpful? This understanding is dominant in almost every Protestant church, not just among Mennonites. Indeed, Mennonites are in many ways the least likely to rely on this understanding, which makes it particularly troubling when they do-not because it is wrong per se, but because it does not internalize the concept of church as a morally formed people that is otherwise found throughout Mennonite theology.
The concept of first and second loyalties is an attempt to reconcile disparate New Testament statements on the matter. On the one hand are passages such as Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than humans.” On the other hand is Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God.” The standard way to reconcile these passages is by a principle that says, “Christians should obey the state unless it conflicts with obedience to God.” No such statement appears in the New Testament, but it would perhaps be harsh to call it an outright lie or untruth. Nonetheless it would be wise to ask, “But is it true'”
This understanding fails by implying a realm of “obedience to state” whose boundaries are determined by simply extending them until they meet the boundaries of the realm of “obedience to God.” Even if this understanding is more or less biblical, the presumption of legitimacy lies on the side of the state’s claims. Christians are called to live as citizens until they see that they must stop being citizens and start being Christians. Such an approach is indeed morally formative, but in quite the wrong direction. More troubling still is how it provides no means for the Christian to determine where the boundaries of each realm lie in any given situation-no decision-making criteria nor ethical practices to shape Christians into disciples who are able to make those decisions. This principle does not even provide a way to know if claims on one’s obedience are indeed in conflict.
There are resources for better understanding the church’s relation to the state in the work that Barth and Mennonites share, especially in the writings of John Howard Yoder. A key component in Barth’s political ethics is that the decisions Christians make when interacting with the state can be made only on an ad hoc basis. According to Barth, the presumption is that the Christian lives as a disciple and only addresses the state when the church has something to say. In this vein, Yoder writes, “There will therefore be a Christian message addressed to the State; there will not be a Christian ethic for the State.” It is easy to see how the “obey state unless it conflicts” principle is an attempt at providing a Christian ethic for the state, or at least an ethic for the Christian as citizen.
The emphasis of Yoder and Barth on ad hoc decisions is a helpful alternative to seeking a principle that reconciles Romans 13 with Acts 5. However, emphasizing ad hoc decision-making is also risky because it raises the stakes of character formation-the very area where Barth’s theology fell short. For if decisions should be made only in the moment, the church must be sure that it helps Christians become the sort of people able to make those decisions, the kind of people who will, by virtue of who they have become, make the right decisions.
The point developed in this paper challenges the belief that Christians can determine whether or not to recite national oaths by asking only one question, “Can I honestly recite the words of the oath'” A second question must also be asked: “What sort of a person am I becoming by making the oath'” The second question is essential because, as the above incidents make clear, Christians will find ways to “honestly” say the words of an oath in just about any circumstance. The church cannot trust itself to know when an oath by its members would be dishonest. Or, to put it another way, oaths cannot be judged only for their honesty, but must be evaluated for their truthfulness.
“Honesty” in this sense refers to the limited question of whether or not saying the words of an oath would be a lie. This type of honesty is what the Confessing Church had in mind when it ruled that the oath to Hitler could be given in the words prescribed by Hitler because what the church had in mind by those words was something different. As Barth appears to have realized later, this is a highly technical, even legalistic distinction. The Mennonite approach was fundamentally similar; it examined the words of the Pledge, found neither “I swear” nor “the flag is my God,” then endorsed its recitation. What this approach ignores is precisely what first led Anabaptists to avoid oaths: a desire for truthfulness.
Truthfulness is not so easily resolved or as easily manipulated as “honesty.” When the early Anabaptists avoided oaths it was-at least in its best sense-not to legalistically avoid the words “I swear” but rather to practice “absolute obedience to Jesus in full discipleship and always to live and testify in complete truthfulness.” This rich understanding of truth-telling, when applied to the question of national oaths, challenges both Barth and American Mennonites to a deeper theological understanding of why Christians might refuse such oaths.
Because activities such as national oaths are morally formative, my recitation of a pledge is only truthful speech if by that pledge I become better able to see how I, as a disciple of Jesus, relate to the nation. The above narrative leaves no doubt that pledging to a nation does not help Jesus’ disciples see their relation to the nation more clearly. However, not pledging may have precisely that effect, because not pledging can be a kind of liturgy.
Worshippers recite a public liturgy, not just because they can do so without lying. Rather, they are actively proclaiming the truth of what they say and therefore the liturgy is an act of intentional moral formation. Proclaiming this truth repeatedly and at different times calls worshippers to understand their situation and the world events of their time in light of the truthful words they are speaking. This is precisely what Barth was doing when he began each article of Barmen with a scripture passage. He intended that, when churches recited the declaration, they would proclaim to the nation of Germany, and to themselves, “For the present time we have been given this understanding of the Biblical text.” In the same way, Christians who today remain silent during national oaths are not necessarily implying that by saying the oath they would be lying. Instead they proclaim that their silence in that moment is more true. It is through such practices that Christians can become the kind of people whose witness to the state is not just honest words but truthful speech.
[*]John Perry is a Ph.D. student in Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame.
1. The Pennsylvania bill (HB 592) permitted schools to substitute the national anthem for the Pledge; it also required every classroom to display the American flag during class hours (Melanie Zuercher, Mennonite Church USA Press Release, December 7, 2001, online: www.gcmc.org/mcnews/12072.html). The Ninth Circuit Court’s decision can be found at www.ca9.uscourts.gov.
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. The historical situations faced by Barth and American Mennonites are obviously quite different, which is part of what makes a study of the two helpful, since it helps clarify how different Christians respond in different contexts. However, as will become clear in the following pages, some important points of connection between the two stories make it possible to study them together.
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. Though this was the date of the formal founding of the German-Christian movement, Barth sees it as “nothing but a particularly vigorous result of the entire neo-protestant development since 1700.”-Karl Barth, The German Church Conflict, trans. P.T.A. Parker (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1965), 16.
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. Quoted in Barnett, For the Soul, 156; John S. Conway, “The German Church Struggle: Its Making and Meaning,” in The Church Confronts the Nazis: Barmen Then and Now, ed. Hubert G. Locke (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1984), 104.
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. Barth, “Church and State,” Community, State, and Church: Three Essays (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968), 104. The original title of this essay is “Justification and Justice” (Rechtfertigung und Recht), but was changed to “Church and State” by the translator.
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. In his Church Dogmatics iii/4, Barth did not rescind this prohibition of absolute pacifism, though Christians may of course object in particular cases that they see as unjust. Ironically, this is exactly the type of pacifism that governments such as the United States refuse to accept: conscientious objector status may only be granted to absolute pacifists. One way that Barth did later modify his position on the state is that “the recourse to force is contrary to the real calling of the state, which should be a work of peace. . . . Church Dogmatics does not say that the sword is forbidden to the state but calls it an opus alienum, a work foreign to the state’s real calling.”-John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth and the Problem of War (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 44, 97.
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. Though it may appear that Barth is the exception that disproves the rule, his memoirs reveal at least part of the reason why he, of all people, was able to resist: he resisted from the very beginning, even before Hitler had forced his way into power. “When first Papen and then Schleicher were made Chancellor, ‘I raged in my study: I prophesied the end of everything and delivered gloomy predictions: “No good will come of this”‘.”-Busch, Karl Barth, 222.
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. Like the Nazi’s Jewish victims, Jehovah’s Witnesses were forced to wear a special clothing patch. They took their pacifistic witness with them even to the camps, however, where they were sought after by SS guards as barbers: guards knew that a Witness would never slit their throat during shaving.-Helmreich, German Churches under Hitler, 397.
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. Ibid., 9-10. One study asked schoolchildren to write down what they had been reciting every day. Some of the results were not promising: “I pledge a legion … connation,” “invisible,” “one nation in the vestibule,” “with liberty and jesta straw.”-Ibid., 9.
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. Ibid., 225. It appears that the Pennsylvania bill mentioned above (see note 1) sought to comply with Barnette by requiring only that schools make the Pledge part of their daily schedule. Whether individual students participated was their own choice.
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. Opposition to oaths is one of the few tenets shared by all confessions throughout Mennonite history. In support of this, Anabaptists point to the early church fathers, who themselves rejected oaths; only after Constantine’s conversion did oaths became part of Christian life. While this prohibition has generally been an issue in the context of courts of law or other legal matters, it has also on occasion prevented Mennonites from swearing civic loyalty.-Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), 76. Mennonites who refused the Swiss loyalty oath, for example, were harshly persecuted and, in 1813 in Bern, lost all civil and voting rights.-Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Oath,” ME 4:3.
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. Statement by the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, June 1-3, 1932 (Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference collection, II-5-2, Executive Committee, file entitled Flag Salute; Goshen, IN: Mennonite Church USA Archives).
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. “The Nonresistant Christian and the Flag Salute: A Statement of the Position of the Mennonite Church,” August 29, 1941, Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978, ed. Urbane Peachey (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee), 121.
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. George R. Brunk, Jr., “The Flag Salute Problem,” Sword and Trumpet 12 (March 1944), 123. He completely avoids mention of the Pledge itself, the one point at which he presumably agreed with the statement.
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. Quoted in Derstine, “The Flag Salute,” Christian Monitor 35 (Aug. 1943), 255. Stauffer then goes on to critique the willingness of his fellow Mennonites to let court decisions affect their theology: Given that the Supreme Court overturned Gobitis, “it seems that oftentimes even the men of the world see some of these questions clearer than we ourselves do; evidently our eyes are somewhat blinded by our desire to set our standards from a desire to get through a crisis the easiest way possible… I hold no brief for the sect, self-called Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it is apparent that even they at times have more ‘backbone’ to stand for what they believe is right than oftentimes some of us do.”
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. This wording is from the 1632 Dordrecht confession. The major Mennonite confessions, and many minor ones as well, are collected in Howard John Loewen, ed., One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith in North America (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985).
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. It is important not to overlook the historical contexts in which these Mennonite authors found themselves. Stauffer and Landis, who opposed the pledge most boldly, were somewhat separated from the implications of the pledge requirement: Stauffer because he lived in northern Canada and Landis because he lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where Mennonite distinctives were a part of the social order. On the other hand, Brunk’s state of residence-Virginia-was populated by many government and military personnel who often had less sympathy for their pacifist neighbors. These details no doubt played a large part in how free each author was to oppose the pledge and serve as a caution against judging too harshly. (I thank an anonymous reviewer for these details.)
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. Quoted in Lovin, Christian Faith and Public Choices, 107.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Not Pledging as Liturgy