Pledging Allegiance to God

When he was 14, Johann Christoph Arnold was reported to the principal and brought before a New York public school faculty for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag. "My allegiance belongs to God," he said, "not to a piece of cloth." His parents were surprised but supportive, and he remembers that his father told him, "if you didn't follow your conscience, you would never find peace." Arnold has been a committed conscientious objector ever since, not only to violence and war but also to the greedy, self-indulgent, and idolatrous self-centeredness that he sees abounding among us and in us.

The peace Arnold proclaims and bids us seek in Seeking Peace: Notes and Conversations Along the Way is not a self-righteous, complacent peace of mind, but peace that comes from total trust in God's care and daily surrender to live as he believes Jesus calls and empowers us to live. All who seek to follow Jesus and to care for our brothers and sisters in the human family will be moved and challenged by Arnold's personal reflections, which run alongside those of sometimes famous, but often unknown, people.

The book contains more than 30 page-long reflections, beginning with a short section on "Seeking Peace" and one titled "Meanings." The latter includes the essays "Peace as the Absence of War," "Peace and the Bible," and "Peace in Personal Life." Part three, titled "Paradoxes," includes "Wisdom of Fools" and "The Strength of Weakness." Half of the book focuses on what Arnold calls "Stepping Stones" toward peace, beginning with "Simplicity" and ending with "Service." Devotional meditations on other topics in this portion include surrender, trust, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, humility, repentance, and realism. The book concludes with section five, "The Abundant Life," which contains reflections on security, wholeness, joy, action, justice, and hope.

From beginning to end, these meditations reflect Bruderhof perspectives and stand over against what Arnold calls the "meaninglessness of the middle-class rat race." Arnold is senior elder of the Bruderhof (places of brothers) communities, of which there are now three in New York, two in Pennsylvania, and two in England. These communal villages affirm their roots in the Radical Reformation and especially among those who, like the Hutterites, sought to follow Jesus by living lives of simplicity, sharing, and nonviolence. They describe themselves as "a community movement based on Christ's teachings, the Sermon on the Mount, and the practices of the early believers in Jerusalem." They stress "brotherly love and love of enemies, mutual service, nonviolence and refusal to bear arms, sexual purity, and faithfulness in marriage." They emphasize the fact that "instead of holding assets or property privately, we share everything in common, the way the early Christians did as recorded in the Book of Acts."

Like his father and grandfather, from whom there are many quotations, Arnold is deeply committed to a communal, Christ-centered way of life. While confessing lifelong sinfulness, Arnold believes "it is possible to live out in deeds Jesus' clear way of love, freedom, and truth—not only on Sundays, but from day to day." The Bruderhof vision is grounded in the conviction that "we are all brothers and sisters," which results in a strong commitment to service and mission—though not in the sense of trying to convert people or to recruit new members.

Although it is irenic in expression, all of us middle-class people who delight in personal power, possessions, and pensions will find this a radical and revolutionary book. If Arnold is right, much of our daily living is wrong and out of harmony with authentic Christian discipleship. Arnold's insightful and gentle witness has not persuaded me to sell our home, give the proceeds, together with my pension plan, to the poor, and then entrust our family's future to the care of a Bruderhof community. But, I confess, his witness and example are troubling. Are his values and way of living closer to Jesus', and to sanity, than many of mine and yours?

LOWELL ERDAHL is bishop emeritus of the St. Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Roseville, Minnesota.

Seeking Peace: Notes and Conversations Along the Way. Johann Christoph Arnold. Plough Publishing House. The Bruderhof Foundation, 1998.

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