"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
The last time I spoke the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, I was in high school. In March 1991, my junior year, a man named Rodney King was brutally beaten by police in Los Angeles. The beating was recorded by someone from a balcony and given to a local TV station. Within hours the national media outlets also had the video, and it was broadcast nation-wide with commentary and discussions for months. Four Los Angles police officers were accused and tried in the beating. All were acquitted in April of 1992. Los Angeles erupted in violent protests and demonstrations — riots, according to most media outlets. People in various places of the United States were speaking out against police brutality and the unjust systems in our nation that do not allow for the flourishing of all citizens.
Shortly after these events, several of my friends and I stopped saying the pledge. Many of our teachers were outraged, and other students did not understand our silent protest against unjust systems. We told those who asked that we could not in good conscience state that our nation allowed for liberty and justice for all. There was liberty and justice for many, but not for all. And until there was, we would not say the pledge.
It was been over 25 years now, and while I currently work in a school in which the pledge is recited each day, I still do not say the pledge. These days, however, my reasons have grown more nuanced.
Our nation was founded on the existence and safeguarding of unalienable rights. In fact, our Declaration of Independence states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
At the time the founding fathers agreed to this, it was understood that it included only white men. Women belonged to the men in their lives, and those who were non-white were not people at all. Ever since these words were conceived, the citizens of our nation have battled the question of who are created equal and who has these unalienable rights.
Who are those created equal? Do we only speak of those born in the United States? Are all others "less than" — those who immigrate here for opportunity and the ever elusive "American dream" or those refugees seeking asylum? Do we only speak of those who are innocent? Are those who are guilty of some crime excluded? Are we only speaking of those who are able to maintain full-time employment? Or the well-educated? Or the wealthy? Who are those our nation treats as equal? Who are those I treat as my equal? That is the more challenging question, and a question for another time.
And what is the right to life or to liberty or the pursuit of happiness? Typically the right to life in our current milieu extends only to those who are unborn. And I certainly agree that those who are unborn deserve the opportunity to live. But what about those already born? What about those who cannot afford health care? Or those who work for minimum wage and cannot support their families? What about those who are imprisoned and want to turn their lives around but see no way of doing so and are not given the opportunity? It seems that unalienable rights are only an ideal. In practice, the rights of people in this country are quite conditional. A person has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if they are innocent or unborn or able to work for health care or are in some other way proven "worthy" of said rights.
These, however, are not the only reasons I cannot bring myself to say the pledge. Allegiance is defined as, "the loyalty of a citizen to his or her government or of a subject to his or her sovereign." or "loyalty or devotion to some person, group, cause, or the like." I cannot bring myself to pledge loyalty and devotion to any other entity than God.
My loyalty — that which guides my decisions, my voting, and how I live my life — is my faith in a God of mercy, love, justice and peace. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful to have been born and live in the United States at this point in history. If I had been born in the U.S. in the not so distant past, I may have been enslaved, certainly would not be allowed to vote, I may have been lynched, had my house burned down, and I may not have been able to enter religious life.
So I am grateful for progress and for the sacrifices of so many who have fought for justice in our nation. But my loyalty goes to God alone. And if in those times I have to choose to be loyal to our nation and its laws or to be loyal to God, I will choose instead to be loyal to a higher law — the law of love. It is to the law of love that I pledge my allegiance. If that were true for more of us, perhaps our nation might be a "more perfect union."
[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-novitiate program for her province.]