Hugo Donatti lives, together with his wife and children, in La Paz, a satellite town near Montevideo. He works in the state-owned electrical company in the capital city of Uruguay. As his name indicates, he is a descendant of an Italian immigrant family whose ancestors were among the stone-cutters who found work in the quarries located on the outskirts of the city. As his name indicates, Hugo is Mennonite by choice rather than by birth.
In Uruguay a deeply instilled spirit of nationalistic patriotism characterizes the population in general. (This is probably true of most of the countries of the West, whether we recognize it of not.)
For example, ceremonies abound in which citizens are expected to swear their unwavering allegiance to the nation. These include graduation exercises, from primary school onward, national holidays, regular interval for the members of the armed forces, and a yearly Flag Day formality for public employees.
It is well nigh impossible to get employment in the public sector, including education and medicine, without a document certifying that one has sworn allegiance to the national flag in one of these public ceremonies.
In his Bible reading and reflection in the congregation Hugo began to question the propriety of swearing allegiance to the flag of the nation. In the Sermon on the Mount he read, “Do not swear at all” (Mt 5:34). In James he found the same counsel (Jas 5:12). And the matter of competing loyalties, in light of his absolute commitment to Christ and His Kingdom (for whose coming he prayed regularly) also became a matter of concern for him.
On the day set for the ceremony all the employees of the Utilities Company, who had not done so previously, were ordered to participate. Sanctions for non-participation were also announced – the loss of one month’s pay.
Hugo really needed that paycheck in order to provide for his family. He agonized over the decision for days, reflecting alone, with his wife, and with his brothers and sisters in their new-found family of faith. He received a variety of suggestions. They ranged from “it’s merely an empty formality so why should a person unnecessarily complicate his life”, to “the New Testament tells us not to swear at all”.
But all agreed to support Hugo in his decision, even to the point of sharing the financial burden of going a whole month without receiving a paycheck.
After a period of wavering, Hugo, on the very morning of the ceremony, decided that he could not in good conscience participate in the event.
With his struggle resolved, he went to his supervisor to explain the position he had taken. And there, across the supervisor’s desk he shared his story: “I used to be an alcoholic”, he blurted out. “My life and relationships were a disaster. But in this new community of believers my life has been turned around and unbelievably transformed. And because of this commitment to Christ and to His Kingdom I cannot swear allegiance to the flag. You, of course, are free to withhold my paycheck as announced.
Hugo had noticed that his supervisor had begun to squirm uncomfortably behind his desk as soon as he had mentioned his own alcoholic past. Hugo had barely finished when his supervisor began to question him about his experience with alcohol and his new-found faith. As it turned out, the supervisor had the same problem. He was also struggling with his alcoholism.
After conversing together about their experiences, the supervisor told Hugo, “You are the kind of employee we need here. You won’t need to participate in the Flag Day ceremony. And don’t worry. I’ll see to it that your monthly paycheck is not withheld.”
Faithfulness to his Kingdom commitment had opened up of Hugo unexpected opportunities to witness to his faith. Not only had he been able to witness to his supervisor, who had problems with alcohol, but immediately after the Flag Day ceremony his leftist co-workers sought out Hugo to ask how he had been able to avoid swearing allegiance to the flag. They greatly admired Hugo for his courage to dissent. They, too, would have liked to skip the Flag Day ceremony, for different reasons of course, but they lacked the courage to do so.
Kingdom faithfulness opened up unexpected opportunities for witness. Hugo, quite unintentionally, had gained the admiration of colleagues representing both capital and labor, his supervisor as well as his Communist Party co-workers. He had been able to communicate Kingdom values to both.
Too often, these unexpected opportunities escape us because of our hesitancy to be faithful to our deepest allegiances, even though they may seem costly. This has led us to imagine that faithfulness and witness, ethics and evangelism, fall into different categories.
Hugo’s experience reminds us that an essential part of our participation in God’s mission in the world is simply being faithful in our foundational allegiance as citizens of God’s Kingdom.
Submitted by John Driver