on loyalty: how to support your bilbo

Notions of loyalty are in the air these days as we think about what it means to live amongst each other. Politicians are accused of disloyalty (or, increasingly, of too much loyalty). A year ago, people clashed in Charlottesville over their conflicting loyalties: to a mythic past, to a diverse humanity, to racial supremacy, to justice. Even this weekend’s theaters told the story of how a stuffed bear’s loyalty calls Christopher Robin to embrace the values of his boyhood.

Loyalty, whether to a person or a cause or an idea, is elevated in our public imagination, as if it were a rare and noble trait. At times it seems the measure of a person: When given the choice to be loyal to a friend or eager to get ahead, what will he choose? When the simple betrayal of principals, dressed up like loyalty to a boss, can make her indispensable, will she choose advancement?

I have observed, in the past few months, a change in the way loyalty functions. Honorable loyalty once arose from the dignity and value of its object. A person’s honesty, or their sacrificial commitment to the good of others, was first established, and then loyalty followed. A person’s loyalty mattered because the object of their loyalty was just and good.

Now, however, the measure of a person seems to be based on his faithfulness to loyalty itself, rather than on the worthiness of the object that requires it. We find value in the act of loyalty, with no regard for the discernment required to decide when loyalty is warranted. This is problematic; being steadfastly loyal to a terrible ideal is not noble. In fact, through their loyalty, such people actively advocate for the destruction of the common good. The transitive property applies: If I decide to be loyal to a person who bullies others and lies regularly, then I have pledged fidelity to a bad actor. In this case I cannot then expect respect, for my commitment reveals a stubborn lack of discernment. Loyalty is only valuable if the object of the loyalty is just.

This obviously applies to politics. Do we value, as a society, blind allegiance to candidates who represent the Donkeys or the Elephants? Or do we value the discernment required to find a candidate each time who happens to best embody values and policies we support? Perhaps more importantly, do we appreciate people who consider the expertise of others and think independently? Do we employ loyalty when a candidate’s way of being in the world embodies the idea that democracy requires space for diverse perspectives? I’m afraid we are so taken with the idea that loyalty is always noble that we have mistakenly replaced loyalty with enabling. 

Sticking with someone through thick and thin is a good thing. Defending a person who has been wronged is a good thing. However, blindly defending a person who once seemed worthy but is now clearly destructive is irresponsible enabling. Bad actors, bad legislators, bad policies, bad leaders keep acting badly because people remain loyal to them. Such loyalty enables their bad behavior. It is not noble or just or a sacrificial determination to stay the course; it is active support for leaders who do harm to the community. The vanishing truth is this: loyalty sometimes requires faithful resistance instead of surrender.

Consider Samwise Gamgee. He stumbles into the Fellowship of the Nine with nothing to offer except his service to Frodo and his growing faith in the necessity of the mission on which they embark. Sure, he is celebrated as a man whose worth is discovered primarily through his faithfulness to and encouragement of Mr. Baggins, but his loyalty increasingly resides with the mission, not with Frodo. When Frodo loses his metaphorical way, as he sometimes does, Sam’s loyalty is evidenced by his correction of and challenge to Frodo. If Sam believed our conventional wisdom, loyalty would mean absolute support of Frodo’s every action, even when he wants to steal the ring or murder others just to keep it. This would have been enabling, not loyalty. Sam’s loyalty might at times have looked like a betrayal of Frodo, but he was in fact more loyal to Frodo’s best self than Frodo was himself. This, it seems to me, rather than some stubborn excuse making, is worth emulating.

I count myself among those who follow Christ, who are committed to loving others sacrificially, as he did. I’ve pledged my loyalty, committing myself to seeing all others as image bearers of God, worthy of my kind care. I’m committed to finding the value of others as a given, not as something to be measured by power, wealth or even efficiency. I’m committed to seeing all the ways that loyalty to power destroys community, and have pledged myself to use any power I might have to elevate those undervalued by the city in which I live. I am loyal to this in all the ways I can muster each day. But I struggle to be “loyal” to “the church” (and even to “Christians”).  I put loyal in quotes here because I suspect some find me disloyal. Although such an accusation gives me pause, I am determined to embody a deeper loyalty. A loyalty so deep that, like Samwise Gamgee, I will challenge those who have exchanged loyalty to Christ for loyalty to a person or political party (and I expect the same correction if I lose my way). I want to be loyal to the church, but that means I must challenge any functional faith that exchanges power and privilege as evidence of God’s blessing rather than confession and the sacrificial fruit of repentance. Loyalty demands that mean-spirited patriotism or stubborn self-interest or racial supremacy or protecting the status quo or dismissing the pain of others be challenged as blasphemy, as fully outside the habits or behavior of Christ.

In these times, we need a deep loyalty, not an enabling one. Question what you protect, who you defend, and who earns your skepticism. It is easy to be either blindly loyal or apathetic, but neither are worthy of all you have to give. Instead, choose what is worthy of your energy, and support that with a loyalty that faithfully resists evil in any form. Be loyal by calling us out when we lose our way.