Title: Render to Caesar
Texts: Jer 22:1-17, Josh 5:13-17, Rom 12:14- 13:8, Mk 12:13-17
Date: October 24, 2010
Place: Durham Mennonite Church (NC)
Author: Spencer Bradford
This year, my son and I went to see an animated movie called “How to Tame Your Dragon.” It tells the story of a coastal Viking village long ago that was plagued by dragons who would fly in upon it to steal it’s sheep to eat, and burn its buildings with their fire-breathing in the process. The villagers trained and prepared for perpetual combat with the dragons. One boy, Hiccup, doesn’t have much aptitude as a warrior, but creates a bolo weapon that he uses during one attack to crash a very dangerous sort of dragon, which lands far off from the village. When he finds the dragon, Hiccup can’t bring himself to kill it, but begins to tame the dragon by feeding it and caring for it, because in the crash landing, the dragon lost part of its tail that it needed to fly, so it’s grounded. Hiccup, after taming the dragon and naming it “Toothless”, creates a prosthetic tail fin for it and the dragon takes Hiccup as a rider to flight in the air. As it takes Hiccup to its island home far off the coast, Hiccup learns that Toothless and the other dragons that raid his village steal sheep to feed a huge monster dragon on the island, because if they don’t feed it enough, it will eat them, the smaller dragons. Most of the movie revolves around Hiccup’s trying to figure out how to hide his new relationship, and then how to bring his village and his father around to understanding dragons the way he understands them, and to help him set them free from their monster master dragon.
This is a great movie, largely about using wits and compassion instead of violence to create peace (along with flying on dragons and creating huge fire explosions with them). And it inspires a particularly helpful wrestling in my mind, because dragons have been one primary image to me for governments and political authorities. Adopting the imagery of the Beast in Revelation, a symbol for political authority that serves the dragon Satan, I’ve often imagined national governments to embody oppressive domination through the use of destructive violence and threats. Which was not to say that all governments are the same, nor that all merited the same kind of response and relationship from Christians. Some dragons are less destructive than others, would eat fewer children, and some dragons could be induced to become less destructive, such that it’s always worthwhile to save children and families by seeking to constrain the destructiveness of political authorities. But left to their own devices (and conceiving primarily of national governments with active militaries, this meant lethal force), governments would kill and lie about it in order to secure the accrual of greater power over more wealth, power, and territory. For illustration, reference this week’s Wikileaks revelations about 66,000 civilian deaths in Iraq in U.S. military logs, death which the U.S. had said it was not tracking.
Yet from time to time, Christians have drawn from today’s readings from Mark and Romans the belief that political authorities are not necessarily dragons, or at least not destructive. Most notoriously with the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century A.D., the first emperor to profess Christian faith, many Christians have asserted that political authorities who declare faith in Jesus and permit, encourage, or require Christian worship by their subjects, are not dragons, or at least only eat the wicked who deserve it, and that Christians have a duty to support and assist their government authorities in this, because the authority is representing God in exercising this as a practice of justice. If we just get someone like Hiccup to tame and ride the dragon, we’ll be fine. Such Christians have pointed to Romans 13 and said, “God institutes these authorities, and we should submit to them and respect them and their power as a source for good in the world.” In this season of political campaigns, I want to remind such folks that the angel of the Lord told even Joshua, when challenged outside Jericho, said he was with neither Joshua nor the enemy, but for the Lord.
A few weeks ago, I preached about peace and how the wars of the world’s governments are opposed to God. As I’ll explain, while today’s texts should not lead us to a Constantinian complacency toward political authority as harmless pets, like the tamed dragons at the end of the movie I mentioned, they do teach us that political authority is not necessarily opposed to God, and that it can serve, in the mystery of God’s work in history, to accomplish particular purposes of good for human beings. I believe today’s texts help fill in a portrayal of government authority that – while not harmless and tame – is often turned to good purposes. This is a significant Scriptural framing for us as Mennonites, in a tradition that for most of our 500 year history has largely renounced participation in government office and authority on the basis that it is all irremediably corrupted by the threat of coercive force underlying its legitimate action. It is also significant at this point in our social history as Americans, when extremist voices are commanding more attention for the point of view that the current government is too big and that particular government actions and interventions in the economy relative to banking and investment corporations and the healthcare industry constitute “tyranny.”
[I’m particularly disturbed by the use of this latter phrase, because while many of those shouting that charge the loudest are probably not educated sufficiently in Western political thought to be aware of the implications of this, some are and may intend to follow where it leads. Since later ancient Greece and Rome, a “tyrant” is a political leader whose authority is essentially unlawful and unjust, and one is permitted, even morally required, to remove a tyrant by any means necessary, including force. Overthrowing a tyrant is not illegal or rebellion, because a tyrant is by definition exercising illegal power. So those who name a political authority a tyrant may not mean to start an insurrection, and even an insurrectionary movement against a tyrant may – as in India, South Africa, and the Philippines – commit itself to nonviolence. But for many in the U.S., a nation founded on a Declaration that spent a thousand words indicting the British king for “absolute Tyranny” in order to justify their waging war upon him, such calls establish a legitimate basis for others to bring out their guns, and we should recognize that.]
The fundamental political reality of the Christian faith is that God, the sovereign authority of all creation, became human in order to fully encompass humanity in a divine society through bonds of reconciling love, and our political authorities executed him rather than acknowledge the authority of his divine love. As we read Romans, remember that this is the same Paul who wrote the touchstone passage in 1 Cor. 2:8: “None of the rulers of this age understood [the wisdom of God], for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” This word “rulers” to describe the authorities who crucified God incarnate in Jesus is the same word Paul uses in Rom. 13:3 – “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” This clearly was in fact not the case in Paul’s judgment for Jesus, and these are the same rulers who would execute Paul not long after he wrote this passage. It was Jesus who used the same term with his disciples when he taught them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus came as ruler of creation to free us, to redeem us, to ransom us from slavery to the authority that seeks the power of domination for its own sake and security, into the liberty of the politics of love, a love that wills to serve the good of all and that identifies with the lowest and most vulnerable. The politics of love seeks the good even of enemies, of those who seek to enslave and destroy us.
That’s the politics Paul writes about in Romans. That’s why we begin reading his passage in Romans 13 with Romans 12, because Paul and the other writers of the Bible didn’t put in these chapter divisions. The chapter and verse divisions we have in the New Testament were created sometime in the 1220s by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton. But Paul didn’t divide chapter 13 into a separate section from chapter 12. Paul is instructing the Romans to build peace in the midst of conflict by returning good for evil rather than taking revenge, because that will overcome the evil of their persecutors with “burning coals” – probably shame for what they’d done, but maybe also eventual judgment from God. Then as an example of that, he instructs them to “be subject” to the ruling authorities who persecuted them, because in spite of their injustice and abuse, the authorities had a place in God’s order (the word rendered “instituted” in NRSV is literally “to order, put in place.”)
Paul did not command the Roman church to “obey unconditionally” the ruler (and there are three words he could have chosen to use for “obey” if that’s what he meant, but he didn’t), but to “be subject”, as in his instruction to the Ephesian church (5:12) on general church politics: “Be subject to one another in reverence toward Christ.” Paul enjoins us to follow Jesus’ instructions for servanthood toward one another, his politics of love, in a way that overflows to serving and feeding even persecutors. It is reciprocal and invites relationship and response. Paul anticipates that for doing good, an authority will return honor and goodness, to the extent that it is fulfilling its role of rewarding good conduct and judging bad. Paul describes the ruling authority as issuing the retribution of punishment for evil characterized as “the wrath of God,” a retribution that God excludes from his new community in the politics of love — “never avenge but leave room for the wrath of God.” God uses the old politics of the world’s rulers [PAGAN rulers, he’s writing about here, take note – no expectation of prayer breakfasts or “in God we trust” on the money here] in spite of themselves to exercise a kind of karmic balance in the wake of God – but one that applies and comes back upon rulers also. As I’ll point out shortly, from Jesus and Jeremiah, though Paul doesn’t indicate it here, rulers also are subject to judgment of retribution for bad conduct. But God means them to serve the good, and for that good, rulers are due taxes from us as subjects who benefit from the good.
In Rome, benefactors of the public good who funded a distribution of food or money, or entertainment, or built gardens or baths, would receive some recognition or honor from the Senate or the emperor – a reward for good. In our society, the government authorities sustain public goods differently – by direct sponsorship of parks, libraries, housing for the poor, schools, hospitals and clinics, streets and highway maintenance, food safety, drug research and testing, but tax dollars still suppport these goods. Federal, state and local authorities each use taxes they collect for such goods, though we may be frustrated about taxes spent on outrageously exorbitant military contracts, frivolous projects of little social benefit, misguided policies and destructive foreign adventures. In other words, a tamed dragon can do some good, and ought to be attending to such good. And taxes are owed to support those purposes. I don’t mind paying my property tax to the city and county, because it supports teachers and safety officers in our schools, and the fire department and paramedics, and street repairs, and water – not just for me, but for the good of our whole community. Our state income and sales taxes support our universities and schools, and provide shelter and treatment for the ill and disabled, as do some federal tax dollars. Such goods are owed our support, our taxes. They are “due.”
I find it interesting that Paul concludes his passage on the Christian community’s relationship to government authority using this language of debt, of what is due, because that is the classical definition of the justice that the state enforces – that both the good and the criminal receive what they deserve. Yet here Paul is assessing and instructing on what the state deserves: “7Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due. Love for One Another
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” For the Christian, love is the law, love measures what is just, what is due. Jesus has taken us out of the politics of retribution (do not repay evil for evil), and entered us into the politics of love, and the power of love is exercised in generous grace, forgiveness, humility and truth. That is the politics of Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, from which all legitimate authority derives. So our measure, in the perspective of Christ’s love, for what is due may be different from those bound to the politics of domination and retribution.
When the temple leaders asked Jesus about paying the Roman tax, Jesus asked them whose image was on it, and they said, correctly, Caesar’s. In fact, the inscription around Caesar’s head on the coin declared him to be “God’s Son.” Jesus told them, “Render to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God.” Jesus seems to recognize that, for good or ill, they owe something to Caesar, they’ve entered his system by using his money and have an obligation now, because the word used for “render” or “pay” implies a debt, something owed. But Jesus relativizes that debt by comparing it to what we owe God, which is far greater and more important than anything Caesar could legitimately claim. We owe God our lives, our breath, and every good thing we’ve received in life. That provides the standard for what we owed to Caesar – it’s not a neat line of division that segregates the religious from the political, but an assertion that God’s prerogatives override Caesar’s when the two compete and conflict. And they do compete and conflict – remember that the previous time in Mark that Jesus used that phrase, “things of God” was in rebuking Peter for trying to dissuade him from the cross, the politics of love: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on things of God, but on human things.” The things of God are the politics of love practiced by disciples of Jesus as participants in his living body on earth. Things of Caesar may include those, but if working the politics of domination and retribution, the things of Caesar are just selfish human appetites used by Satan.
What do the politics of love, the things of God, look like? Jeremiah went to the king of Judah 600 years before Jesus, and said: “3Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” This is refrain Jeremiah repeats from 21:12: “Do justice without delay in the morning, and rescue anyone who has been robbed from the heand of the oppressor.” This is the passage cited by Menno Simons about 450 years ago in an appeal to Dutch magistrates to fulfill their duty, what they owed.
The justice of God, the politics of love, was never only about fair and impartial resolutions to disputes in conflict. From the time of the Exodus on, the politics of love, the righteousness and justice of God, was not merely about measuring out what was owed to one according to one’s merit or deserving in comparison with others. Always attending to the inequalities of power in human relationships, the politics of love protects the vulnerable, the weak and the foreigner, those impoverished without employment, a home, or land to work. The robbery addressed in the same language as Exodus and Deuteronomy is not the bandit who attacks on the road, but the oppressor who withholds fair wages earned from the laborer, or steals by exacting an exorbitant loan repayment from the poor. Some steal with gun, some steal with a pen and briefcase. The politics of love protects the weak, because God knows that the strong and prosperous will attend to their interests at the expense of the weak, that we tend to keep the weak outside the gates, outside the palace, that we isolate ourselves with those like us, and rely on wealth instead of relationships for security. If money is speech, the politics of love seeks to increase and preserve the voice of the speechless. Love compensates for loss and injury with forgiveness and generosity beyond what is strictly owed. The politics of love shares what is needed and lacking in order to increase equality and reduce privilege as a barrier to the common good, because love aims at the good for all.
If that sounds different from the politics of domination and retribution Paul describes in Romans 13, it is. Many Mennonite Christians have too long refrained from summoning Caesar away from that politics to the politics of love because of the shallowness of our faith in the rule of the risen Jesus, and the timidity of our confidence in our mission as his ambassadors. I understand the testimony some seek to make by abstaining from voting, and for those who do vote, going to the polls should be smallest part of our politics, not the summit. The politics of love will draw the weak and powerless into relationship with Caesar’s officers. The politics of domination seek to depersonalize, abstract, and fragment the exercise of power in our relationships, but love connects – whether by testifying repeatedly to the palace about those outside the gates, or bringing some from outside the gates into the palace, or bringing the palace out to the gates. Love even desires to bring down the palace gates themselves. But the politics of love creates relationships to protect the vulnerable and create more equality and unity among neighbors as children of God, the common Creator and ultimate authority over all.
Such witness is a work of love not only for the weak and marginal, but also for the authorities. The politics of domination and retribution are self-destructive. God may permit the sword of wrath to punish the unjust, but when government authority becomes unjust, as it seems to do, that sword turns upon it – Jesus warned, those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Retributive passion inevitably punishes the innocent at some point and often can’t admit its mistake. Domination overreaches itself in arrogance. King Zedekiah sent a mission to Jeremiah, seeking a blessing, an endorsement, for his policy of resistance to Babylon. He used all the right religious language about God saving his people and doing miraculous deeds for their freedom, and wouldn’t Jeremiah pray for God to do that again? And Jeremiah replies that not only will God not fight for Zedekiah, God will fight against him and for the enemy. Jeremiah says (21:13-14) that their protestations of faith – Who can come against Jerusalem and the house of David? God is our refuge! – are empty, because the Lord is bringing judgment in spite of their words, “according to the fruit of your doing.” At a time when image and appearance seem all important, political officials should remember God judges by actions.
Jeremiah declared it was not their political message, their words, but their deeds that condemned them.
13 Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbours work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
14 who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms’,
and who cuts out windows for it,
panelling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
15 Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
17 But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practising oppression and violence.
Instead of caring for the homeless and evicted, the unemployed and uneducated, these kings enforced laws that helped take wages from honest workers, and created luxury for themselves. They killed as carelessly as the death squads we now know U.S. supported in Iraq as it did in Latin America a generation ago. Like politicians passing laws beneficial for the profits of industries and contractors that they go to work for when they leave office, the kings of Judah had not used their office to protect and raise up the poor, but to build a cedar palace for themselves. Jeremiah asks, “Does competing in cedar construction make you a king? No, your father did what kings should, justice and righteousness in the cause of the poor and needy, and he had enough to eat and drink. That justice and righteousness is what it means to know me, says the Lord.”
The kings had spent so much on cedar for the palace, that throughout his prophecies, Jeremiah compares it to a cedar forest, and calls the palace after territories that had lots of trees and thick forests, like Lebanon and Gilead. So in one of his warnings, the Lord says to the king through Jeremiah, “You are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, but I swear that I will make you a desert…. Destroyers shall cut down your choice cedars and cast them into the fire.” That is the destiny of palaces built on the blood and bones of underpaid local workers (or civilian peasants in West Asia), of societies whose authorities only accrue more and more wealth, whose bankers and brokers grow sumptuous in the palace while the streets fill with beggars. The things of Caesar can bring life instead of death only as they consist in the politics of love, the rule of God, the regime of King Jesus in the community of the vulnerable and needy. Otherwise, the politics of domination and retribution will finally turn on any authority and destroy it.
But the church’s great political secret is that we much prefer the image of Caesar as God’s son, rather than the image of the Savior crucified by Caesar. We prefer an inscription promising God’s oversight of our order, rather than an inscription on a cross above Jesus’ head showing what the world thinks of God’s order. We want kings who will protect us from crosses, not lead us to them. We want kings who will give us servants rather than a king who makes us into servants. In the end, as John Howard Yoder writes, we have preferred a king who likes Jesus rather than a king like Jesus.
What authorities and leaders need from us is not a demand for more images and spectacle, for more show and rhetoric, more armies and palaces, but action that gives security and hope to the poor and vulnerable. God is less concerned about what commandments get inscribed on courthouse walls than whether the judges in the courthouse protect the homes of the unemployed, less concerned with teachers leading students in a rote prayer than with whether the students have food to eat and books to study. That is the testimony we owe the authorities, even more than our taxes, because under the authority of Jesus, our sovereign God, the dragon that is Satan has been cast out of power, and the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and Christ. The politics of love is the life of the world, the politics of love brings honor and security to authority, the politics of love is the order for which authority serves God.
Jeremiah once asked about his king in Jerusalem and the palace: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (8:22) – by which we understand him to ask, is there no physician in the palace to bring healing to my poor people? Is there nothing from our rulers that will bring healing? The palace of King Jesus, according John’s vision of his throne in Revelation 22, is no forest of cedar, but a single tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. In Christ’s politics of love is hope and healing. In the palace of our king, there are no princes or nobles, but equal subjects all, beholden one to another, under the law of love.