WE ARE CAESAR: Christians and Politics in 2020

WE ARE CAESAR: Christians and Politics in 2020

A national election looms, and the contrasts between the candidates and their platforms could not be more distinct. How should we choose? Do the life and teaching of Jesus give us any guidelines?

Yes! Jesus faced a hotly contested political issue. His epic reply was: “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.” (See Matthew 22:15-22). The story behind the quote is rife with political tensions that make ours seem mild.

The Story

Judea became a Roman Province in 6 AD after the failed tetrarchy of Herod Archelaus. After the census, the Romans levied a head tax on top of the property tax customs tax. Judas of Galilee led a revolt over it. The debate that raged at the time was whether a good Jew should pay the fee.

We can paraphrase the question to Jesus like this: “Can we pay taxes to Caesar and still give allegiance to God? Are we traitors to God for supporting this pagan leader’s rule over His land?”

The question was a trap. If Jesus rejected the head tax, he was liable to Caesar’s court. If he supported the tax, the Zealots—a violent political movement—would turn on him.

Every resident of Palestine knew someone, a brother, a father, a cousin, a neighbor, whom the Romans had victimized. They were sold into slavery, forced off their land, or executed for speaking out against oppression.

Moreover, the Messiah, like the judges of old, was expected to depose tyrants and enforce justice. Would Jesus measure up?

Jesus turned the tables and set a trap of his own. “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” He said.

They paid it with a Tiberian denarius, propaganda disguised as currency. One side had a profile of the emperor and a superscription that read: TI CAESAR DIVI AUGUSTI FILIUS AUGUSTUS (Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus). The other side had a picture of a woman seated on a throne holding an inverted spear in her right hand and a palm branch in the left. The superscription read “PONTIFEX MAXIMUS” (High Priest). The Jews saw it as a portable idol promoting a pagan religion and hated it. So it was funny to watch the questioner dig around to find one, and then realize with embarrassment that all the Jews in the courtyard were frowning at the fact that he would have it on his person.

When he handed it over, Jesus nailed them with three piercing facts. The meaning of his reply runs something like this.

“Hypocrites!” He said. “Since you don’t seem to have any problem doing business with Caesar’s coins, you had better pay his taxes. Second, as much as you pretend to be offended by Caesar’s claims on deity, you have no qualms about bringing this pagan symbol into God’s holy temple. And third, by holding his coin, you already pay tribute to him, let Caesar have his idols.”

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, namely the thing that bears his image and name. But give to God also what bears his image and name – yourself.”God made us in his image. God saved us and called us his own. We owe him our entire being. Jesus is saying, “Caesar owns your money. God owns you. Don’t confuse the two.”

The Principle

The principle is this: Get your allegiances right, and your obligations will come clear. Render to the government what you owe to the government, and to God what you owe to God.

How does this story guide us today? To answer that question, we have to recognize the differences between our government and theirs. Our political systems are completely different. Thus our obligations are different.

Jesus and his contemporaries lived in a conquered country occupied by hostile troops and governed by foreigners. They had no vote or representation in government; they faced imprisonment, slavery, or death for protesting, and had no power short of open rebellion.

Thankfully, our system of government is different. We have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to vote, and freedom to sue the government for justice. We also have the freedom to live and do business publicly as our religious conscious requires. We have not only the right but also the obligation to participate in government at every level. ‘We, the people’, are Caesar. But just as it was in those days, so it is today, Caesar isn’t Lord. God is. ‘We the people’ – in the form of the legislature, the courts or the executive branch – might make a law or ruling that runs contrary to the will of God. Because Christians have the option, we also must promote government for the common good and oppose or change those laws and rulings that are opposed to the common good. That is our obligation to Caesar.

Applying the Principle

To apply the principle, we need to think about both sides of the political equation: our allegiances and our obligations.

The Christian’s first allegiance is to the gospel. Our primary mission is the proclamation of the gospel, which alone can change the heart of a nation. Thus, we need to be wary about aligning ourselves with a particular individual or party.

Our allegiance to God, who commanded us to ‘love your neighbor’ motivates us to work for the good of all our neighbors, not just the advancement of our religion. Therefore, Christians must be impartial advocates of truth, no matter the political consequences.

What are God’s values concerning the political issues of the day, and what is our obligation as participants in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Abortion – God is the creator of life. Children in the womb are the most defenseless. Isa 1:17 says: Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (NIV) Christians should vote for the people who will do the best job of defending the unborn.[1]

Marriage – God established the moral order for the world he created. If we abide by it, things go well. If we abandon it, we can expect trouble. Christians should vote for people who will honor God by maintaining the traditional definition of marriage.

Religious Freedom & Freedom of Speech – Jesus commanded: “Go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Religious freedom and freedom of speech are the two most important founding principles of America. Religious freedom is broader than the so-called freedom of worship. And freedom of speech is central to our ability to function as a civil society. Christians should vote for officials who will protect religious freedom and freedom of expression.

Economics

Jesus was clear about our obligations to the poor. But scripture also teaches, “He that will not work, should not eat,” and that all men should be responsible for providing for their families. No fair-minded person could look at the multitude of social services offered in this country and conclude that our government isn’t caring for the poor. Yet welfare fraud totaled $99.1 billion in fiscal year 2019. Christians should vote for officials who will do a better job of managing that system and reign in the abuses.

Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” As we consider our civic responsibilities, let’s get our allegiances right, and our obligations will become clear.

[1] Biden’s VP Choice Expected, World News 8/11/2020.

MAN OF THE HOUSE C. R. Wiley’s interesting handbook for serious men

MAN OF THE HOUSE C. R. Wiley’s interesting handbook for serious men

John is a grizzled grey, mid-fifties motorcyclist who thinks most people have their heads in the sand about disaster preparedness. “My friends laugh at me, think I’m crazy,” he said, “but I’m like, ‘Dude, you buy life insurance, right? You buy health insurance. Why wouldn’t you buy a little disaster insurance by setting a few things aside and being prepared?’”

John has a “bug-out ranch” a few miles outside town fully equipped with food, water, fuel, and guns.

I met John in Austin, Texas, on assignment for a journalism course last January. We were doing post-hurricane Harvey “man on the street” interviews to see how prepared people were for disaster. The answer was, and I include my fellow motorcyclist in this, not very well.

That’s part of the reason C. R. Wiley’s Man of the House: a handbook for building a shelter that will last in a world that is falling apart, caught my eye. Guys like John—also known as “preppers”—are realists about the potential disasters we face but are mostly thinking about themselves.

Wiley is not a prepper in the strict sense. He isn’t writing about how to stock your bug-out bunker with enough food and ammo to survive a sudden catastrophe but a long slow one. And not just for yourself, but for your children and grandchildren. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that the world as we know it is like a drunk that just won’t hit bottom. When things get bad, it sobers up a little and promises to change its ways—then when things get a little better it’s back to binge-drinking again. But there will come a day when we find the old boy comatose and gone for good. If we work at preparing for that day, we may find that we are more relieved than saddened by the end.”[1]

Man of the House picks up where the turn-of-the-century Christian men’s movement dropped the ball. Finally, someone has left “the elementary teachings about the Christ,” and gone on to maturity. Wiley assumes a basic understanding of the gospel and spiritual life and moves on to the practical matters of living out the faith in an increasingly unstable world. He unearths the ancient idea of the household, not as a place to eat dinner, watch a sitcom, and go to bed—a place from which we depart every day to work in the “real world”—but as it once was: a spiritual, social, economic, and political shelter that creates a world for generations of those who come under its roof.

Having given that endorsement I hasten to add that I disagreed with some of his ideas and found others not quite wrong, just over-torqued. Still, he is at least asking the right questions and offering thoughtful answers, a rarity in Christian men’s books.

Most guys don’t like to read, but this one is written to men for men. Wiley is a preacher, but unlike many of my kind he doesn’t waste words just because it comes easy (See? Those last five were superfluous. I can do this all day!). He uses what I call “man-speak.” Reading his book is like sitting around the table with Lewis and Clarke, planning their trip or a group of engineers and thinkers, planning to build a city. Serious men gathered for an interesting, challenging job, with enough humor thrown in to keep everybody’s egos in check. At twelve chapters and 135 pages it is also short. Each chapter takes about 15-20 minutes to read.

If you’re a young man trying to figure out how to navigate your family through this unstable world you would benefit from this book.

[1] From the Introduction.