Thursday, April 03, 2008

Give God what is God's

“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give unto God what is God’s.”

So says Jesus in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels. This is one of the best known sayings of Jesus, even among those who rarely if ever crack open a Bible. And let’s be honest, it’s one of the most overused proof texts ever. This verse has been used to justify Christian non-involvement in political issues, the idea of total non-participation in “secular” society, the idea that one should never question governmental authorities, and to justify labeling certain brands of right wing politics as “Christian”. I’m sure the same kind of loose proof texting has been used by those on the political left, too. I’ve just never encountered it myself.

I’ve commented on the intersection of religion and politics on a number of different occasions (they were my two undergraduate majors, after all), but the reason I’ve been thinking about it lately has been because of James Dobson, founder of “Focus on the Family”. Dobson is perhaps the last major voice of the first generation of the “Religious Right”. Jerry Falwell is dead, and Pat Robertson’s frequent outlandish comments have relegated him to practical obscurity. Recently Dobson went out of his way to continue his criticism of Sen. John McCain, who will be the Republican party’s Presidential candidate in the fall. Dobson said that he still wasn’t sure if McCain was a “true conservative”, and not so subtly implying that that massive voting bloc that he controls (whether this control is real or imagined and how big said bloc may be is up for debate, of course) may not support McCain in the general election. Dobson clearly fancies himself a king maker, or at the very least a major power broker in right wing politics.

Seeing people like Dobson make these kinds of comments makes me think of the Middle Ages when the popes gladly swung about their “two swords” (as defined by Augustine) of temporal and spiritual power. There’s a story about one particular pope (I can’t remember who at the moment) who got mad about something a European monarch did, so he excommunicated the king. The king, knowing darn well that he would be bound for Hell, if not in reality then at least in the minds of his subjects, realized he was defeated. The king proceeded to travel to the castle where the pope was staying and stand outside in the snow, barefoot, for several days before the pope agreed to absolve him of his sins and let him back in the church. While Protestants have no official means of excommunication, threatening to withhold votes from a politician is the most comparable weapon a religious leader can have today. But is having, let alone using, such a weapon really a good idea?

Religious leaders like James Dobson are committed, at least in theory, to doing the work of the Kingdom of God. Dobson believes that by following his teachings, people will be more in line with God’s will. In theory, this is “giving unto God what is God’s”- the hearts and minds of people. So how effective can one be in doing the work of the Kingdom when they’re so preoccupied with determining who gets to be Caesar? The Roman Emperor, the Caesar, was unquestionably the most powerful person in his time. Who holds such a position today if not the President of the United States? So forget about “giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”, some religious leaders are obsessed with the power to crown Caesar!

I like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s take on the intersection of religion and politics (we’re mourning the fortieth anniversary of his untimely death tomorrow, by the way): “the church should be neither the master of the state nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state”. Threatening to withhold a large bloc of votes seems to be an effort to be the master of the state. Unconditionally supporting a war and all the atrocities that come with it because Caesar claims the Christian faith seems to be acting as the servant of the state.

For us to be the conscience of the state we have to be engaged in what it is doing, but to be clear that our first loyalty is to God. This means more than allegiance to a particular political platform, no matter how many Bible verses we may be able to whip out to prove that it is the will of God. I’m not sure exactly what being the conscience of the state really looks like over the long term because I’m not sure that anyone has been able to sustain it for an extended period of time. So all that I can say is that when we find ourselves disagreeing with Caesar, not liking the direction our government is going, we need to identify ourselves as the loyal opposition. The concepts of loyalty and opposition aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are in tension with one another. So perhaps tension is the best way for us to be the conscience of the state: wanting the best for it and occasionally having to resort to some tough love. It’s not an easy job, but it’s one that is sorely needed.

1 comment:

JT d'Eastwood said...

Nice post, Pastor Matt.
Good thoughts to ponder on the 40th anniversary of MLKs death.