Render Unto Caesar.


With this being an election year here in the United States, hopes and fears are already rising high. There is this overwhelming sense that there is so much at stake depending on the outcome of November. I think that’s true.

So, especially with how Christianity is so often used to justify a particular set of politics in seasons like these, I wanted to look at a particular passage from Matthew, then think together over the importance of supporting the separation of church and state. I hope this newsletter provides some helpful language to give you as you navigate this conversation with others.

But first, here are some resources to consider on this topic:

-American Idols Podcast: This podcast is put together by someone I consider a friend, Andrew Whitehead. Andrew also happens to be one of the leading scholars on Christian Nationalism. In this limited series, Andrew uses his own faith journey to uncover the threats that White Christian nationalism poses both to the United States and to the American church. Through interviews with leaders in the field, including Dr. Sam Perry, Dr. Ruth Braunstein, Dr Robert P. Jones, Dr. Jemar Tisby, and many others, Whithehead reveals White Christian nationalism’s anti-democratic underbelly and provides hope for all Americans to resist it. It is as insightful as it is practical for hands on solutions on what to do ourselves.

-Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture Has Been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go from Here by Kaitlyn Schiess. If you are looking for another insightful and practical resource for this season, I recommend this book as well. Not only have I been impressed with Kaitlyn's scholarship, but her balanced grasp of history, scripture, and the present moment. It is a thought provoking read to say the least.

-Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies by David P. Gushee. Continuing with the insightful and practical, in this book, Gushee calls us to preserve democratic norms, including constitutional government, the rule of law, and equal rights for all, even as many Christians take a reactionary and antidemocratic stance. Surveying global politics and modern history, he analyzes how Christians have discarded their commitment to democracy and bought into authoritarianism. He urges us to fight back by reviving our hard-won traditions of congregational democracy, dissident Black Christian politics, and covenantal theology.

-The Religious Right Isn’t Hiding What It’s Doing in the Courts by Dahlia Lithwick. During my family leave, I was honored to have my friend Katherine Stewart be a guest writer for me while I was away. She is such a phenomenal scholar and investigative journalist, especially on the topic of our current collision between religion and politics we are seeing in our nation. This article, written by Dahlia Lithwick, features a back and forth with Katherine as they talk about the religious right and our courts.

-The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation by Nilay Saiya. Lastely, I'd like to recommend this book once again. It has become a standard resource for me over the last two years. Nilay touches on topics ranging from Christian extremism here in the United States to how Evangelical unquestioned support for Israel has lead to what we are seeing in that region today. It is long because it is thorough. However, even if you only make it through half of the book, you will be thankful you did.

Okay, onto today's topic:


Render Unto Caesar

First, let’s read Matthew 22:15-22

Paying the Imperial Tax to Caesar

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Setting the Stage

The political stakes were really high in the historical context of this passage here as well, much like it is today. Taxes imposed on Israelites by the Roman Empire were one of the primary causes of unrest and riots in that time among the people of Israel and tensions were growing hotter every day. For example, the sole purpose for the Zealot political movement of that time was due to Roman poll taxes. Another worthy example is Barabbas, who would later be picked to be released instead of Jesus. He was arrested for murdering someone most likely during an insurrection against Rome, hence one of the many reasons he was picked over Jesus. He was willing to do what Jesus refused to do.

With all these tensions going on behind the scenes, here comes a group of Pharisees and Herodians, which Matthew said had come to trap Jesus. These two groups joining together would have been highly irregular. The Pharisees were deeply critical of Rome and the Herodians were a political party loyal to the Herodian dynasty, who were all puppet leaders for the Roman Empire. You couldn’t have two more opposing “parties” join together against Jesus.

Yet, what brought them together, it would seem, was their mutual hostility towards Jesus, who simultaneously represented a threat to them both, especially because of his growing popularity among the people. To many Pharisees, he presented a God that was more interested in people than maintaining dogma. To the Herodians, his “good news to the poor” and debt forgiveness advocacy presented an economy based on the needs of people rather than the “bottom line.” Jesus was seen as a threat to many in that time because he threatened their privilege, wealth, and power through his ardent advocacy for the poor.

So both these groups conspired a trap together in order to remove Jesus from the equation. They ask him, “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” This was asked of course after a feeble attempt to stroke Jesus’ ego by thickly laying on huge amounts of fake praise.

This question was a trap for a couple of reasons. First off, it creates an “either/or, yes or no” scenario with no messy middle. Secondly, if he answered “yes,” he would be seen as contradicting his teachings on how people needed to give their ultimate loyalty to God and be in violation of religious law. If he answered “no,” he would be seen as an anti-imperial radical and be in violation of Roman law.

As we well know about Jesus though, he doesn’t respond well to “black and white” categories, but instead invites people “into the gray.”

Jesus obviously sees their tactics coming from a mile away and says, “you hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” He knew that both these groups would answer this question completely differently from one another based on their political beliefs, which rendered their question as one being asked in bad faith.

Yet, instead of refusing to play there game, he agrees to answer, yet refuses to function in their “either/or, all or nothing” category in which their question was framed. Instead, he asked for the coin used for paying taxes and he was given a denarius.

A denarius represented a daily wage for many people in that context. It represented the sore backs and tired bodies of everyday, ordinary people who were simply trying to provide for their families. Jesus knew this, for that is the people he encountered every day himself. That coin represented them and their livelihoods as much as it represented the complicated and abusive economy it fueled in Rome. It symbolized that topics as complicated as the question being asked of Jesus do not have “all or nothing” answers, but rather, need to be understood within the same complexity. There is both light and darkness, good and evil in all areas of the world, which makes an “all or nothing” approach deeply out of touch. Jesus is more concerned with giving people the wisdom to navigate life, no matter the complexities they face.

So, Jesus then turns the question back on them. Holding the coin, he asked them “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Scholars debate on which emperor the coin may have shown, but no matter who it was at the time, the inscription would have been something along the line of “son of the divine.” Hence why someone wandering around claiming to be the true “Son of God” was both a religiously and politically subversive statement against the empire.

As the Son of God and the Son of humanity himself, Jesus holds the coin up and asks with intentional language, “whose image is this?” After their response, he says to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The obvious implications here are that while the coin is made in Caesar’s image, humanity is created in the image of God. So give the things of Caesar back to Caesar and to God what is God’s.

The interpretations of this passage throughout the centuries are numerous and vast. Ironically, some of them seem to take an “all or nothing” approach to this statement of Jesus. Some would argue that the things of “the world” and the things of God are like oil and water and the people of God should forever separate themselves from them (separatism). While others would interpret this as Jesus declaring that there isn’t anything that isn’t owned by God. Therefore even the empires of this world should submit to the people of God (dominionism). But I think Jesus is inviting us away from these “all or nothing” interpretations to something much deeper and a lot more gray.

Jesus is inviting his listeners, and us, to ponder the source of things. God has created humanity and the earth. Human beings then created things like empires and economic structures that have a direct impact on other people and the earth itself. The relationship and intersection between the “things of God” and “the things of Caesar” is different in every era of history, including ours today, all with a complicated context to understand and navigate. Again, Jesus is not giving us an “all or nothing” approach, but calling us to cultivate wisdom to understand the difference between the things of God and the things of the empire and choose the course we believe is best.

In Jesus’ time, the religious and political elites had colluded together to form a predatory economy that created major disparities between the wealthy and the poor. It was devouring the poor and most vulnerable all throughout the empire. This lead Jesus to preach about wealth and possessions above any other topic and do things like overturn the money changers tables in the temple. We also cannot forget that Jesus considered money “mammon,” which he saw as a force deeply opposed to God. So it is a rather cutting critique when he says money was created in the image of Caesar. This critique was not just towards Caesar, but those who benefited from the way Caesar used money and the kind of economy that it fueled as well. Such as the Pharisees and the Herodians perhaps.

So while he skillfully evaded the trap set for him here and invited all who heard his lesson to consider wisely the difference between the things of God and the things of Caesar, we also get a rather clear picture of how Jesus navigated these things for himself in his life.

For example, his first public sermon in the gospel of Luke echoed the prophet Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” These words presented what he saw his mission, his gospel to be about in the world, which as you can see, has very clear political and economic ramifications. You can’t talk about good news for the poor without economic and political reform. You can’t talk about liberating the oppressed and setting captives free without doing those things either. You certainly can’t talk about debt forgiveness and the return of property rights to their rightful owners--i.e., proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s favor--without critiquing the status quo.

So Jesus was obviously not a “separatist” when it came to political issues, but with Jesus entire ministry culminating in giving up his life out of love for the world, at the hands of the very unjust system he critiqued, we simply cannot conclude that Jesus would have been in favor of overthrowing Rome in order to control things himself either. Otherwise he could have just simply joined the political movement of the Zealots.

Rather, we see Jesus working for something deeper, more difficult, yet more substantive and long lasting. We see him elevating the poor and the powerless and advocating on their behalf to those in power, just like we see in every prophet in the Bible. He is seeking to liberate the poor from their poverty and liberate the rich from being totally consumed by their wealth. Rather than seeking to be in total power himself, he calls out, critiques, and beckons those with power to orient themselves and operate in ways that prioritize the poor, the powerless, the sick, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. Such is the radical nature of the gospel. It seeks to liberate the oppressed AND the oppressor from oppression itself.

So with that in mind, perhaps a worthwhile interpretation of this text to consider would be that instead of the “either/or” question of asking if one should pay taxes to Caeser or not, the better question would be, “how can we work to get Caesar to work towards a more just economy that prioritized the least among us so that the taxes we pay help benefit the most vulnerable, who are also created in the image of God?”

I think this is a lesson desperately needed within American Christianity today. Where we are seeing deeply naive “all or nothing” approaches playing out in front of us in various forms, from total separatism to total dominonism. We need to learn again the deep wisdom of Jesus, which calls for us to navigate all the important issues of our time with deep understanding of our context and the people who are suffering the most.

Far too many of the approaches we are seeing centers ourselves as Christians above anything else. They center our rights, our freedom, and our “values.” What if instead, we centered our approach to the issues of our world today around what is best for the poor, the powerless, the sick, and the oppressed? What if instead of asking how the power of Ceaser will benefit us, we called all those in positions of power to uphold the cause of the least among us, because they bear the image of God?

Honestly, this is the backbone of why I am such a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. Not only does this separation help to prevent either from corrupting the other, but it allows the church to maintain its prophetic voice, holding the state accountable rather than simply becoming its mouthpiece in the world, dangerously declaring its actions as being one with God.

Also, the idea that Christianity needs the government or an authoritarian president to protect, preserve, and enforce it is deeply offensive to me for multiple reasons. For one, a Christianity that advocates such an idea is literally proclaiming to the world that it not only cannot stand on the truth of its own merits, but that it also doesn’t trust in the power of God to sustain it any longer. So it needs to rely on the state instead. Why would we want Christianity to have a reputation of such fragile codependency on the state like that? That is simply not a Christianity I am interested in. I am preoccupied with pursing Christ as the center of my faith, not the state.

Also, enforcing our religion upon others through the mechanism of the state seems like such an efficient way to ensure that future generations will want nothing to do with Christianity. I often think how young people are watching Christians justify authoritarianism and bullying in political circles today. How they will either grow up to think that is what Christianity is actually like and imitate that themselves or what nothing to do with it as adults. Both are heartbreaking prospects. We Christians wouldn’t want another religious group doing those kinds of things to us, so why on earth would we want to be known for doing that to others? It’s as if we have forgotten the golden rule of Jesus: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Yet, who could find fault with a Christianity that advocated for the powerless while not seeking power for itself? How could you critique the integrity of a Christianity that ruthlessly advocated for the least among us towards all positions of power, both inside the church and the state? How could you say such a movement was just in it for themselves when they called all human made institutions to be accountable while not seeking power for itself? To me, that seems like the Christianity that looks a lot more like Jesus.

While navigating the complex issues of our time at the intersection of the church and the state may not be “all or nothing, or "cut and dry,” I do think one thing is for certain. We Christians certainly wont be able to tell the difference between “the things of God” and “the things of Caesar” if we as the church have so willingly crawled into bed with the state.

One final thought I’ll leave you with on this passage.

I think another way to read this text in a very simple and moral way for our current moment is to compare the figures of Jesus and Caesar.

Jesus is a radical, nonviolent, compassionate teacher, who desired to liberate the most vulnerable around him and who would rather lay down his own life for his enemies than harm them.

Caesar is a arrogant, self absorbed, hostile tyrant, who demands strict conformity to his own personal beliefs while threatening and inflicting devastating consequences on those who do not.

Which one does our Christianity look like?

I want our Christianity to look like Jesus, which means we need to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Including his way of being in the world. Then give to God what is God’s by embodying Christ’s way of being in this world within the complex issues of our time.

Now I'd like to hear from you!

What are your thoughts on what I have written here? What would you add to this conversation? Feel free to respond to this email and share your thoughts with me.

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As always, I really want to thank all of you for reading and for all the ways you support me and this project every single week. I'm thankful for the ways we are building this together and hope it creates a lasting, positive change in our world along the way!

I sincerely appreciate you all,

Ben

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Rev. Benjamin Cremer

I have spent the majority of my life in Evangelical Christian spaces. I have experienced a lot of church hurt. I now write to explore topics that often are at the intersection of politics and Christianity. My desire is to discover how we can move away from Christian nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and church hurt to reclaim the Gospel of Jesus together. I'm glad you're here to join the conversation. I look forward to talking with you.

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