Friday, October 20, 2017

What Belongs to Caesar?

Since July 1, Thinking Friend Cindy Molini has been pastor of the United Christian and Presbyterian Church in Lawson, Mo., which is about 25 miles northeast of where I live in Liberty. In response to her kind invitation, I have the privilege of preaching in her absence this Sunday (Oct. 22). 
A Trick Question for Jesus 
As I never did as a pastor but have often done over the past 10-12 years, I chose my text for Sunday’s sermon from the lectionary, deciding to use Matthew 22:15-22, the Gospel reading. In response to a trick question, that passage contains Jesus’ well-known words: 
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (CEB)
Those who were seeking to trap Jesus in order to silence him and his movement asked him: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Doesn’t this mean that the strict Jewish people wanted to follow the Torah much the same way that strict Muslims want to follow Sharīʿah?)
Answering either in the affirmative or in the negative would ignite explosive opposition. The Jews would have strongly disapproved of Jesus sanctioning the payment of the Roman taxes; the Romans would have condemned non-payment of those taxes.
So, Jesus asked for a coin that was used for paying the taxes, noted the image (Greek: eikon) on the coin, and then made the oft-quoted statement about rendering to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God. 
A Tricky Situation for Pacifists 
Last night (Oct. 19) the symposium titled “Remembering Muted Voices: A Symposium on Resistance and Conscientious Objection in WWI” opened at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. (You can learn more about that event here.)
One feature at this symposium is the premier of traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” developed by Kauffman Museum, affiliated with Bethel College in Kansas. 
(That exhibit will be at Rainbow Mennonite Church from Oct. 24-29; if you are or will be in the Kansas City area during that time, you are cordially invited to go see it.)
What do pacifists do when their country goes to war and able-bodied young men are expected to fight for their country? It is a tricky situation, one with no solution without censure. 
Some follow the expectations, or demands, of their country and become soldiers—often to the disappointment of or embarrassment to their pacifist families and/or churches. 
Others follow the teaching of their church—the historic “peace churches” are the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) that began in the 1740s and the descendants of the Swiss Anabaptists (mainly the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren) dating back to 1525—and refuse military service.
The latter are the “conscientious objectors,” many of whom suffered greatly—some to death--during World War I, although most were treated with more civility in World War II and afterward.
So, What Belongs to Caesar? 
While they may not all articulate it in this way, most of those who are, or who support, conscientious objectors are also inclined to support the government (“Caesar”) by paying taxes, although some few are war-tax opponents. Nevertheless, most believe that human beings are created in the “image” of God and thus belong exclusively to God, not to Caesar.
Those who belong to God must follow the teachings of Jesus, which contain no sanction to kill. Since they believe that all people bear the image of God, there can be no justification for killing other people—even in war. 
Caesar may legitimately claim our coins, but never our allegiance and obedience to God in whose image we are made.


  1. Let me start by reporting I am back from Minnesota, having visited my new grandson. I am not sure whether Grandpa Craig will be any better or worse than Prior Craig, but here I am. It was a pleasure this morning reading the several blogs I had missed and the many thoughtful comments that followed.

    Over the years I have read a variety of comments about God and Caesar, and it seems they fall into three general categories. Lovers of separation of church and state find just that in the comment. Even as we define our existence in a number of mysterious dualities, whether male and female, reason and emotion, right brain and left brain, or community and freedom, so we see God and Caesar two balanced causes. However, not everyone sees it that way. Some see God swallowing Caesar, so the statement becomes a subversive statement of faith, for God, of course, owns everything. Yet again, often enough Caesar has attempted to swallow God, as Christian priests and missionaries have marched with imperial armies for two thousand years. One thinks of the cognitive dissonance of Christ returning to the Grand Inquisitor for a "little visit" in Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov."

    The question of what God and Caesar has to say about pacifists' responsibility to pay taxes echoes many other groups who have found one or another government-funded policy offensive. Think of conservatives balking at funding reproductive healthcare, Tea Party resistance to bank bailouts, and billionaire opposition to paying any taxes at all. Then there are certain liberals who oppose required vaccinations, and both ends against fluoride in drinking water. Everyone has a definition of fraud, waste, and abuse. We all oppose that! Come to think of it, it is not that hard to find something really wrong with a church budget. It happens all the time. Do we just grumble, take a knee, practice civil disobedience, drop out? Well, it depends!

    1. Thank you, Craig. I am impressed with the number of followers among the Roman soldiers, plus government officials and their families found in the Gospels and Epistles. They are never condemned by Christ or his followers.

      This is not a rebuke of the pacifists, just an observation.

    2. Congratulations on the new grandson, Craig!

      I must take exception with one sentence in your second paragraph: "Christian priests and missionaries have marched with imperial armies for two thousand years." That certainly never happened until after Constantine in the fourth century and has not happened in the last 80 years or so. There is much to criticize in the union of the church and imperial government in the past (as well as in the union of the Christian Right and the GOP/DJT in the present). But I served as a Christian missionary from 1966 to 2004 and certainly had no imperial army to march with (thank goodness!).

      There are always people who have gripes about how their tax money is spent--and they have a right to speak out, but do not have a right to refuse to pay taxes.

      But the problem is doing that which is against one's conscience--especially when it means something as serious as killing others. The COs, I think, have every right to follow conscience (God) rather than Caesar in that matter. But that is far different, it seems to me, than refusing to bake a wedding cake or to provide contraceptives because of "conscience." In the latter cases, following conscience is doing "harm," or at least causing inconvenience, to others, not affirming the sacredness of their lives.

    3. I haven't tried to verify these quotes, but here are some quotes from a website giving "40 Early Church Quotes on Violence, Enemy Love, & Patriotism."

      • “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”
      ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

      • “Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”
      ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

      • “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
      ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

  2. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky makes these brief and pertinent comments:

    "Owing Caesar money is one thing; owing Caesar one’s conscience is another. Conscience is surely God’s province. I like the way you pose the question."

  3. I agree with your conclusion in principle, Leroy, but I do think whether to participate in killing in some circumstances is a much more complicated reality than legalistic pacifism allows. In any case, I, like you presumably, grew up in a context in which that text was quoted as though it answered the question whether or not one should obey the state. What I have come to conclude about that text, though, is that it doesn't have anything directly to say about patriotism or participation in war or even in what circumstances to obey the state. It's little more than a slick way to slip out of an impossible situation wherein Jesus would have been condemned by one group or the other. It is not designed to, nor does it, answer the challenging question of what is owed the state. It implies, one could argue, that one never owes the state ultimate allegiance, but it does not offer any solution as to what that can mean in real, historical circumstances.

    1. Thanks for posing a basic problem of pacifism. But whether it was legalistic or not, the Hofer brothers and others who died in Leavenworth Prison in 1918 did so because of their unswerving pacifistic beliefs. That is what following the teachings of Jesus meant to them in "real, historical circumstances."

      Altogether there were 16 COs who died in Leavenworth Prison, and almost all of them were there because of their religious convictions. You and others may argue that they made a wrongheaded choice, but I was glad to be a part of the memorial service early Sunday morning that honored them as martyrs--witnesses for peace.

    2. Au contraire! I don't think their decisions were wrongheaded at all. And, in fact, I acquired conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, which was no easy task since I was not a member of a peace church but the SBC that could never bring itself to say anything more negative about that war than that it had "moral ambiguities." I'm very sympathetic to pacifism. In fact, I'm firmly of the conviction that the Christian New Testament is unambiguously pacifist. But I'm not without some appreciation for those who cannot take that route in a world with plenty of moral ambiguities. And once we move away from the imminent end times idea also pervading New Testament thought and reorient ourselves as people responsible for history (as Bonhoeffer suggested we are), there are some other positions in certain times and places that can make sense.

    3. In my less-than-humble opinion. :-D

  4. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "Your excellent treatment of the church-state issue will surely encourage a large response and I want to be a part of that.

    "With due respect to my Anabaptist forebears and English General Baptists, I cannot bring myself to an absolute church-state separation position. We all are familiar with the numerous ways that church and state overlap now and more so historically. Without going into the detail this subject deserves, here are just a few:
    Payment to military chaplains
    Prayer in Congress and Legislatures
    Scriptures on Federal buildings including Supreme Court
    Tax exemption for religious organizations
    Tax exemption for minister's housing allowance
    Use of school buildings for church gatherings
    Use of church buildings by schools during remodeling (my own experience)
    Use of church facilities for voting
    Health Dept. certification for church kitchens
    Purchase of Services by government agencies to churches for providing human services (foster care, counseling, etc)
    The list could go on.

    "I went into a great deal of detail on this in my book, "Church-State Cooperation Without Domination," published in 2010. There are numerous areas in which religion and government can cooperate without either dominating the other. The church has authority in spiritual matters and the state has authority in welfare and public safety--hence the need for building permits for church buildings and inspections of church kitchens.

    "This philosophy doesn't settle all the issues as you know. We live in a fallen world and have to make concessions to that handicap. Our world is different that the era of the first Christians. We are still challenged by the killing in war, capital punishment and abortion.

    "Baptist history is one of my hobbies and I am aware of the terrible suffering and persecution experienced by our Christian forebears. (I will never understand why one of the Protestant reformers, Huldrych Zwingli, had some of the Anabaptist leaders, with whom he once associated, murdered over the issue of state authority. Felix Manz was one of them).

    "I spent 33 years of my career working for Baptist children and family institutions who contracted with state, federal, school and Indian tribes in providing services to neglected and troubled children and families. In the beginning we were criticized by Baptist leaders, including preachers, who had no trouble accepting tax exemption for their church property or their housing allowance. At that beginning, all but two Southern Baptist state children agencies refused to accept government Purchase of Service. Now they all do but one.

    "Yes, religious freedom must be protected above all, but with the problems our society is facing, it will take the combined cooperation of organized religion, government, business and education to effectively address these problems.

    "Let Freedom Ring!"

  5. This morning I received these pertinent comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your remarks about pacifism from the Mennonite perspective.

    "Yesterday, at Wicker Park Lutheran Church, the Gospel text was also Matt. 22:15-22 (same lectionary evidently). The sermon was given by a young, female seminarian. Jessie did not tie the Gospel text to the issue of what extent one should give his or her allegiance to one's government, but I think this is a legitimate issue. (Being a seminarian, she was probably advised to avoid controversy.)

    "Pacifism is not a feature of Lutheran tradition, but any Christian (or humanist) needs to think about how to protest immoral actions by one's government. Thoreau's essay, 'Civil Disobedience,' comes to mind as a possible guide. I have not read it in many years; perhaps a reread is in order, given our current national government."

  6. And here are comments from Thinking Friend Graham Hales in Mississippi. (He is an old friend from when we were in graduate school together in the 1960s.)

    "I find CO a noble choice but do have problems with it. Those who hold this view during war, benefit from those who fight to defend our freedoms. They will stand by while the enemy of their country might take over and kill their neighbors with no restraint. Those who do not defend their country yet benefit from those who do. So, the problem with CO is not an easy one."

  7. Thanks, Graham, for raising an important issue with regard to conscientious objection to war. Let me respond with just a few brief remarks:

    First, it can be argued that there are many who don't go to war but who benefit from those who fight. The number of soldiers of any country is always a relatively small percentage of the total population, so the large majority of the population--and not just conscientious objectors--can be said to benefit from those who do fight.

    More specifically, most conscientious objectors through the years, especially from World War II on, have engaged in some sort of alternative service that was beneficial to the country as a whole. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 provided an alternative form of national service for those who rejected military service with the provision for “work of national importance.” Thus, those who could not conscientiously participate in military action could nevertheless be involved in work for the benefit of the nation.

    Along a different line, consider what would have happened if, for example, all the Christians in Germany in the 1930s had been conscientious objectors--and there were some there as well as in Great Britain and the U.S. Hitler could not have launched his military conquest in Europe without the compliance of the German Christians who chose to follow "Caesar" rather than God.

    1. Graham responded,

      "I agree, especially if the CO's volunteered for medical service in the military. This would distinguish between the CO's and those who just were afraid to go to the military. In Germany, a few did object and paid the price of death. Not many did, however, so there was little or no hindrance to Hitler."

    2. Thanks, Graham, for continuing the conversation.

      There were, no doubt, there were men who refused to go to the military for various reasons. Some probably were afraid. But those who were conscientious objectors, especially for religious reasons, did not refuse because of fear but because of their faith.

      There were, certainly, COs in Germany during the 1930s who were put to death because of refusing to fight. But this past Sunday morning at the WWI Museum, I participated in the memorial service for 16 COs who died in Leavenworth Prison because of their refusal to fight. They might not have been killed outright, but their severe treatment in prison led to their deaths, and at least the Hofer brothers are considered martyrs.