Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rendering Unto Caesar

I'm not sure to what degree author Suzanne Collins researched the Roman Empire before writing The Hunger Games and its two sequels, but there are more than a few similarities between the fictional Panem and the Roman Empire in decline, during the time of Christ. Life in the Capitol was filled with wine and song, while taxation increased the further one went out from it. Iniquitous leaders were skilled at projecting an image of benevolence, but often had administration officials killed when they felt threatened. Hedonistic crowds enjoyed watching games in which people pulled from conquered outlying territories were forced to kill each other. Existence in the outlying districts could be oppressive.

The setting for much of the New Testament is in one such district, Judaea. Local politicians and religious leaders had some autonomy there, but they also knew that the key to holding on to any local power was to remain in good graces with the Empire. This required a delicate balance on their part: they could not appear too aligned with Rome, or the people would despise them, but they also could not challenge Rome without grave consequences. Seeing that Jesus was gaining quite a following (and that he was often critical of these religious leaders), they plotted to eliminate this threat. From the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12:

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar's.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”
Surely his reply was a bit of a disappointment not only for those who had hoped to put him on Rome's watch list, but also for those who had hoped he would be more confrontational for their own sake. Many had started to wonder if this guy might be their (earthly) salvation from Roman rule, the long-awaited king that would rise up and destroy Rome, liberating the Jewish nation. The sixth chapter of John records that the people wanted to make Jesus their king "by force".  Of course, that wasn't the plan; in speaking with Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, Christ states, "my kingdom is not of this world."

Judging by recent events, it appears that many followers of Jesus in America today never got the memo. The recent federal court ruling against the state of Indiana's ban on gay marriage has caused the chorus again to swell: "The Bible says it's wrong, so we must get our way legally!" The song's verses spell out the doom of all society, typically following slippery-slope mentions of plural marriages, pedophilia, and bestiality; usually a charge of infringement on religious freedom is thrown in for good measure.

I would be one of the loudest voices among them, if the state was somehow mandating that I (or anyone else) would be forced into a marriage with a person of the same sex. However, such a strong reaction against the very idea that the secular government may allow things legally that individuals (or even churches) may oppose on religious grounds is puzzling. Legality does not make something morally correct, and even within the church there are great differences of opinion in what is or is not sinful: drinking, dancing, swearing, playing cards, second marriages, birth control - the list goes on and on. Of course, all of those things are legal options for me, whether I agree or not.

Perhaps part of the problem is the failure to understand that the church and the state have different roles, which is why there must be "a wall of separation between church and state." Fortunately, we had reasonable voices at our founding as a nation that demanded protection of religious liberty. In a pluralistic society, church and state must disagree, as they have opposite roles. The state must ensure freedom and equality; in other words, they must not endorse one thing over another, they must not discriminate. It is the church's job to discriminate; they must uphold a specific code or creed as superior, by definition. A church can exclude persons from church membership based on action or even belief, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" can not refuse the same citizenship or rights based on creed.

Another recent challenge to the government (specifically, to the Affordable Care Act, more commonly called "Obamacare") from organized religion has been over the mandate that companies offer insurance, that they pay a portion of those premiums, and that those plans must include coverage for contraception. The Catholic Church, for example, opposes the use of contraception and has argued that forcing them, in effect, to pay for something they oppose is a violation of their religious liberty. The Supreme Court will soon announce a decision on this matter, and with it split so closely (5 conservatives and 4 liberals), it could go either way - but the argument itself does not hold water in either a historical (biblical) or a modern (legal) context.

As illustrated in the story above, Christ himself paid taxes that he knew were used in large part for things he did not condone. Quite plainly, an organization that claims to emulate Christ should do as he taught, to render unto Caesar what is Ceasar's, without expectation that the government do as they would have them do with those funds. While American colonialists were willing to kill to obtain independence from a system that taxed them without representation, this was not Christ's example; there was no hint of representation associated with the revenues collected for Rome, and yet he twice supported tax payment (and later Paul would urge obedience to the government and tax payment in the thirteenth chapter of Romans). Unlike the usual reply from the American mentality, Jesus did not respond with a concern for his own rights or a knee-jerk opposition to earthly authority.

The argument is also faulty on a modern basis, in that there are a number of Christian sects, especially Anabaptists, that promote pacifism and oppose violence. Yet, persons belonging to these sects must still pay the same taxes as everyone, even though approximately 20 percent of the budget goes to the defense department. In a time of war, that means that the monies paid by such groups is actually going to pay for the bombs and bullets that kill human beings, sometimes child civilians. There are numerous groups that oppose capital punishment, and yet some states will use a portion of state taxes paid for this purpose (it is not practiced in all states). There might be some conservative sect that opposes women working outside the home, but taxes paid by individuals with such beliefs may still be used by the state or even federal government on programs to advance career opportunities for women. In short, the concept of religious liberty does not prohibit another person, who may not share my views, from ever using funds I give them for some purpose I would condemn. No matter where you are on the political spectrum - liberal, conservative, moderate (and especially if libertarian) - I can guarantee that the government is doing something with your money that you would find repulsive. Even in the course of normal congressional elections (both state and federal), 49% of the voters may have chosen the other candidate, and thus do not approve of the winner's agenda, but everyone pays their salary, agreement or not.

The Violent Take it by Force

In no way am I suggesting that Christians should not be involved in political activism. Citizens of the United States, no matter their faith, enjoy freedoms almost unheard of through most of human history, and it would be rather discriminatory in itself to deny the voice of those aligned with a particular faith in a democratic republic. At the same time, we must be aware that others may have different views on a number of subjects, even within the very same congregation. Thus, what one person may see as an attack on his or her religion may be in complete alignment of another's understanding of the same religion. Disagreements can be had without tactics of intimidation.

As a case study, let us examine the controversy over Chick Fil A back in 2012. Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy, in a radio interview, expressed his views against same-sex marriage. Given his background, the philosophy of Chick Fil A as a company, and the conservative-Christian radio show Mr. Cathy was being interviewed on, the content (and even tone) of his comments should have surprised no one. While liberal groups and the mayor of Boston at the time suggested boycotts of Chick Fil A in response, even the ACLU (supportive of same-sex marriage) defended the rights of Mr. Cathy to believe (and speak) against same-sex marriage without fear of government interference or economic threats.
Yeah, not so much.

This would have been a great opportunity to have a meaningful national conversation, but it instead became a national shouting match. Mike Huckabee called for a "Chick Fil A Appreciation Day" (note: not appreciation of free speech or even religion, but of a corporation) that was, to be honest, intended as a show of force. The intended message was clear: the majority of people who eat here are in agreement against same-sex marriage, we outnumber you, we have more money. These supporters were not in the habit of appearing en masse to simply to defend the right of business leadership to decide its own message, as they certainly did not hold a World Partners Appreciation Day to defend their leadership's decision in 2014 to simply allow homosexuals to work there (quite the opposite). In both support and boycott, the "Christian" response was to flex their own muscle, their economic power, rather than show compassion.

In the Sermon on the Mount, believers are referred to as salt and as light. But salt does not compete with food, and there is certainly no mandate to overpower it. In the same way, some light is quite helpful, but it is also capable of causing blindness. There is no mandate for Christians to collectively throw their weight around politically or economically to achieve dominion over the national culture. It is unfortunate that even faith is not immune from the pervasiveness of American culture, that almost instinctual response to conflict that says, "I'll show you". It's the same attitude expressed more coarsely by Toby Keith in his reactionary 2002 anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue". It's the American way.

Perhaps this explains the apparent fear behind various posts that I've seen predicting that the current majority - Christians, Caucasians, even speakers of English as a first language in some parts of the country - may soon become a statistical minority. At least on a subconscious level, we know how minorities have been treated. Like Macbeth, we fear that we may someday be the victim of the same sort of disrespect (if not disenfranchisement) that we have (at the least) allowed.

Kingdom v Kingdom

The relationship between the state, culture, and Christianity was of particular interest to 19th century Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard. In the "concluding unscientific" postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard argues that true faith (or, "religiousness") is inward, and as such can't be touched by cultural norms or restrictions. His words then (in 1846) retain a particular relevance to the state of religion today.
S. Kierkegaard
"When at times religiousness in the Church and state has wanted legislation and police as an aid in protecting itself against the comic [critic], this may be very well intentioned; but the question is to what extent the ultimate determining factor is religious, and it does the comic an injustice to regard it as an enemy of the religious. The comic is no more an enemy of the religious - which, on the contrary, everything serves and obeys - then the dialectical. But the religiousness that essentially lays claim to outwardness, essentially makes outwardness commensurable, certainly must watch its step and fear more for itself (that it does not become esthetic) than fear the comic, which could legitimately help it to open its eyes."
Simply put, reducing religion to a set of cultural positions is already admitting defeat. Yes, it is nice to live in a nation where faith is protected (and Kierkegaard certainly approved of the concept of separation of church and state), but faith is untouchable by earthly authorities. It does not require that the government agree, that we pay no taxes, or that we not face any conflict for our beliefs. It certainly does not require that we impose our will on those who believe differently.

Again referencing the Sermon on the Mount, Christ instructed that, should a Roman soldier command you to walk a mile (likely carrying armor or some other load for him, as was the rule at the time), that the response was not to fight the power (as tempting as that is), but to "walk with him two". Not only would refusal to walk the first mile be against the law, but using one's religious beliefs to get out of some obligation (including the Affordable Care Act) could easily be seen as convenient - perhaps the "conviction" was manufactured simply to get out of having to pay one's fair share. However, if due to our convictions we do more than required, or serve where there is no gain to ourselves, how is this not a greater impression?

Or, more directly, why is it that (some) faith-based organizations can throw millions toward specific candidates or to efforts to pass some legislation it sees as favorable (or to defeat legislation it does not approve of), much of which amounts to nothing (especially if their side should lose), yet not provide for those in need (especially non-Christians)? Perhaps the Church is not here to serve itself?

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