Rendering unto Caesar


The famous statement by Jesus to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar'’s, and unto God the things that are God's" has often been used by some Christians to justify the position that religion and politics are separate worlds that don't mix. One unfortunate implication of this for many Christians has been a belief that following Jesus bears no connection with, and makes no implication of, a commitment to social justice.

I've been reading the book The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, which offers a commentary on the account of Jesus's last week in Jerusalem, as depicted in the Gospel of Mark. Borg and Crossan have argued that Jesus's mission incorporated a committed nonviolent opposition to the "domination system" of imperial Rome. As they point out, Jesus's famous saying only serves to ask another question--what exactly is Caesar's, and what is God's?

My traditional response to this question was to ask those who believed that religious considerations should stay out of politics what they think happens when the realms of Caesar and of God overlap. To suggest, for example, that politics never has moral implications, is clearly nonsense. In fact, almost everyone understands that political policy is rife with moral implications; regardless of where one fits on the political spectrum, issues concerning (to cite a few examples from current political controversies) abortion, capital punishment, war, torture clearly matter on a deeply moral level, which in turn involves a person of faith's understanding of God's will. Obviously, many people have opposing understanding of God's will on these issues, but the point still remains that they believe that God cares about what political decisions are made.

Borg and Crossan, however, make a slightly different point. Rather than arguing that Caesar's and God's realms overlap, they point out that in the Judaism of Jesus's time, it was frequently believed that everything belonged to God. Thus there was nothing that belonged to Caesar, while everything belonged to God. They write:

For Jesus and many of his Jewish contemporaries, everything belongs to God. So their sacred scripturaffirmeded. The land of Israel belongs to God--recall Leviticus 25:23, which says that all are tenant farmers or resident aliens on land that belongs to God....Indeed, the whole earth belongs to God: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof (Ps. 24:1). What belongs to Caesar? The implication is, nothing.
This takes the matter further than I had considered before. And it does raise a valid point.

The danger, of course, in believing that everything belongs to God and nothing to Caesar is that this philosophy can easily turn into a justification for theocracy. In fact, the whole question of the separation of church and state is an important one, because as a result of the rise of the Religious Right in the United States, there has been a concerted effort at breaking down the wall of separation between church and state.

Yet, ironically, it is precisely those wishing to push the country in a more theocratic direction who are the ones with an ideology that is opposed to the social justice message of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. Indeed, this push for theocracy coincides with the pursuit of injustice--from tax policies that favor the rich, to the suppression of human rights, to the expansion of empire and war overseas.

Thus saying that the everything belongs to God is not the same as endorsing theocracy. In fact, the coinciding of religious authority with political authority was often the source of resentment among prophetic voices in biblical times. The Hasmonean leadership that preceded the arrival of the Roman empire, for example, merged political and priestly authority into the Hasmonean family in ways that rankled many Jews who adhered to the prophetic traditions, and who saw these actions as a perversion of their religious traditions. And Borg and Crossan have argued that the collaborationist religious leadership who were appointed by Roman authorities and who served imperial interests during the time of Jesus were a similar example of this sort of merging of theocratic power with political power in ways that advanced the cause of what they call the "domination system"--instead of Jewish traditions.

Theocracy has less to do with any understanding of the omnipresent role of God in the world, and more to do with the establishment of temporal power for religious authorities. It is a way of creating a religious form of "domination system". Instead of expressing the will of God, it ultimately contravenes it.

The separation of church and state does not imply that religion has nothing to do with politics. Religion has, I believe, everything to do with politics. But its role in politics takes place within the context of individual conscience, and with individuals working together with other people of faith acting independently and freely. This is completely different from formally or constitutionally merging religious and political power.

Theocracy, furthermore, does a disservice to the diversity of religious expression that arises inevitably in human societies. It funnels the the process of understanding God's will into a limited perspective that denies the myriad ways in which human societies have struggled to listen to the Divine voice. It equates, falsely, God's will with a single human interpretation of it. It ignores the incomplete and metaphorical nature of the human conception of the Ultimate reality. It uses an authoritarian conception of God's nature and actions in the world at the expense any appreciation for a co-creative and responsive nature of God's actions in the world, as a justification for the very kind of "domination system" that prophetic voices have endeavored to oppose.

Much of the current "domination systems" in the world can and do exist without theological justification, of course. Economic exploitation and war are tools by which those who control the "domination systems" serve their interests. Public policy that serves the exigencies of the profit motive and the interests of those who control the engines of wealth may have merged with the theology of the Religious Right in American politics, but it need not have done so. The "domination system" ultimately serves as its own justification.

For people of faith, however, the question remains as to how they will address this "domination system" that Borg and Crossan describe. Will they, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, "learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow"? (1:17) Or will they simply sit on their hands and claim that to do so would not be rendering until Caesar the things that are Caesar's?