In Response to Comments…

I really appreciate the folks that have dropped comments on my obscure little blog. Let me take a moment to respond to some of what you’ve said.

In the “On Not Voting” post, d.eris writes: “How would you read “render unto Caesar” in this context? As paying the tax and casting the ballot? Or paying the tax and casting off the ballot?”

caesars-image1Since the Gospel writers were in an imperial context, far different than a modern representative democracy, this matter of Christian political engagement won’t have an easy “chapter and verse” kind of answer to it. I kind of get why some folks think “rendering unto Caesar” means something like “doing what the government encourages you to do–short of obvious sin,” but I can’t make that leap myself.

Here’s the full context in Mark 12:

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.

The first thing to note is that Jesus was answering this question in a religious environment where it was a very hot topic.  Tax collectors were often viewed as collaborating with a hostile pagan government, and it was no secret that tax money would, in part, go to fund the armies which kept Israel from independence and freedom.  Since land and nationhood were some of the foundational promises of the Bible, it was pretty easy to construe payment of taxes as working directly against the plans of God.  On the other side, you had the folks who thought that cooperation really was the best thing, that God establishes all political leadership, and he must have, for his own reasons, elected Caesar to rule the chosen people for the time being.  Under this view, God is moving our money to Rome as part of his discipline, and we should accept that.   So they are asking Jesus a question designed to make him choose one side or the other.  Are you with the rebels or the collaborators?  You can imagine the consequence to his ministry if he actually makes that choice.  It’s going to hard to keep both Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot in his band of Twelve.  It’s a wonder those guys get along, anyway.

Instead of accepting the dichotomy as it was presented, Jesus reframes the whole issue:

“Who’s face is on that coin?”

“Caesar’s.”

“Well, then, it’s his money, anyway.  Give that to him and give God whatever has God’s image on it.”

Instead of taking a pro-Rome or anti-Rome stance, Jesus downplays the significance of taxes as a sign of political loyalty or resistance.   That stuff?  It’s not yours or God’s anyway.  There’s nothing riding on what you do with it.  Just give it back to Rome.

The second half of the sentence is incredibly under-emphasized in current teaching.  “Give to God what is God’s.”  This is what Jesus is really concerned with–that those who are made in the image of God, (human persons) are given to God.   I take this to mean that the state should be welcome to my money–it’s spiritually dangerous for me to hold on to that stuff anyway–but they can’t have me.  This is one reason that I side with people who are wary of Christians joining the military.  When the State gets my body to do with as it pleases, I’ve moved an icon of God into Caesar’s control.  And I don’t want my personhood compromised in the political machinations of the State, either, so I shun voting.

I think Philippians 3 should be carefully read in this regard.  Philippi is an incredibly pro-Roman society. (Remember their shout that “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice”?) Paul tells them that “their citizenship is in heaven.”  Not Rome.  Heaven.

George Washington can have anything with his picture on it.  Fine by me.  But he doesn’t get the stuff with God’s picture on it.  My personhood is off limits.  I belong to another.

How far do I with go with this?  My wife was fired once for abstaining from reciting the pledge of allegiance.  (Sorry, we only have room for one ultimate loyalty at a time.)  Refuse to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar and he can get awfully upset.

On a different note altogether:

In response to “I Thought Only Protestants Could Be This Cheesy,” David writes: “I cannot see what you’re trying to show. Can you tell me what it is? Before you hold off converting to Catholicism (if you were serious, there) please try to learn what the Church really teaches. There’s no doubt bad Catholics, just like there’s bad everything else. Don’t let Catholics give Catholicism a bad name. Please let me know if there’s something I can do to help here.”

Your helpfulness and kind spirit are much appreciated, David!  Here’s where I am in relation to Catholicism–after a long time of your standard Protestant anti-Catholic indoctrinations and distortions, when I started reading Catholics on my own, I was increasingly impressed with them.  There’s a lot of depth in the Catholic tradition that was sadly lacking from my own spiritual formation, and I’ve benefited tremendously from acquainting myself better with Catholic thought and history.  I now have a huge spiritual crush on Teresa of Avila, whose insight shouldn’t have surprised me, but did.  Still, I was teasing about about converting.  I can’t quite get there.  Anglicanism, maybe, but I don’t see myself in Catholicism.  I am, though, a huge admirer of all I see that is healthy and good about the Catholic tradition, which is why it especially irks me when I see Catholic imitating the Protestant-style church marketing.  We’re the ones who have a tendency to be flippant and pseudo-witty with the sacred.  I really need you guys to keep modeling what reverence and respect ought to look like.  It’s the antiquity, the meaningful tradition, and the sense of the ineffable Other that draws me to your tradition.  Stuff like the cheesy Sham-Wow ad parody undercut the best things that Catholicism offers to the rest of us.

But if I ever decide to cross the Tiber, I’ll send you an email.

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