In the past several weeks, I have thrice engaged in a political argument over what constitutes the relation between Christianity (or the church) and the nation-state. What is the responsibility of the Christian to the nation? What place, if any, does patriotism have for the Christian? What is the role of the church vis-à-vis the country, specifically the United States?
In the two most recent discussions, I heard a rebuttal argument in which Mark 12:17 was quoted, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (cf. Matt 22:21 and Luke 20:25). It seems that -- surprise, surprise -- evangelicals are engaging in some rather atrocious eisegesis regarding this passage. The assumption (correlated with Romans 13, to which we will return later) is that Christians owe "Caesar" (i.e., the President and the nation as a whole) something far beyond the mere paying of taxes and hospitable co-existence with others which the passage clearly indicates. Jesus merely says that we owe other people what justifiably belongs to them. The question which must be asked at that point is: so what belongs to Caesar?
Evangelicals (understood as a general body of socio-political conservatives who are at least quasi-fundamentalist in theology) have failed to ask this question from a critically realistic theological perspective. Instead, they have allowed others to answer the question for them. By and large, this has been done by the Religious Right. What belongs to Caesar? Traditionally, our minds, bodies, and hearts: our minds in ideological conformity to Republican platforms, our bodies in military service, and our hearts in patriotic loyalty. Even if some evangelicals challenge the intellectual-ideological conformity, most still follow the herd in giving over their bodies and hearts.
What is interesting is that most entirely miss the conflict to which Jesus was speaking. The usual interpretation goes like this: Jewish people were under the authority of a ruler who was Roman and, more than likely, unfair and cruel to Jews. Jesus presented people who were disgruntled with Caesar with the messianic possibility of a different political kingdom. Evangelicals, by and large, recognize this much. The usual conclusion is that because Jesus was not an earthly messiah figure and was "merely" inaugurating a heavenly kingdom, Jesus fully authorized the authority of Caesar. Thus, with this interpretation, Christians are able to justify the division of the human into an inner soul which belongs to God and an outer body which belongs to the nation-state. But this interpretation focuses on the idea that Jesus presented a desired escape from Caesar's authority to Jews who were praying for a return of the Maccabees or, better yet, the true Messiah. Of course, all of this is true; Jews were indeed in such a predicament. But that does not exhaust the argument over who has authority.
Those who followed Jesus realized that if he indeed is the Messiah, the Lord, the true King of the Jews, then all other political authority is rendered null and void. This will indeed be the case in the eschaton. Jesus, however, was unwilling to allow the kingdom of heaven to become equatable with some earthly reality at that time in history, so he instead offers a kind of two-kingdom perspective in which those who, eschatologically speaking, belong to Christ's now-and-coming kingdom remain also a part of the earthly kingdoms (empires) which demand a certain level of support and participation from its citizens to remain in a state of healthy existence. Jesus does not say that worldly empires such as Rome and the United States are on a equal level of authority with God's kingdom. Far from it! Jesus simply denies the desire among people to escape the reality within which they live. People want to be brought to a "better place," an otherworldly existence which can free them from the need to be responsible parents, friends, lovers, workers, and citizens. Jesus denies them this escapist mentality. Instead, he tells them to give what belongs to the worldly authorities, while giving to God what belongs to God now.
Just because God's now-and-coming kingdom is not a natural or immanent kingdom that would directly challenge earthly empires does not then mean that it has no earthly consequences for those who identify themselves with Christ. God's kingdom is eschatological, and thus it is this-worldly in the truest sense: encompassing not just individuals, communities, and nations, but also the whole created realm. And by encompassing the cosmic order, God's kingdom has a telos that involves our being responsible citizens now even though all authority belongs to the God who orders this universe and determines its future through divine involvement in the here-and-now. As Bonhoeffer so eloquently states: "God is beyond in the midst of our life."
What evangelicals do not realize is that these first century followers of Jesus got part of the picture right: they understood the political ramifications of calling Jesus their Lord. But they did not know God's ultimate and cosmic plan to redeem the creation. If they had had a more robust eschatology, they would have recognized that to be a part of this cosmic redemption means that one must be faithful and responsible to this world and the people within it. As Luther said, and I paraphrase, if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would go out and plant a tree. One could paraphrase this using Jesus' statement: If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would go out and pay my taxes.
I should make mention here of Romans 13. Despite Paul's misleading language about political authorities as "God's servants" who are here "to do you good" -- which is often manifestly not the case -- Paul's point is the same as Jesus'. Paul writes at the end of the section, "Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." The point is not whether these authorities are really God's servants; it is simply that we, as responsible people, must give what we owe our political leaders. Paul is speaking thusly because the message of the gospel and the expected return of Jesus in a short period of time gave people a theological justification for avoiding all responsibilities. It's like hearing that the world is going to end tomorrow, and consequently "living it up" until that day arrives. Paul countered this by arguing that these leaders are part of God's plan, not obstacles to it. So to forego our responsibilities is to live in disobedience to God. We are not constrained by Romans 13 to view our representatives in Washington D.C. or elsewhere as actually God's ordained servants. They are only these servants insofar as we recognize that the continuation of this world is not a threat to God's eschatological plan but rather a part of it, since God is in the process of redeeming this creation. God has not ordained individuals to be in office -- just like God does not have an individual plan for each of our lives -- but God has ordained these offices and whoever fills them to be a part of the divine project for all creation.
[Parenthetically, Paul faced a similar overactive eschatology with the Corinthian church, in which people were so expectant of an imminent parousia that they discarded with social customs and propriety, because they had the idea that the resurrection had already occurred with the coming of the Holy Spirit -- thus they could do what they wanted, since the end had arrived. Hence Paul's rebuke and critical eschatology in 1 Cor. 15, in which he emphasizes that resurrection only comes later, beyond death, and thus we must wait in hope.]
Suffice it to say, being a "good citizen" and rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's has nothing to do with loyalty or patriotism or nationalism. Nor does it mean recognizing the President as an authority worthy of our religious affirmation. If the President deserves praise, it must be on purely political merits and such praise can have nothing to do with ecclesial approval or support. This is a significant point, and Barth is the one to read on this matter. Barth was quite justifiably appalled at the way his former professors of theology and most church men and women gave religious approval to the German state during the First and Second World Wars. What he saw was a problem that ran consistently through the major theological issues of his time: natural theology.
What all natural theology has in common is the belief that God can be known or identified based on things in this world, immanent to creation. Out of this arose the concept of "general revelation," which views the natural world as a way to knowledge of God which can provide basic foundational truths -- e.g., there is a God, God is the creator, God is one, etc. In socio-political terms, natural theology identifies the will or purposes of God with immanent structures and realities. The most heinous example was the "Christian" justification for Nazism based on the identification of "God's people" with the German race. Anytime we equate "God's people" or "God's will" with anything that is outside the sphere of God's reconciliation in Jesus Christ, we have transgressed the limits set by the affirmation: Jesus is Lord. Barth thus felt that what is far worse than Christians serving in the military is the service of Christian chaplains in the military. The presence of chaplains is a religious approval of what the nation-state carries out through its military force. Chaplains justify what a nation does through worldly force with the stamp of divine affirmation. The only allowable Christian presence in the military is a Christian who has no illusions that what he or she is doing has anything to do with God, the church, or his or her "Christian duty."
The idea that we can read off of history what God's purposes are for the world is a modern-day heresy. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, et al., are the leaders of these heretics. The moment we say that we can read God's judgment off of AIDS or a tsunami, we have fallen into the trap of the devil. The moment we say that what the United States does in the Middle East -- whether in the creation of the state of Israel or in the destruction of an Iraqi regime -- is part of God's eternal plan, we are speaking words of judgment upon ourselves. The moment we sign up for the Army with the belief that we are furthering God's kingdom, we are in sin. The moment we preach that voting for a specific ballot measure is what God commands the church to do, we are perverting and distorting the gospel.
Evangelicals are the modern-day Israelites: they want a king to set up alongside the only true King, Jesus Christ. Israel wanted to have worldly authority, and modern evangelicals want the same -- both are versions of Christendom and are perversions of the gospel. There is only a thin line separating the beliefs of Pat Robertson and those of the Religious Right from Adolf Hitler. Both have identified the "Christian message" with their own particular ideology. The only thing separating them is a different political structure and their own place of power. Evangelicals in America need to see the light. They have set up their golden calves -- Republicanism, capitalism, consumerism, militarism -- as competitors or even substitutes for God; even worse, they have identified God with their ideologies. As a result, they worship what Barth calls the No-God of this world. And thus they are under God's judgment.