What Exactly Belongs to Caesar?, Or, The Heresy of Modern Evangelicalism

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.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the very thought-provoking post. I agree with you on many points, but I am left with a few questions:

How do you explain/reconcile your description the other-worldliness of fundamental evangelicalism (Tim LaHaye, the Gaither Vocal Band) with its this-worldly political agenda (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell)?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the idea that you mention that God does not have a plan for the lives of individuals. I was raised in an environment that strongly endorses this position, and I see no reason to refute it (other than abuses – which doesn’t really constitute an argument against the idea itself.)

How would a Christian go about separating their ideology from the "Christian message" if their ideology is formed around their understanding of the Christian message? Is your ideology not formed around your understanding of the Christian message? Or would you claim that you do not have an ideology?

You rightly pointed out the irony in fundagelicalism: its other-worldliness and this-worldliness. I would characterize their theology in this way. Fundagelicals are Gnostic natural theologians. They are Gnostics in terms of eschatology, but natural theologians in terms of their knowledge of God and the world. This is actually not a contradiction. And one could easily make the case that they are simply Gnostic through and through, since ancient and modern Gnosticism roots its knowledge of God in personal experience -- the experience of a harsh world and one's inward spirituality. And "inwardness" leads easily toward identifying what makes up one's inward personality (e.g., white, Republican, rich, etc.) and then projecting these characteristics onto one's religious devotion. The result: American fundamentalist evangelicalism.

Regarding a personal will for individuals, you should read Garry Friesen's Decision Making and the Will of God. This is not a recent work, but it's argument remains relevant. The point of this book is that the biblical witness does not present evidence for a specific divine plan for individuals, but instead a moral will of God for all humanity. The proper way for Christians to make decisions is to seek to embody biblical wisdom. Thus, we ought to make a decision on our own (not trying to discern "God's will") and trust God to guide us in the way of wisdom.

No Christian should ever accept an ideology uncritically. The ideal is, of course, to excise ideology from our lives altogether. Ideology is essentially the divinization of some human concept or belief. The cross of Christ stands over against all ideology. That is why I cannot identify myself with Republicans or Democrats, with capitalism or socialism.
Chris King said…
Thanks for the reply. Unfortunately the rather lengthy Friesen book is rather low on my reading list, so it's not likely that I'll get around to reading it soon. However, after my perusal of it on amazon.com, I did have a couple of thoughts.

I am fairly comfortable with the idea that God does not have a perfect will for each individual upon which we should try to conform our decisions. I agree that our decisions should be based upon biblical wisdom and the moral will of God. I do not find, however, that this rules out the idea that I find in Pauline writing (eg. Eph. 4) implying that there are individual callings and giftings. I think that if God gave some as apostles, some as prophets, etc., then there is a sense in which we can say that God has a calling for individuals, or a plan, that can be differentiated from a "perfect will" that involves all of our decisions. I haven't as of yet, though, figured out how that all works out.
I think we can definitely say that each person is created with specific gifts and callings, but what I don't think we can do is then extrapolate from this the hypothesis that God has ordained exactly what each person will do in life. This is divine determinism à la Calvin. The idea of a divine plan for each individual is always deterministic. What we need to hold on to firmly is the realization that God gives people time and space to act freely. This is the essence of creation and what it means to be created.

A major problem with the idea of divine determinism is that it is always determinism after the fact. So if someone gets elected into office, we can say, "That was God's will." But if someone else had been elected, we can say the same. We see this throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites won a victory and saw this as the hand of God. If they lost, this was divine judgment upon them. This view may be recorded in Scripture, but that does not automatically mean that it accords with the concept of God that the rest of the biblical narrative provides. I realize divine determinism is part of some people's doctrine of God, but most people have left this behind for very good reasons.
Chris King said…
Right. I really like this Barth quote that I found via Gunton:

“We define God’s patience as his will, deep-rooted in his essence and constituting his divine being and action to allow another…space and time for the development of its own existence, thus conceding to this existence a reality side by side with his own, and fulfilling his will towards this other in such a way that He does not suspend and destroy it as this other but accompanies and sustains and allows it to develop in freedom.”

My hypothesis would be that as an individual conforms to the moral will of God, the giftings and calling of that individual become more instantiated in his/her life, not as determined, but as a fullness of purpose opening up for that person's life.

At any rate, I thought I'd try to clarify my position for the sake of any comments I may make on upcoming universalism blogs. I am very interested in your approach, for a large part of my rejection of universalism thus far has to do with the determinism of many universalist arguments.
So, when Barth served in the Swiss guard during the border tension with Nazi Germany, was he doing so without any thought of it being his Christian duty? I do not believe that this was the case. How might we reconcile these things?
Jason said…
Thanks for directing me to this post; good stuff.

It has often struck me just how subversive Jesus' saying is. I don't think it is -- as some would say -- a prescription for being 'good citizens' at all. Jesus says 'whose image is this [on this coin]?' The answer is 'Caesar's'. He responds as you indicate -- give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's. The unstated premise here is that we know what belongs to whom by their image being imprinted upon the thing. And then the next question is: if the coin is imprinted with Caesar's image and belongs to Caesar, then what is imprinted with the image of God and belongs to God? Humans, of course, were made in the image of God.

It is in realising, I think, that the whole of our lives are the gift of God, and in giving them (back, away) in imitation of the gratuity of God, that (in large part) the already/ not yet Kingdom of God comes.

I think that the extent that we think Jesus is here laying out a cool, dispassionate treatise on how to be good citizens of the nation-state and good citizens of an otherworldly, apolitical heaven is the extent to which we fail to grasp what he means.