IS GOD AN AMERICAN?
by Dr. Gregory L. Hunt
In a message originally delivered July 4, Dr. Hunt speaks to our polarized "red state and blue state" nation. He asks us to consider the meaning of our citizenship in two kingdoms.
The "Herod Party" and the "Pharisee Party" had politics on their minds when they came to Jesus asking about that delicate intersection between personal faith and public life. Phrasing their question with a noose at either end, they waited for Jesus to hang himself with his response. A straight answer of any kind was guaranteed to alienate half of his followers.
"Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"
Twenty centuries have elapsed since that day when Jesus matched wits with a strange coalition of Roman loyalists and Rome's despisers. The question as put that day no longer heats the blood but, rephrased for our day, it still flashes like a freshly-lit match over gunpowder. Let's take a closer look at this encounter and Jesus words, considering what applications we might discover for our lives as individuals, as the people of God, and as citizens of the United States of America.
First let's do a little background work, so as to more fully appreciate the parallels between the biblical context and our context today. For all the distance of time and differences of culture, some common themes link then and now.
For one thing, a single unrivaled power dominated the political and military landscape of the day,one "superpower," you might say. In the 1st Century, that unrivaled power was the Roman Empire; today it's post-Cold-War U.S.A.
Second, a sense of manifest destiny prevailed. The people of the Roman Empire were saying, "The gods are on our side." Today, in its singular form, the same claim gets made frequently. Many insist that "God is on our side." You can hear this claim with regularity in the locker rooms of America, where athletes thank heaven for their latest victories. It's amazing how many teams God is rooting for! A sense of manifest destiny prevails today, just as it did then.
A third parallel between then and now has to do with how "the powers that were" counted on the endorsement of religious leadership. They knew that if they could have the support of religious leaders, it would add to their base of power, their strength, their influence. They spared no opportunity to connect with and use religion for political gain. It's not an accident that in our day, in a parallel universe, candidates for the presidency have themselves beamed in via satellite to religious bodies gathered for their summer conventions. Politicians use such occasions to signal their faith, thus strengthening their chances at the polls in November.
It is also true that as then, so now, they were and are edgy times. Dangers lurked around every corner, just as they do today. Consider, as we engage this text, that we live in the post-9/11 world. Terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 absolutely and forever altered the landscape of civilization. In this world, where terrorism looms large, and in this world, where those who thought they could deflate the spirit of American people have instead propelled a new wave of patriotism, the conversation we're about to have with Jesus is colored by both of those realities: the presence of terrorism and the upsurge in patriotism. It is also true that in this edgy time we're in a war. There are troops who are in harm's way.
To add to the edgy character of our time, we can acknowledge that religion is losing society's endorsement; the latest sign being the debate over whether to remove the phrase "one nation under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Parenthetically, it was only introduced in 1954, so it hasn't had an extremely long life.
It is also true in these edgy times, that we are going to have a presidential election this fall. A lot is being said, and a lot is at stake for us all.
Tally up the parallels between then and now: one super power, the sense that God is on our side, power plays between politics and religion, the edgy nature of the time. All of these parallels heighten our interest in the question put to Jesus and Jesus' reply.
Now look at who put the question. Herod's people and the Pharisee crowd came to ask this question. Consider who these two parties were. Herod was the Jewish monarch in the region whose power depended on Rome. To be Herod's person was to be a Roman Empire loyalist...a patriot, if you will. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were purists who, in their desire for purity, disliked all things gentile and were incensed that a gentile power held sway in that holy land. They were anti-administration. They were opponents. How odd that natural enemies would stand together on this occasion: Roman loyalists and Rome's despisers. One thing and one thing alone bound them together in their unholy compact: they shared an animosity toward Jesus. Together, they put the question to him; and, as the writer of the story tells us, they put the question to him to trip him up, to force him into an answer that would alienate at least half the crowd.
The question as they put it is this: "Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?" They were wondering: Will he jeopardize his ministry through civil disobedience and end up in jail or will he wrap himself in the flag - the flag of the Empire - and alienate opponents of the current administration? Those were the alternatives they saw, and they waited eagerly for his response. They thought they had him cornered. They thought they had come up with the perfect question. "Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
As usual, they underestimated the man they had come to defeat.
I am absolutely persuaded that he wasn't just looking at the crowd in general, but had his eyes on the Pharisees when he responded to their question with a question of his own. He looked around and asked, "Any of your guys got spare change in your pocket?" (That's not exactly how he put it, but that's the gist.) One of the Pharisees reached into his pouch and pulled out a denarius, the coin of the realm, and handed it to Jesus. Jesus held it up for a minute, and then said, "Whose image do you see on this coin?" Of course, the answer to Jesus' question was obvious. Dismissively, they responded, "The image on the coin is Caesar's."
Jesus now says, "Okay, you're right. Then give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's! Give unto God the things that are God's." That's his answer.
In one sense, Jesus is being ambiguous. In one sense he evades the question. They're amazed at his answer and they quit asking questions. This is the last of the debates held in the week in which Christ is ultimately crucified. But as he walks away scott free, he doesn't really leave things completely ambiguous. Linger very long over Jesus' answer, and you discover that by saying very little, he has said a lot.
The first thing he is saying is, "Don't be a hypocrite and condemn the very thing on which your life depends. You count on the coin of the realm for your daily life. How dare you pretend that you won't have anything to do with that realm! You're already involved up to your eyebrows!" An application for our day would be to say, "There is nothing sinful, there is nothing un-Christian, about being a patriot." It is okay on this day to wear red, white and blue. It is okay on this day to wave the flag. It is okay on this day to sing hymns of joy to the freedom we enjoy because of our forbears and because of this experiment in democracy that we are favored to enjoy. Not only is it okay--as citizens of this realm we owe it to the realm to do our part in the equation.
Stop and consider all of the ways our daily lives depend on our civic, state, and federal governments. The food you're going to eat today was inspected because of government regulations and people who are paid by the government to see that it is good food and not bad. If you were to get sick today, you would count on some of the support that comes from this government to pay bills that would be astronomical and beyond your reach otherwise. It doesn't matter where you turn or what you do, you cannot move one square inch without feeling the impact of this culture and this government. Do you want to drive from point A to point B? The roads that will take you there exist because the government, through our taxes, underwrites the cost of them. We could go on and on. We owe an allegiance to the realms of this world. "Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," Jesus says.
Jesus doesn't stop there. He goes on to say, "Give unto God the things that are God's." We owe certain things to this realm, but we also owe certain things to God.
How about that for understatement? Not only do we owe some allegiance to God; we owe first allegiance to God. God is Lord. God has a kingdom claim. God has a prior claim. How does Jesus put it? "Seek first the kingdom of God and all of these things shall be added to you." It is not a matter of passing historical interest that our faith forebears were willing to put their lives on the line to say that God was first. The original confession of the Christian community was stated in a context where to make that confession was to put one's job, one's family, and even one's life on the line. In a world where Caesar demanded that it be said, "Caesar is Lord," the early followers of Jesus Christ declared that "Jesus is Lord." Our primary allegiance is to God.
Consider this, as well. When Jesus says, "Give unto God the things that are God's," he is affirming that God is Lord not only of our nation, but of all nations. On this day when we raise the flag and send up fireworks, we do so recognizing that God is for all of humanity, not just for us. We resist the temptation to suggest that we have exclusive national rights to God's favor. We acknowledge that he's not just on our side; he's for every human being on the face of the earth. He loves us with an undying love. He loves us whether we are American or European or African or Semitic. He loves us whether we are black or white or pink or orange or purple. He loves us whatever language we speak. He loves us in every culture in which we find ourselves. He seeks us and He loves us. He is for us all.
From the calling of Abraham to the Great Commission, ours has been an international--a global--mission. Abraham heard God say, "Through you shall all peoples across the face of the earth be blessed." The followers of Jesus who met him on the mountaintop before his ascension heard him say, "Go, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing, teaching, knowing that I am with you all the way." In Acts we have a version that says, "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth." When Jesus says, "Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; give unto God the things that are God's," he is inviting us to declare that our first loyalty presses beyond all boundaries to make its global appeal.
We must forever fight the Christian American temptation to slip across the pale from healthy patriotism to dangerous, civil religion.
What is civil religion? Civil religion is what happens when religion and society,or to put it very specifically in our time, when church and state,use each other to gain an unholy edge. It happens in all kinds of ways, and it happens all the time. Civil religion is what you get when the secular world wraps itself up in the symbols and rituals of faith to reinforce its position, its popularity, and its power. Elected officials constantly seek to do that. They love to show up in sanctuaries on Sunday mornings and parade their faith. They love to get the endorsements of religious bodies.
Just this last week we got a phone call from somebody who asked us to do voter registration during a special event, and they finally confessed that they were Republicans, looking to do church voter registration where they would more likely get Republicans registered to vote. I don't know about you, but I don't think it's our business to advantage one political party over another. I don't know about you, but I don't think you have to be a Republican to be a Christian. I don't think you have to like George Bush to be a Christian. I don't think you have to be a Democrat to believe in social justice. The fact of the matter is, not only is God not American, but he's neither Republican nor Democrat. Nor is he a Green Party partisan. When public officials use religious bodies to gain a political edge, they step across the line into dangerous civil religion.
Civil religion also occurs when religion uses the power and authority of the state to get its way. Consider, for instance, the current debate over the Pledge of Allegiance. I gladly affirm that we are one nation under God. That's the truth, whether everyone in our nation is willing to admit it or not. But what do we gain by fighting to preserve that language? It comes across as little more than a desperate effort to cling to the vestiges of power in an increasingly pluralistic society. When civil religion absorbs and takes for its own use our genuine, authentic confessions of faith, it steals the life out of them, it steals the vitality out of true confession. It removes faith's bite. It becomes a kind of soft generic substitute for the sharp witness of Jesus, who stood toe to toe with the powers that be and spoke of a higher power still. We must resist the temptation, as people of faith, to ask the government to advantage us in any way. This applies to prayer in public schools, the posting of the Ten Commandments, the use of private school vouchers, and others. All of those are simply little side issues against the central backdrop of the Great Commission of Christ to bring transformation into people's lives.
The honest truth is, free societies have always been the most effective context for the Gospel. We don't need assistance from the government to carry the day when it comes to the Gospel of Christ. We don't have to use coercion. We cannot coerce faith. We cannot coerce conscience.
We need to be careful about how we use the power of the state even to coerce behavior. Some things are immoral according to Biblical faith that aren't illegal, and to attempt to make them illegal will not change anything meaningfully. Joy Davidson, C.S. Lewis' wife and a fine writer and thinker in her own right, once wrote, "Two thousand years of failure haven't taught some reformers that you can't stop sin by declaring it illegal. Two thousand years have not taught them that you can't save a man's soul by force. You can only lose your own in the attempt."
Here's a great paradox to understand: When religion uses the power and authority of the state to get its own way, it weakens rather than strengthens its position. The failure to understand this paradox is one of the reasons the old world is indeed a post-Christian world. The state church ends up in the pocket of the state and loses its moral authority. It becomes toothless. As maddening as it may feel sometimes to live in our pluralistic culture today, we're in a good environment, in an atmosphere of freedom, to make our case. It's a case that, given the opportunity, still proves powerfully compelling.
Christ's gospel doesn't rest comfortably in anybody's pocket: not in civil authority's pocket; not in any one nation's pocket; not in any one political party's pocket; not in any one advocacy group's pocket. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. None of these other authorities are lords of the Gospel. Jesus is.
Well, Jesus poses the question, "Whose coin is this?" and in response to their question ("Taxes to Caesar or not?") he gives us plenty to think about. Folks, let's be discriminating citizens because, you see, we are citizens of two kingdoms: a kingdom of this world, and,first and foremost,the kingdom of God. May He know our loyalty first and best. And may we with that loyalty, have minds and hearts as big as the globe.