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The Christ of the Fifth Way: Recovering the Politics of Jesus, Part IV: The Things That Are Caesar’s

Over the past three days I have attempted to show that Jesus’ kingdom announcement, when grasped in historical context, leads to certain radical political conclusions. The New Testament witness, I have argued, is in fact highly subversive of political authority, involving concern for matters of economic justice and social equality and giving rise to a community of nonviolent nonconformity with power. Against this reading, though, some scholars have quoted Jesus’ aphorism, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17). According to Geza Vermes, the saying indicates that Jesus was not concerned with the burning political matters of his day but remained a wandering, apolitical sage who only accidentally and somewhat naïvely stumbled into conflict with the Jerusalem authorities. Didn’t Jesus also say “My kingdom is not of this world”?
The Things That Are Caesar’s
Vermes’s reading of Jesus as apolitical rustic rabbi fails, however, to satisfactorily explain many of Jesus’ words and actions or to adequately explain why he was finally executed on the legal charge of sedition against the empire. When Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world he does not mean that his kingdom has nothing to do with this world or matters of power, violence, and injustice; he means that his kingdom does not derive its tactics, platform or goals from any of the competing political movements of his day, and particularly from the zealots: “If my kingdom were of this world my servants would fight …but my kingdom is not from here” (John 18.36 NKJV, emphasis mine). Nor is “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” an abstract teaching about the separation of political and religious matters. The aphorism is Jesus’ answer to a specific, historically-inscribed trap devised by a group of Pharisees and Herodians, whose goal is to force Jesus into one of their rival camps.
The trap comes in the form of a question that appears to admit only one of two answers: Should Jews pay the poll tax to Caesar? If Jesus says they should pay the tax, he will have compromised with the Roman occupiers and betrayed his people. If he says that it is not right to pay the tax, he will have openly defied Caesar’s authority and be guilty of sedition along the lines of the zealots. But Jesus’ does not take either path in this false dichotomy. Instead, he deftly transcends and subverts the question. His reply contains irony, non-cooperation, indifference and even scorn. Bring me a denarius, he tells his inquisitors (Mark 12.15), showing that he is not himself in possession of “Lord Mammon” while at the same time forcing his questioners to reveal that they are the compromised bearers of Caesar’s image and divine title. Whose image and inscription is this?, Jesus then asks, as if he did not know. So it is the Pharisees and Herodians, not Jesus, who are forced to bear recognition to Caesar in the story. When told that the image is Caesar’s (v.16), Jesus at last declares that Caesar can keep his idolatrous scraps of metal: “Render to Caesar the things that Caesar’s”. But what are the things that truly belong to Caesar? Does Caesar have the right to wage wars, to impoverish nations and to inflict violence on God’s people? Not at all, Jesus’ listeners would have understood. Lord Caesar has no claim whatsoever on any human being; for human beings, unlike coins, are made in the image of God.
But what about the Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 13 that God has ordained secular rulers as agents of his will, as “avengers” who do “not bear the sword for nothing” (v.3)? Do Paul’s letters—the oldest texts in the New Testament canon—in some way contradict, invalidate or “balance” Jesus’ seemingly more radical words and actions in the Gospels, which were written some 40 years later? According to Martin Luther, the book of Romans is the New Testament’s definitive statement on Christian politics, and it shows that we must serve God “inwardly” and the secular authorities “outwardly”. “Therefore, should you see that there is a lack of hangmen,” Luther wrote in 1523, “and find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the place”. Protestants have been offering their services ever since. (Catholics had a head start beginning with Constantine in the 4th century.)
Yet Romans 13, Luther failed to see, is part of the same literary unit as Chapter 12, which ends with these words: “Repay no evil for evil…Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12.17-21). Next come the instructions about submitting to earthly authorities. But, lest there be any doubt on the matter, Paul returns to the theme of Christian nonviolence, driving his point home with systematic rigor. First, he instructs believers to render to all their due (13.7). Then he says that believers should owe no one anything except love (13.8). Next he defines what love is: “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (13.10).
Read carefully, and in historical context, Paul is telling the early Christians in Rome, in the face of increasing persecution by a brutal and tyrannical pagan regime, to assume a nonviolent, non-rebellious stance as their reconciling ministry. He is also telling believers to trust in God’s controlling power over history. God can use the secular authorities and their pagan armies for his own redemptive purposes and, ironically, even as instruments of his justice. That is God’s power and prerogative. But there is not one word in Romans—or anywhere else in Paul’s writings—to suggest that believers should volunteer to serve in Assyrian, Egyptian or Roman legions, or that violence is an acceptable tool for followers of the Way. Quite the opposite, Romans 13 makes clear: Christians are called to a different path. And it is precisely the political character of this path that explains the regularity and persistence of both Roman and Jewish persecution of the Jesus movement during the first three centuries of its growth. “Mere belief—acceptance of certain propositional statements—is not enough to elicit such violence,” N.T. Wright points out. “People believe all sorts of odd things and are tolerated. When, however, belief is regarded as an index of subversion, everything changes. The fact of widespread persecution, regarded by both pagans and Christians as the normal state of affairs within a century of the beginnings of Christianity, is powerful evidence of the sort of thing that Christianity was, and was perceived to be.”
Conclusion: The Christ of the Fifth Way
When we strip away the layers of ritual, culture and abstract theology that have accreted to the Gospels over the past two thousand years, we thus find that although Jesus did not fit into any of the rival political categories or ideologies of his day—although he did not “run with the hares or hunt with the hounds” in Wright’s words —he was nevertheless deeply, in fact centrally, concerned with politics: with questions of power, money, allegiance and violence, and with the liberation of human beings from all forms of oppression, social and political as well as individual. For Jesus, the things that are God’s are not otherworldly things—the heretical, earth-denying claim of the Gnostics—but precisely this-worldly matters—matters of justice, mercy and community. Jesus’ political stance, Jacques Ellul and Vernard Eller convincingly argue, may best be described as that of an anarchist—not anarchist in the popular sense of advocating destruction of property or the violent overthrow of governments (as in Linda Damico’s reading), but in the root sense of the word: an arche: no rulers, no dominion but God’s alone.
The anarchist dimension of Christian discipleship does not remove but in many ways heightens the demands of citizenship in a secular polity since service to God cannot be separated from loving service to humanity, and because violent resistance to “Lord Caesar” is no longer an option. Still, “We must be faithful in our own way,” Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “even if the world understands such faithfulness as disloyalty.” A church that does not stand “against the world” in fundamental ways, Yoder points out, “has nothing worth saying to and for the world.” Followers of Jesus are not called to defend the ramparts of “liberal democracy”, or any other political system or ideology. Nor are they called to create a “Christian nation” in which Christian leaders assume control of the means of violence and power and exercise them for righteous ends. Rather, they are called to incarnate the kingdom of God by modeling an alternative or “remnant” community of economic justice, equality and peace, with Jesus at its center. They are called to bear witness, amid all of the ambiguities and ironies of history, to the “minority report”: the good news that Jesus’ creative weakness is still God’s saving strength.
If true to their calling, followers of Jesus may expect to pay a high price for their political witness and their refusal to play a part in the mechanisms of violence and coercion that lie at the heart of every social order, including the project of American democracy, the imperial “beast” of Revelation 13 marked by its powers of shock and awe—making “fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men”—and by its control of the global economy—dictating who is “able to buy or to sell” . They will at times be charged with being unpatriotic, ineffective or irrelevant. Like the Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation, they may face ridicule, social ostracism and even persecution for their nonconformity with power. In some times and places, they will lose their lives as a result of their obedience to their Master. For the fifth Way, the Way of Jesus, is ultimately the Way of the Cross. “To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice,” writes Yoder. “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.”
Because the Way of Jesus is the Way of the Cross, the politics of Jesus only fully make sense to those who see the dilemmas of power in “cosmic perspective”, to those who are living in the light of Jesus’ resurrection as the historical fact upon which the once-hidden meaning of the universe hinges. “As a mundane proverb, ‘Turn the other cheek’ is simply bad advice,” Richard Hays points out. “Such action makes sense only if the God and Father of Jesus Christ actually is the ultimate judge of the world and if his will for his people is definitely revealed in Jesus.” Put another way, because following Jesus—not simply as a matter of individual spirituality but as a matter of concrete community formation—may involve real sacrifice, suffering and even martyrdom, and because there is no guarantee that this suffering will be politically effective as the world measures effectiveness, there is no reason to follow the Way of Jesus unless the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are one and the same. If Roman brutality left Jesus buried somewhere in the hills of Palestine alongside all the other messianic revolutionaries of his day, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15.32). But if Jesus is who the New Testament writers say he is—the suffering Savior of the world who has overcome the principalities and powers and has defeated the final tyranny which is death—then let us “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5.1), bearing a more faithful witness to the Way of Jesus and the political shape of his life.
Oscar Cullman, Jesus and the Revolutionaries (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).
Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).
Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church and Liberal Democracy” in A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1981).
Stanley Hauerwas, Dispatches From the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).
Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).
Geza Vermes, The Passion (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).
Martin Luther, “Secular Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed”, in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1962).
Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001).
N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God: Volume 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God: Volume 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).
John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).
John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Pennsylvania: World Press, 1992).

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