Whenever people propose that eliminating religion would solve most of the world's problems, I know that they don't really understand the world or people very well. Religion generates such intense emotions because it is about ultimate values, as Paul Tillich pointed out. Even if you could somehow quash humanity's natural inclination to believe in a god or gods, you would still have that other repository of ultimate values: politics. In the last century a number of countries tried eliminating God and creating earthly paradises. These countries, all communist, proceeded to demonstrate just how bad purely secular nations were at not persecuting or killing people for ideological reasons. It turns out that, when they removed whatever restraint religion provides, these countries managed to kill tens of millions more people in 1 century than could be attributed to so-called Christians in 20 centuries.
In fact a large percentage of the deaths and misery caused by Christianity can more accurately be attributed to the manipulation of religion for political or economic or personal reasons. The First Crusade was proposed by Pope Urban II in order to restore access to holy sites in the Middle East for Western pilgrims. He was also hoping to channel the militaristic impulses of “Christian” princes into more beneficial actions. But the nobles involved used it to gain lands for themselves in Palestine. Subsequent crusades were used by Venice to sack Constantinople, a trading rival and also a Christian city. Anti-Semites used the People's Crusade as an excuse to massacre Jews. In the Fifth Crusade Christians allied with one faction of Muslims against another faction of Muslims. If anything, the crusades are more illustrative of people doing bad things for practically any reason other than ideological purity. Had the participants actually consulted any of the relevant statements by Jesus on violence, the use of swords and loving one's enemies, there never would have been any crusades.
Now it is true that for most of history, there was no separation of church and state. But far from the church controlling the state, it was much more common for the state to use the church to sanctify the status quo and the ruler. It was true in ancient Israel, where the king often had a school of tame prophets who told him what he wanted to hear. Most of the prophets whose books are part of the Old Testament were dissidents, critics of the standard operating B.S. and the monarchy. In Jesus' day things were worse. The Romans were in charge and appointed the High Priest. This explains why the religious hierarchy was worried about Jesus' popularity. They never for a minute considered that Jesus might be the Messiah or even a prophet. They were concerned about keeping their position of power and that meant protecting the status quo, even if it meant aligning with the interests of the pagan Romans against a fellow Jew whose arguments for changing the usual way of practicing their religion they couldn't refute.
Which is probably what led up to the events in today's Gospel passage (Matthew 22:15-22). While the priests were interested in not rocking the boat with the Romans, the average Jew was not happy about their occupiers' influence over Galilee and Judea. And they really hated the onerous taxes that they had to pay the Emperor for the privilege of being oppressed by him. So asking Jesus about taxes seemed like a good way to trap him. If Jesus supported the taxes, he'd lose the people's support. If he rejected the taxes, that would be enough for the Romans to arrest him. After all, 25 years earlier a Zealot from Galilee named Judas led a revolt because of the tax. He was killed. (Acts 5:37) So Jesus must choose one of 2 equally terrible options.
But Jesus knows what they are up to and asks to see a coin. And, surprisingly, they produce one. Why would that be unexpected? Because Jesus was in the temple, teaching. Roman coins, with their graven images of the emperor, who called himself the “son of God,” were considered idolatrous. That's why there were moneychangers in the temple. Jews coming to worship or to make donations were to exchange their money for temple-approved coins. And of course, the priests got a cut. The point is no one in the temple should have pagan money on them. So by producing the Roman coin, Jesus' interrogators were showing themselves to be hypocrites.
Jesus asks whose image is on the money he's handed. And someone says, “The emperor.” To which Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's.” And I like to think he flipped the coin into the hand of the Pharisee who first asked the question.
But what exactly can we learn from Jesus' statement?
One thing is obvious. Jesus is not an anarchist. He is not anti-government. There is a place for the organizing and law-keeping and even the taxing functions of government. And this is a pagan government! By saying give to Caesar what is his, Jesus is saying, at the very least, that if you are part of the economy, you should pay the taxes. Taxes are the price of civilization. The Romans weren't perfect but they did bring centuries of peace. They linked all the major cities of the Empire with good, safe roads. They had a reliable postal system. They eliminated piracy from the Mediterranean. They did have a rule of law, at least for Roman citizens. All of these things made possible the spread of Christianity. And those benefits were paid for by taxation.
What Jesus does not deal with here are things like excessive taxation or unjust governments. But he does uphold the principle of taxes and government. And they are preferable to the anarchy we see today in failed states around the world. We also see how difficult it is to establish good government. So anyone wishing to overthrow the government or eliminate taxes will find no support in Jesus.
Or in Paul. In Romans 13, he writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God's appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment....For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to who respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:1-2, 6-7) A Christian anarchist is an oxymoron.
We in the US and in the industrialized West are privileged to live in democracies where we can change our leaders and our laws. Jesus and Paul did not. We have the constitutional freedom to worship as we wish. Jesus and Paul did not. So it says something that they supported the idea of government even as they lived in an Empire ruled by men who claimed to be gods. Of course later, when Christianity was no longer flying under the radar, this would become an issue. And when explicitly told to make sacrifices to the divine emperor, then and only then, Christians would have to defy the government.
This is where the second part of Jesus' statement comes into play. We have obligations to government but we also have obligations to God and they are more important. That's what Jesus was really emphasizing. The Pharisees were trying to get him mired in political issues but Jesus stayed on message and brought the discussion back to God.
What's really interesting is the fact that Jesus was able to use the coin to make a profound point. He asks about the image on it. If what bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar, then that which bears the image of God belongs to him. And that means people. We were minted, so to speak, by God for his use. Jesus is saying here that human beings' highest obligation is not to government but to God. The government is a steward, using its resources to serve its citizens but it does not own them. We owe our government our support and input but not a higher allegiance than we owe God. And when they conflict, as Peter told the Sanhedrin, we must obey God rather than men.
But that doesn't mean getting rid of everything that can conceivably be considered non- Christian by someone. Quakers, the Mennonites and the Amish do not believe in using force. If their idea of Christianity became law, it would mean disbanding the armed forces and perhaps the police. Instead, when we had the draft, we let them opt out of armed service or opt to be a medic instead.
Nor does it mean special treatment for Christians. At the jail, as the chaplain, I approve requests for religious diets. If an inmate is Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu and asks for a kosher, vegetarian or vegan diet, I contact their clergy, confirm that they are in fact a member of one of those faiths and that the diet is a requirement of their religion. But if a Christian wants a kosher or a high-protein diet, I have to turn it down, because it is personal choice and not a requirement of our faith.
Christians obeying God and not men doesn't mean using government to stop non-Christians from practicing their religions or no religion, nor does it mean forcing them to adopt Christian practices. That is one of the reasons that our constitution prohibits establishing one religion over all others. Some American colonies outlawed Baptists or Quakers from preaching; others required that people elected must belong to a particular faith or denomination. The anti-establishment clause was formulated by James Madison at the urging of Baptists to end such abuses and ensure true religious liberty for all. It is ironic that some in that tradition now wish to reverse that.
It would be too much to say Jesus was in favor of legal separation of church and state. As we said, that simply wasn't a concept back then. But it is obvious that for Jesus the kingdom of God is not dependent on any specific form of government. He lived under a regime that required no consent from the governed and offered no rights for non-Roman citizens who nevertheless were part of the empire. They killed Jesus not for threatening the government but just for disturbing the peace of mind of those in power. And they eventually did the same with his followers. “Burn a pinch of incense to the divine emperor, call him king of kings and lord of lords, renounce Jesus Christ and you're a good citizen. Refuse and we will execute you in one of a number of novel ways.”
But Jesus knew that the kingdom of God could survive that. And it has. It has outlived emperors, kings, autocrats, oligarchs, collectives, committees, courts, protectors, despots, fascists, juntas, military dictators, parliaments, theocrats, congresses and every other earthly form of government. It has endured hostile regimes and friendly ones. And the rulers that were friendly to Christianity often did more damage to the faith, usually by co-opting and corrupting it. But the kingdom of God is independent of the kingdoms of this world. Because all earthly powers are affected by sin. Read enough history and you realize that the form of government is not nearly as important as the character and capability of those who govern. An incompetent and self-serving leader is bad news for his country, whether he was elected or crowned or proclaimed. A wise and selfless leader is a blessing to his nation however he came to power. Some of the Roman emperors were not bad. Some absolute monarchs did a lot of good. Some duly elected leaders are grievous mistakes.
When I choose a doctor, I choose him or her on the basis of whether they can do the job and do it well, not on their religion. When I vote for someone, I use the same criteria. In both cases, they will not affect my position as citizen of God's kingdom. They will not stop me from functioning as a member of the Body of Christ, even if they try. Jesus told us that following him meant taking up our crosses. Opposition has not killed off Christianity. Whereas having a state or official church has led to a long-term decline in belief. Look at Europe. In fact, making the state do things like require prayer in schools or at governmental functions or put the 10 commandments in courthouses just dilutes their meaning. They become background noise. If people aren't learning about such things at church and practicing them at home, merely adding them to public events and buildings isn't going to be make up for that void. That's magical thinking. (Which makes it odd that atheists also believe in the power of these things so much that they want them eliminated.)
Ultimately it boils down to whether we acknowledge that we bear the image of God and are willing to spend our lives doing what he wants us to do. If not, we are like counterfeit coins whose apparent worth is a lie. What's ironic is that people only counterfeit what's precious. No one ever counterfeited a penny or a dollar. They go after the stuff that amounts to much more. So what phony Christians really do is show just how valuable real Christians are, whose worth comes not from themselves but from God.
Of course, if phony stuff floods the market, it hurts the image of the genuine thing. Fake Christians do discount the faith in the eyes of the general public. So we need to be authentic. We need to let the Spirit burnish the image of God in each of us and prove our mettle so people will know that when we say we follow Jesus we're the real thing. Part of that is knowing what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God and not confusing the two. We belong to God. We owe him our lives. We need to act like it. We need to act like citizens of God's eternal kingdom, regardless of who happens to be ruling our patch of earth for this moment in time. For one day, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)