What happens when the realms of God and Caesar clash? What happens when the gray area in the Venn diagram [see last week’s discussion—Ed.] get’s darker? What does Caesar expect of us, and what does God expect of us? It’s been said that all Caesar wants is for us to be good (that is to say, law-abiding) citizens. He wants behavior more than he wants attitude from us. He wants our obedience more than our loyalty. It seems that, in contrast, God wants our loyalty first, before our “good” behavior.
The Biblical Book of Esther (a good read in itself, but here’s a vernacular synopsis) is a book about government. It is interesting in several respects: First, God is not mentioned once in it. His presence is implied, perhaps, but He is not named. Second, Esther is mentioned more times in the Bible than Mary the mother of Jesus or indeed of any other woman. Third, it is probably the best known Bible story among Jews, who use it to teach their children about the Feast of Purim, a holiday celebrating the liberation Esther obtained for the Jewish people who had stayed in Persia when they had a chance to leave.
The story reads almost like a movie script, replete with heroes and villains, plot twists, lavish sets…
There were hangings of fine white and violet linen held by cords of fine purple linen on silver rings and marble columns, and couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds, and the royal wine was plentiful according to the king’s bounty. (Esther 1:6-7)
… as well as elegance, debauchery, suspense, murder, mayhem, treachery, and even some sex. Not least is the satisfying denouement in which right prevails over might: The Jews are vindicated and delivered from their enemies.
The smashingly beautiful Esther was selected to be the king’s consort, but her uncle Mordecai advised her not to reveal that she was Jewish. He also told her of plots against the king’s life, which news Esther passed on to the grateful king, and the plotters were apprehended and hanged. But the king’s prime minister, Haman, was jealous of Mordecai’s growing influence at court, and persuaded the king to order the death of all Jews in the kingdom. Esther sought to intervene, at peril to her own life, after being persuaded by Mordecai it was the right thing to do:
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
The king granted her request to be heard, and set a date for a private banquet with Esther and Haman. In the meantime, the king recalled Mordecai’s service in alerting him to the plot against his life, and ordered Haman (who seethed to himself) to shower honors upon his nemesis, Mordecai.
At the banquet, Esther revealed that she was a Jew who would be put to death because of the king’s edict—solicited by Haman—of death to all Jews. The king was shocked, and left the dining room to recover his composure. Haman then embraced Esther to beg for mercy—at which moment the king walked back in, saw Haman apparently assaulting his queen, and promptly had him hanged. He then appointed Mordecai as the new prime minister, who saw to it that the Jews were given the right to defend themselves. They have ever since commemorated their deliverance at the annual Feast of Purim.
What does this story teach us about God and government? If a government of, by, and for the people never conflicts with individual worship, beliefs, and way of life, then it is staying in its own lane. But the dilemma, as shown in this story, is that even good government can have in it evil people who seek to suppress others for being different:
[Haman to the king:] “There is a certain people, scattered and spread out among the peoples in all the states of your kingdom, their laws are different from other peoples and they do not observe the king’s laws, so it is not worth it for the king to leave them alive” (Esther 3:8).
Are the people of God called to resist evil, or to surrender to it? Esther herself seemed, at least at first, to surrender, to blend in and not make waves when she was taken by the king. But when the edict against Jews was issued, Mordecai called for resistance. He put on a public display of resistance by wearing sackcloth and yelling on the streets, and he specifically asked Esther to protest the edict to the king.
Is there a moral code that tells us when it’s OK to surrender to government, and when it’s right to resist government? Is the failure to mention God’s name in the story a way of emphasizing the issue and a key to its resolution? Did God put Esther in a position that would enable her to save His people? If so, where was Esther at the Holocaust? Where was she for the martyrs burned at the stake and fed to the lions?
For every story of deliverance, there is another of destruction. Perhaps God does not intend for us to expect His protection from bad government by some miraculous intervention; but, rather, He wants us to examine ourselves to see if we are in a position to play a role in resisting the evil. We assume that deliverance is God’s province, but there is nothing in the story to suggest that it was God, rather than Esther and Mordecai, who brought deliverance to the Syrian Jews. Is it then simply a matter of good individuals having the courage to confront bad government?
This is not at all to suggest that God could not intervene, but we must remember that it is we who are in God’s service, not He in ours. This is clear from the story of the Hebrew worthies Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego who were saved from a fiery furnace by God after they refused to worship the king’s idol. They told the king:
“[O]ur God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)
Are believers compelled to stand up for God against government, to call out evil in government?
Donald: If we drew a Venn diagram with God in one circle and religious governance in the other, how light—or dark—would be the gray area of overlap? Religions take governance positions that their followers are expected to fall in line with. But they don’t, always. The Church of England has been through schism in recent times over church policy regarding homosexuality, for example. Others are divided on issues of the ordination of women, birth control, and more. What are followers who do not wish to follow their church’s line on a particular issue to do?
Don: In life we are constantly called to resist or surrender to something or other. Teenagers take issue with their parents’ rules, workers with their bosses’ policy, and so on.
Donald: But what if you are one of the parents, or one of the bosses, and agree with the teenager or the worker? There is a sense in America today that some people want to look beyond divisive issues to which there seems no solution to something totally different—they would rather have anything but the status quo. So now we face three choices: Resist, surrender, or walk away. Are there three lanes, not two?
Robin: In the very early church, there was disagreement even among the disciples themselves about administrative issues. We have to pray to the holy spirit for guidance, as they did, to resolve their differences. But the waiting is hard. It takes a lot of humility. American society is perhaps more sensitive to issues of fairness and justice than others. We may be astonished that there was a time when it was almost impossible to imagine female firefighters or police officers or even physicians, yet here we are arguing about whether there should be female ordained ministers. These are sociocultural issues to which the holy spirit has answers, but we must be patient and humbly await their revelation.
David: The Jehovah’s Witnesses turn to Scripture for their guidance. It tells them to go along with Caesar, but only up to a point. It does not allow them to do violence, so they refuse conscription. In wartime Germany, this condemned them to concentration camps alongside the Jews. But unlike the Jews, all they had to do was renounce their faith and they would be set free. According to my Witness friends, few did, and more than a thousand died in the camps.
On this issue as on many others, the Witnesses have an almost enviable certainty. Not just Scripture itself, but their interpretation of Scripture is presented in their publications and driven home repeatedly and consistently at weekly congregation and Bible study meetings, so they know exactly what to say when asked about what to resist and what not to resist. In Russia, right now, they are banned from practicing their religion for resisting the government’s crackdown on evangelism (which the Putin-backing Orthodox Church perceived as a threat to itself.)
Donald: Not all global religions are able to unify in one lane in the face of local cultural traffic signs.
Don: In our church, women hold major roles in administration and in ecclesiastical work, yet cannot be ordained as gospel ministers. The church in North America, as Robin suggested in mentioning America’s cultural tendency to fairness, is culturally sympathetic to the women’s perspective. But our church is global, and not all overseas branches share the North American cultural perspective.
Donald: The United States has separation of church and state. (Sometimes, we wish it were not so.) Sometimes they clash, and the question then is where to place one’s allegiance. Suppose there were someone in class today who does not agree with what the majority appears to think? They may feel constrained about speaking up. It is the responsibility of the majority—and the leadership of that majority—to be sensitive to this possibility and to encourage honest dissent, whether driven by principle or culture. The key is to remain united, and not split into lanes.
David: This is what Esther did. She was exceptionally sensitive about raising the issue with the king. Intense thought and planning went into an approach designed to appeal to his culture and not upset him or (up to a point) his prime minister, and it worked. In a sense, Esther turned the other cheek. Like her fellow Jews, her faith was not in question. All they had to do was pay their taxes and not cause trouble. All she had to do was consort with the king and not upset him through some cultural faux pas, and her faith would not and did not become an issue.
K.B.: She used Caesar’s rules and regulations, as well as her God-given gifts of brains and beauty, to accomplish God’s work. She successfully rendered to Caesar what was Caesar’s, and to God what was God’s.
Donald: Christianity today seems to be most successful at the local community level. Does the rise of the global village threaten that success?
David: The Dao is a one-lane highway that leads everywhere.