God and Government

Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have strong views not only about God (as is to be expected) but also about government. The eschatology of Adventism is replete with the notion of the unification of church and state to suppress God’s people at the End of Time. It has been the source of foundational principles within Adventism about the separation of church and state. Jehovah’s Witnesses hold an even stronger view, prohibiting the saluting of the flag and the pledging of allegiance, the sitting on juries, and going to war. Quakers too refuse to go to war. These are long-held principles of these religions, and religious freedom was one of the foundational pillars of America. What happens when those principles and that freedom come into conflict with the laws of government? Or when my freedom becomes at odds with yours?

For most of human history, we lived in communities of like-minded people of shared race and culture, and we seldom if ever traveled outside them. But modern communications have mixed everything and everyone up. Views about life and God and government and the relationships among them once seemed uniform, and were taken for granted by all except the odd heretic—who was easily dealt with by torture and execution. The crucifixion of Jesus is the ultimate example of that.

In the 20th century, racial, religious, and cultural mixing and diversity made heresy appear far more threatening to society. As a result, religious and racial discrimination became far more prevalent, leading to government-instigated pogroms and wars, including world war. This happened in cultures and countries worldwide, not just in Europe. Even more remarkable was the complicity and even the agency of religion in these events.

Today, Moslems outnumber Christians in Dearborn, Michigan. Minnesota is home to a large population of Somalis; Wisconsin to Hmong. Ethnic Vietnamese own and operate most of the pedicure businesses in the United States. While free from war, tensions persist as modern communications and travel technologies overwhelm our ability to isolate and segregate ourselves from each “other”. It changes government and religion and how we see the interface and the response to God and government. It brings us up against one another in ways we have never before experienced.

The Bible has much to say about our relationship with civil authority, and contains many stories of people who held considerable political power. Most salient, though is the well-known statement of Jesus that we are to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” which is recounted in all three synoptic Gospels:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement. They came and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.” They brought one. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him. (Mark 12:13-17)

The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:19-26)

There is one subtle difference between these passages: In the opening lines of Luke’s version we see clearly the interface between God and government. In Luke, the antagonists are not just Pharisees and Herodians, as in Matthew and Mark, but government agents sent to spy on God.

Keep in mind that the extreme care with which His antagonists approached Jesus on the topic of God and religion shows just how tricky the topic is. It is easy to misrepresent and easy to misunderstand. Jesus was equally careful in His response. The poll tax was a particularly sensitive issue at the time, having sparked a rebellion by a Jewish sect known as “Zealots” who viewed the tax as a mark of enslavement. Ironically, Pontius Pilate was later to declare Jesus not guilty of inciting a tax revolt, one of the crimes his persecutors accused Him of (Luke 23).

Notice, too, that although (as was His wont) Jesus answered one question (“Is it lawful to pay a poll tax?”) with another (“Whose head is on the coin?”) in this instance He veered from His norm to make a rare declarative statement: “Render to Caesar… etc.” Why? What did Jesus mean?

To try to find out, in coming weeks we will study the stories of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther. We will consider: God’s original plan for government in the garden of Eden; the government of Israel; the institution of the monarchy; the religious understanding of the founding fathers of the United States; the topics of democracy, capitalism, and socialism; the separation of church and state and models (such as sharia in Islam) that combine them; and conscientious objection to government.

We begin today by asking: What is the purpose and function of government? What is the purpose and function of religion? How do they come into conflict or potential conflict? How do they complement one another? And again: What did Jesus mean?

Donald: I have a relative who says it is a joy to pay taxes, as an expression of gratitude to the nation. Does that imply allegiance, and if so was Jesus also expressing allegiance to the Roman government in refusing to incite rebellion against it?

Michael: One may have multiple allegiances provided the objects of allegiance are not in conflict with one another. If government and religion have different roles, one can be allegient to both.

Dave: Government’s roles, at least in a democracy, are defense and trade.

Donna: The parallels between the two, and the structures that are in place, are to create consistency and uniformity. That is where they intersect. Religion and government establish rules by which people can identify with them. They serve to “herd” people into common behaviors.

Dave: Everyone can operate from the same playbook. There is no uncertainty about the rules.

David: The Romans looked to the emperor’s imperial government for defense (and for offense, to extend the empire). The Jews looked to God for their defense and liberation. The Pharisees were therefore in the same boat with Jesus, but lacking His wisdom would have had to answer their own question—if they were truthful—by saying the Roman tax was unlawful. [Postscript: On the other hand, I remembered when transcribing these notes, Roman emperors were believed to be gods!]

But I don’t think Jesus was merely being cleverly evasive. His real message was that we owe allegiance to government in the mortal realm, and allegiance to God in the spiritual realm. To me, Biblical accounts of divine physical miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea are intended to be read metaphorically in a spiritual context, not literally in a worldly context.

Donald: In the United States in the early 1950s and ‘60s, there was a sense of social consistency and uniformity. Media played a significant role in the public relations that contributed to that. It is quite different today, with government PR seeming to promote celebration of differences rather than uniformity. What does God promote, and is that different from what Christianity promotes?

Donna: Religion is the government of Christianity. Christianity is a belief system, not a form of government, not a system of rules.

Dave: Christianity is the relationship between the individual and God.

Don: For most of human history, we lived in societies that were uniform, apart from the occasional heretic. But it’s different now. Technology has led to an unprecedented lack of uniformity in today’s society which is causing religious and other viewpoints to bump up against one another with unprecedented friction. Society—the environment in which we live—has changed.

Michael: The free market model supported by modern governments conflicts with Christian values. In this respect, I wonder to what extent justice systems conflict with the governments of which they form a part? What happens when a crime is also a sin, and when a sin is not a crime?

Mikiko: Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t participate in politics, on the basis of John 17:14: “ I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” and on John 18:36 and John 6:15. We do pay government taxes, because of the “Render to Caesar” passage and also Romans 13:7: “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”

Dave: Maybe Jesus was saying that we should not be distracted by earthly things such as taxes and government, and instead stay focused on the “big picture” things in His realm. So let’s cooperate with government, but not lose sight of the bigger picture.

Donna: It’s really the authority that is here on this earth that God has made such a day for them. If God is in control of all our presidents and allows them to be put in office, should we therefore respect them regardless? That is the problem we have.

Donald: We have government taxes. We have church tithes. Is this really about money? Is money the measure of our priorities?

David: I think the Trinity made it easier for Jesus to say what He did about the coin. The Jews could not have said what He said, because their unitary God could never accept split allegiance; whereas a triune God with a mortal incarnation could accept it. This is clear not just from his answer to “Render unto Caesar…etc.” but from just about everything He said and did. I read His story and His message as arguing very strongly for a recognition of the two realms—spiritual and physical, sacred and profane. The Apostle Paul wrote poignantly about the dissonance we experience between the two, but he did not shy from acknowledging both.

Dave: So why did He not simply reply: “Yes, you should pay the poll tax.” It would have been more direct.

David: That is indeed an interesting question! His answer did not imply that any tax was legitimate; only a tax paid with coins already “belonging” to Caesar. He was a bit evasive!

Don: That’s exactly what His contemporaries thought.

Robin: In God’s government, love and mercy are commingled as “justice.” In the human realm, justice has a more retributive, selfish quality. The notion of Christ as the head of God’s government is humbling, as He alone is good and righteous. In human politics we want to be right and prove others wrong. It leads to judgmentalism, hatred, and violence. God’s government is moral and unifying, but since the day it began having kings, humanity has shown a clear preference for human government.

Dave: Politics has become a religion for many people. It is an easy trap and a big distraction. It may be important, but not nearly so important as our relationship with God. Jesus said: “Look, this stuff is inevitable, but you need to stay focused on your relationship with God.”

Donna: A judge once ordered that a baby born with HIV be returned from protective custody to its birth mother, a prostitute. In his ruling, he explained that this was where the law and God separated; that justice does not have love in it, though God does. He recalled Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding.” The point is that the difference between God’s justice and human justice is love.

Chris: In order to deal with the dissonance between God’s government and Caesar’s government, we have to figure out what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. It seems to me that God is clear and consistent about what is His. Caesar, though, changes—often. God does not—ever.

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