And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. (Matthew 22: 20-21)
I have a neighbor whom I’ll call “Ray” (Because that’s his name). Some years ago, Ray took issue with our federal government when it ever-so-politely requested he don a green uniform and travel to the Republic of South Vietnam. Ray was quite willing to acquiesce to Uncle Sam’s travel plans, but only on the condition that he be allowed to serve as an army medic and treat wounded soldiers and civilians. The army, however, felt Ray should be issued an M-16 and use said device to kill communist Vietnamese. Since this impasse proved irreconcilable, Ray elected to remove himself to Canada for the duration of the unpleasantness in Southeast Asia.
Recently, a certain Mr. Colin Kaepernick, greatly concerned over issues of poverty and injustice here in the USA, took to kneeling during the playing of our national anthem. Many other professional, college, and high school athletes have begun to observe this posture during the playing of the anthem—an act of protest which has drawn considerable opprobrium from many quarters.
As I look at the Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 20 (Matthew 22;15-22), I have to ask, “Just what does it mean to ‘render unto Caesar?’” What is a Christian’s responsibility to his or her country?
As folks in my congregation know, I’m always uncomfortable with the presence of the American flag in the apse of our worship space. Don’t get me wrong: I love our flag and my native country, but I am extremely uneasy when I see it venerated on equal footing with the symbols of the Christian faith. Once upon a time (about 100 years ago during World War I), good German American Lutherans—who still said mass in Luther’s German—started placing flags in their ethnic churches to prove that they were loyal to their adopted country. I get that. But I also get nervous seeing lapel pins shaped like the cross of Jesus Christ colored like the Star Spangled Banner. God is not an American, and God doesn’t like us best. God is the Father of all people.
When we start to talk about our responsibilities to God and country we first have to clear up some bad thinking. America is not, as some would say, “a Christian nation.” Constitutionally, Caesar is not allowed to meddle in the activities of the church and cannot dictate the faith of the populace. Even if we have a Christian majority, we have no right to impose a belief system on the minority. Prayer in school or the teaching of so-called “Creation Science” have no place in American public education.
Similarly, we shouldn’t mistake freedom OF religion with freedom FROM religion. Equally intolerable as Christian zealots are the arrogant nihilists who maintain that they believe in nothing and don’t want to be reminded that people of faith actually exist.
In his 1523 letter on Temporal Authority. Martin Luther defined the responsibilities of the church and the state. The state has the responsibility to protect the church. The church, in turn, has a duty to protect the state by speaking out against abuses and by influencing temporal rulers to do Godly work. Luther reminds us—as did Saint Paul in Romans 12—that all authority comes from God, and it is to God that we owe all our obedience before anything else.
So how do we “render unto God?” I’d say we start with God’s Law which, in a nutshell, admonishes us to love God and love everyone else. Christian obedience demands that we learn to love in compassion and actively seek the best for our fellow human beings and the world God created. In essence, we’re asked to grow a conscience and live by it.
For the most part, I find it pretty easy to “render unto Caesar” here in America. I pay my taxes and receive the benefits of our laws, infrastructure, social safety nets, public education, and myriads of other blessings of the Land of the Free. I obey the laws (usually—I do confess to being a bit cavalier where speed limits are concerned, God help me!), volunteer in the community, and donate to charitable interests. Nevertheless, there are times—as Colin Kaepernick and my buddy Ray demonstrate—when rendering to Caesar is at odds with conscientious rendering unto God. At such moments, it might be well to remember Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms: “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
For many, rendering to God will mean picking up a weapon and standing guard so that international law and the rights of the weak will be protected. For others, it has meant refusing to pick up arms or refusing to obey human laws which spit in the face of God’s Law. Luther himself was an outlaw, refusing to bend to the edicts of his emperor and pope. So where the hostlers of the Underground Railroad. So was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and thousands of other patriotic Germans who quietly worked to subvert the immoral edicts of the Third Reich. So were those who sat defiantly at lunch counters where they were not welcomed, or refused to move to the back of the bus. So, too, may be the “Occupy” demonstrators, the “Black Lives Matter” protestors, and the athletes who kneel in prayer for our nation rather than stand to give unquestioning obeisance to a nation where—if we’re to be honest—liberty and justice are not yet for all.
I’m all for patriotism, but being a good American won’t make me a good Christian. Being a good Christian, however, might just make me an excellent American.
(This Sunday, October 22, 2017, as a “kick-off” to a week of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the folks at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia will celebrate only one mass and will spend the afternoon rendering to both God and Caesar through a number of community service projects. We’ll be visiting shut-ins, making baby blankets, preparing our neighborhood garden for the winter, and patrolling our neighborhood to remove the effluvium of garbage which disgraces our streets. We like to think of this as love in action—just our way to give back to both God and the state.)