The right to choose your government.

Christians and the State

When Christians are approached by anarchists, or anyone who questions the validity of the State in any way, they usually go first to the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22:

15 Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech.
16 They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.
17 Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin.
20 He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
22 When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

Is this justification for the State, or for taxes? Consider first that the Herodians were trying to entrap Jesus, asking a question in which either answer they expected he might respond with would cause him problems. If he answered that it is NOT lawful to pay the census tax, they could turn him in to the authorities. If he said that it IS lawful to pay the census tax, the crowds who considered him a prophet would turn against him. So he choose not to answer either way that they were expecting.

The answer he gave could be interpreted as an endorsement of property rights: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Many Christians, for some reason, want the answer he actually gave to in fact be a confirmation of the question in the positive: yes, it IS lawful to pay the census (or any other government) tax. But clearly, if he meant that, he would have said that, unless he simply did not want to have to deal with the issue on their terms and not his own. And so, the question goes unanswered by this particular passage.

Not getting a satisfactorily conclusive answer here, a Christian might then turn to the letter to the Romans, chapter 13:

1 Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.
2 Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.
3 For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it,
4 for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.
5 Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience.
6 This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.
7 Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Certainly this is clear enough! How could anyone argue with this!? On the face of it, it looks irrefutable, that is, until you check out a couple of other passages, such as this one from the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 14:

32 Indeed, the spirits of prophets are under the prophets’ control,
33 since he is not the God of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the holy ones,
34 women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.
35 But if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.

Well, perhaps women’s voices should not be heard in the churches, though few today would agree with this. We are told that passages like this are culturally conditioned, and not meant for all times and places.

And what about this passage from the letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6?

5 Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ,
6 not only when being watched, as currying favor, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
7 willingly serving the Lord and not human beings,
8 knowing that each will be requited from the Lord for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
9 Masters, act in the same way toward them, and stop bullying, knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven and that with him there is no partiality.

If you get any people agreeing that women should be silent in church, you will get even fewer who would support slavery. So if slavery is no longer valid, what about the state? Is the passage from Romans also subject to a reinterpretation due to the passage of time and the changes in culture?

To answer this, let’s consider how Jesus himself dealt with issues of the state. We’ve already seen that he did not want to address the issue of taxes directly at the time he was challenged about them. But there is another instance in the Gospels that talks about taxes. In this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 17, Peter first answers on behalf of Jesus, then gets a deeper lesson from him.

24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes,” he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?”
26 When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the subjects are exempt.
27 But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you.”

Based on what he says here, it could be assumed that Jesus thought that he and his disciples (at least) should be exempt from paying the temple tax. He chooses to pay the tax so as not to “offend them”, and he also chooses to do it, not from what money they may have had on hand, but in an almost comical way. In what might be seen as a punishment for agreeing to pay the tax in the first place, he has Peter go fishing, and extract the coin needed to pay their tax from the mouth of the first fish he manages to catch. Yes, this is certainly a miracle, but if Jesus wanted to pay the tax without making his point with Peter, he could have easily and simply produced the coin in a more direct way.

Finally, throughout the Gospels, Jesus is referred to by the masses as the “Son of David”, the rightful heir to David’s throne and kingship. There were several occasions, in fact, where, when it seemed that the crowds were about to force the kingship on Jesus, he managed to slip away from them.

If Jesus had considered the State to be a useful organization in human society, and if he himself did not want to accept the kingship, could he not have put another in that role, with the roaring approval of the crowds? We often hear the expression “Church and State” and think that there is some meaningful symmetry between the two words, but is there? When Jesus establishes the Church on the shoulders of Saint Peter, he says that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. That sounds pretty important. But what does Jesus says about the State? There is certainly no grand saying like “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. On the few occasions when the subject even comes up, he seems to be evasive about it, not wanting to have to deal with it yet. When given the opportunity to become king (or king-maker), he avoids it. When given the opportunity to speak clearly about the value of taxes, he cleverly avoids a direct answer. Had he considered them of value, might he not have said something like this: “not to the Romans, but there will come a time…”, yet we have no guidance along those lines.

What we have instead is a sense that the state, like slavery, is something that we must put up with for now, but that the time will come when the evil institutions in human society will need to be dealt with, and that we will, at the appropriate time, find within ourselves the strength to do so.


2010/10/23 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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