Here is a guest post in our series on the culture wars from a friend, one time fellow barista, and former student of mine, Fr. Matt Boulter. More about Matt can be found at his blog: Religiocity.
In about the year 6 AD in ancient Palestine, with winds of revolution blowing in the air, a Jewish militant called Judas of Galileerose up in defiance of the oppressive Roman government, at that time brutally plaguing the Jewish people. In his revolutionary zeal Judas does three things:
- Rids the Temple of Gentiles by force.
- Preaches for people to forsake Caesar in favor of hi view of the Kingdom of God.
- Calls Jews to refuse to pay some taxes to Caesar.
Shortly after his anti-Imperial mutiny, Judas was summarily attacked, captured, and executed. His revolutionary followers, thus, disbanded and went home. Fast-forward the story about a quarter century, when we encounter one Jesus of Nazareth who does some very similar, and yet entirely different things.
Jesus echoes Judas of Galilee by (1) crafting his entire teaching around the message of “the Kingdom of God,” and (2) cleansing the Temple, expelling the money changers and the animal sellers.
The stage is set for the dramatic encounter we read about in all three of the “synoptic” Gospels, in which Jesus is cross-examined on his political intentions.
“Jesus,” his audience seems to be thinking, “You’ve really got our attention with this revolution you’ve started. Your preaching of ‘the Kingdom of God’ and your cleansing of the Temple show us that you could actually “go the distance and,” quite possibly, bring Rome to its knees, at least here in God’s holy land of Israel.”
Just decades before, the Roman authorities had rubbed the Jews’ faces in the mud by imposing the “head tax,” which the Jews were required to pay, solely for the “privilege” of being a Roman “protectorate.” It was a kind of extortion.
“Jesus,” they ask, “You’ve cleansed the Temple, you’ve undermined Caesar’s authority by preaching an alternative kingdom. What do you say? Should we revolt again, by throwing this abominable tax back into his face? Maybe we can relive the glory days of the Maccabean revolution, and give Rome a run for its money!”
Jesus looks at them … and what does he do? In the face of a gaping false dichotomy — Roman Imperialism versus Jewish guerilla violence — he refuses to take sides.
The Zealots (can you say “Pat Robertson?”) of his day would counsel in one direction. The establishment Sadducees (one here thinks of liberal mainline, Protestant denominations) would lobby for an equal but opposite path.
Jesus looks at them and he does what he always does: he answers a question with a question. Then he undermines all of their preconceived notions:
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’s, but give to God what belongs to God.”
Yes, the coin which Jesus held up (by the way, as Timothy Keller points out, Jesus had to borrow the coin from a bystander, implying that he did not have one: Jesus is the “king without a quarter”) was indelibly stamped with the icon, the image of Caesar.
But the coin (which, as a part of the Royal Treasury, literally belonged to Caesar) is not what Caesar – then or now – is really after. And so Jesus provocatively suggests to them that the item which is marked and sealed with the icon, the image, of God…
“Don’t you dare give that to Caesar, but give your selves, your souls and bodies to God only.”
And so it is that Jesus launches a “revolution that revolutionizes revolutions” (to quote Keller again). If the life I live is answerable to God alone, then I am liberated from all task masters, freed from all oppressors. No master, no serf-lord, no corporate tycoon, no political aggrandizer has dominion over me or over you.
Has the Church of Jesus, on the pages of the New Testament referred to as “the Body of Christ,” implemented this revolution perfectly? Not even close. However, the idea still lives, and every once in a while one encounters a community (Christian or otherwise) where justice and mercy are real, where the poor are brought all the way in, where there is no “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.”
These are communities which (unlike the “save the whales” club, unlike political parties, unlike the National Rifle Association) cannot be explained away by sociological or psychological analysis.
Jesus blows up our neat little categories. His kingdom is not of this world, though it is for this world. He exposes the truth that our world (particularly in our modern, western society) is characterized by an endless torrent of false dichotomies, in which we are actually not yet free.
We are not yet free from the system, and not yet free from Caesar. Most of all we are not yet free to bow before the image of God in the “other” who is our neighbor, the one whom we tend to assume is “the enemy.”
“Insofar as possible,” St. Paul writes, “be at peace with all men.”
I am, strictly speaking, not a pacifist. But I am a pacifist with respect to the culture wars, currently plaguing America, and, more and more (as America and its “values” are increasingly exported around the world) the entire world.
How is this possible? Only when one is liberated. Liberated from the state, liberated from the system, liberated from the false dichotomies which saturate the culture wars and dominate our imagination.
Live, I imagine Paul to be thinking, like hobbits. Be rooted in community. Do your work quietly. Enjoy a nice pint of beer. Don’t get caught up or distracted by the latest blog drama, the latest poll results.
“Insofar as possible, be at peace with all men.”
Matt Boulter is a 39 year old wayfarer from Texas who sometimes thinks he’s traveling down the right path. He is an Episcopal Priest and PhD student in medieval philosophy. He loves reading, running, drinking, smoking, and hanging out with his three brown-eyed girls. Religiocity.