I don't know about you, but I am sick to death of political grandstanding. Pontificating pundits. Ineffective officials. Pandering politicians. At least it's not a big election year, when the parties inundate us with urgent pleas for cash and TV ads depict "the enemy opponent" in these demonic black and white shots, complete with jarring music.
For this, you can blame Martin Luther and John Calvin. Almost 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, the Catholic priest Martin Luther nailed 95 points of protest to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. His action against the corrupt papacy provoked the Protestant Reformation. Twenty years later, John Calvin took Luther's idea of "the priesthood of all believers" to Geneva, Switzerland, where he introduced this radical idea of democracy. For the first time, individuals would be responsible for electing their own civic government. Fast forward another twenty years, when John Knox took Calvin's ideas to his native Scotland. One hundred years later, Protestants carried these ideas across the ocean to the American colonies, seeking even greater religious and political liberty. I love that King George III called the American Revolution "that Presbyterian rebellion."
Over two hundred years later, what does that mean to us? For one thing, it's helpful to remember that there was a time--there was a time we couldn't vote. When people were subjects, not citizens. When princes ruled and we couldn't vote them in or out of office. When we had no say. As dreadful as our political process is, it beats the alternative by a long shot. It is our privilege to participate in our own governance. So let's explore our Christian responsibility as citizens: what it means to "render to God that which is God's and render to Caesar that which is Caesar's." Let's start with rendering to God that which is God's.
One of the hallmarks of our faith is trust in the sovereignty of God: that in the end, everything belongs to God--the earth and all of its peoples are God's. That means that we rest in the confidence that God's love and goodness will ultimately prevail. And it means that there is nothing that is beyond God's reign: "rendering to God that which is God's" means rendering everything to God--putting all of our choices, all of our power, all of our relationships, all of our resources toward God's will. For the Reformers, the sovereignty of God was the compass that guided them as they sought to follow the way of Jesus.
How important is this? Well, let's see what happens when we render to human authorities that which we ought to be rendering to God. Our reading from Proverbs warns us with this vivid line: "When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you have a big appetite." If you sat down with someone in power--a prince or a wealthy man--you were his guest. And once you were his guest, you were beholden to him. The bigger the appetite--for his food or his favor--the more beholden you were. That's why "desiring the ruler's delicacies" were "deceptive food." They came with strings attached. And it's still true today: when we curry favor with those in power--political power or financial power or social standing--well, then, we owe them. And once we are obligated, we run the risk of compromising our integrity. You don't have to look far to see the fall-out of political corruption. Proverbs reminds us that putting our desire for wealth ahead of God's sovereignty creates a similar disaster. We can "wear ourselves out seeking wealth," and the truth is, it is a capricious master. It can disappear overnight--"take wings" and fly away, in the words of Proverbs. Jesus said it this way: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal. ... Seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness."
Rendering to God what is God's means seeking God's kingdom ahead of our own, serving God's sovereign will above other powers. We know what the kingdom of God looks like: under God's reign, our world would be a place where every individual is treated as a child of God, instead of a place where just last year a girl like 15-year-old Malala Yousufzi gets shot for desiring education in Pakistan. We know that's not God's sovereign will.
Rendering to God that which is God's presses us to put everything we have--our resources, our time, our energy--in service not to our personal gain but to God's will, that God's will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. Rendering to God that which is God's presses us to do everything in our power to care for "the least of these, my brothers and sisters," until every human being enjoys the dignity deserving those who are "made in the image and likeness of God." And rendering to God that which is God's even means that we vote not as people who are in it for ourselves, but first and foremost as Christians who seek God's will. Therefore the question before every election is never "what's in it for me?" but "under whose leadership will God's sovereign will best flourish?" That's our first priority.
If that's what it means to "render to God the things that are God's," then what does it mean to "render to Caesar that which is Caesar's"? Let's start by understanding what government looked like in Jesus' day. In his time, Caesar Augustus formalized the Imperial cult by designating himself--the Emperor--as a god. Since Jews were to have no idols and worship no God but the Lord alone, paying taxes--literally "tribute"--to Caesar was dicey. Worse, the rulers at that time were ruthless: Herod Antipas beheaded John the Baptist, and Pontius Pilate washed his hands of Jesus' crucifixion. But Jesus was clear: regardless of human failings, render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar. The same thing was true in St. Paul's day under Emperor Nero, renowned for myriad executions (including those of his own mother and brother) and known for his brutal suppression of early Christians. Nevertheless, St. Paul wrote to the Romans, "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities. There is no authority except from God, and authorities that exist have been instituted by God." And the same thing was still true at the Reformation, when John Calvin had a bone to pick with the King of France. His commentary on Jesus' words say this: "Those who destroy political order rebel against God."[i] What does that all mean for us? No matter what happens in any election, our responsibility as Christians is to uphold our government--not because they are good, because they will be human; not because they do our will, because they may or may not be of the stripe we desire. We uphold the government because God desires order more than anarchy, and human governance is required for human flourishing.
But "rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar's" also requires us to render the truth to Caesar and remind the government of its responsibility. As Christians who render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, we owe it to the government to urge it towards its sacred calling. Nancy Taylor, a minister at Old South Church in Boston, recalls the Puritan tradition of annual "Election sermons": from 1634 through 1884, pastors stood in the pulpit and addressed those just elected to office. Taylor recounts the Election sermon of one long ago predecessor, Samuel Willard, on May 30, 1694. In his pews are "'His Excellency the Governor, and the Honorable Counselors, and Assembly of the Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England." Willard was among the few pastors who stood up to speak against the Salem witch trials and he prevailed. Now, just a year after he brought to a stop those notorious executions, he stands to address the newly elected rulers. This is what he says:
"Ignorance is a Foundation for Error, and will likely produce it. ... [Those elected] must be above Flattery and Bribery, must hate Ambition and Covetousness, for if these Rule him, he will never be a just Ruler. ... [Above all,] he must be one who prefers the public Benefit above all private and separate Interests ... whatsoever."[ii]
"Imagine," Taylor says, "imagine exchanging such a sermon for the jaunty music, celebratory confetti, and bright balloons with which we greet and fete today's newly elected politicians."[iii] Election sermons may be a thing of the past, but we owe it to our rulers to remind them--and remind ourselves--what the sacred duty of government is.
Finally, when we "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," we are called on to pray for and encourage those who govern--maybe especially when we disagree with them. As we mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there's a lot we have to learn from President Lincoln. An article last year in Time magazine recounts the pressure he was under in 1862 when "hardly a day passed without an exasperated lecture from someone about the need to take bold steps against both slavery and [the failures of General] McClellan, but Lincoln resisted":
"He needed to move gradually, to persuade himself and moderate voters of the North that he had exhausted all incremental steps. Even after he decided the general must be fired and the slaves freed, he waited for the right political moment. ... This painful interim was necessary because Lincoln understood that even in times of extreme polarization, the moderate center is the path to presidential success. ... He offered an arresting metaphor one summer day in 1862, when a delegation of prominent New England abolitionists admonished him to take a stronger stand against slavery. After a long pause, he surprised his visitors by asking if they recalled 'that a few years ago Blondin walked across a tightrope stretched over the falls of Niagara.'
"Of course they remembered. Lincoln was referring to the stunts by the tightrope walker Jean-Francois Gravelet, who went by the name the Great Blondin. In 1859, Gravelet made a series of crossings over the roaring water. He pushed a wheelbarrow, stopped to cook an omelet, even carried his manager on his back. Lincoln visited Niagara Falls in 1848, and it left an indelible impression. Now the image of a man making his way along a 3-inch rope above such sublime and terrifying force struck Lincoln as a perfect metaphor for his own balancing act.
"One of the visitors later recalled the President's words: 'Suppose,' Lincoln said, (suppose) 'that all the material values in this great country of ours, from the Atlantic to the Pacific-- its wealth, its prosperity, its achievements in the present and its hopes for the future--could all have been concentrated and given to Blondin to carry over that awful crossing.' Suppose 'you had been standing upon the shore as he was going over, as he was carefully feeling his way along and balancing his pole with all his utmost delicate skill over the thundering cataract. Would you have shouted at him, 'Blondin, a step to the right!' 'Blondin, a step to the left!' or would you have stood there speechless and held your breath and prayed to the Almighty to guide and help him safely through the trial?'"[iv]
Later that same year, on December 1, 1862, in his annual address to Congress, Lincoln adjured his colleagues, and his country, with these words: "We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope on earth." One month later, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
I don't know how you voted in the last election, whether you're satisfied with your political representatives or confident in their wisdom. But as I've said every four years from the pulpit, after the election of President Bush in 2004 and President Obama in 2008: The question after any election is never "did I get my way?" but "how do I honor the governing authorities that the majority has elected into office?" Christ calls us neither to loath nor fawn over the officers of our land, neither to curry favor from them nor shout at them from the shore. Let us instead pray for them and for the good of our nation they seek to serve. Let us instead pray for them and the flourishing of God's will. And let us pray for ourselves as well, that we, in faith, might in all things "render to God that which is God's, and render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," until God's kingdom comes.
[i] Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 33: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part III, transl. John King, sacred-texts.com.
[ii] Samuel Willard, "The Character of a Good Ruler," preached May 30, 1694 at Third Church (now Old South Church), Boston, MA, cited by Nancy S. Taylor, "The Character of a Good Ruler, Then and Now," Reflections, Vol. 99, No. 2, Fall 2012, "Who Are We? American Values Revisited," Yale Divinity School, p. 21.
[iii] Taylor, p. 23.
[iv] David Von Drehle, "Learning from Lincoln," Time, Nov. 5, 2012, p. 34, adapted from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, published by Henry Holt.