Mark 12:17

Jesus said to them, ‘Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar–and God what belongs to God.’

Today is Independence Day here in the United States; a few days ago a similarly patriotic celebration occurred a few miles north of here in Canada.

The Christian tradition has always been a bit ambivalent about the role of temporal government and its relationship to the church. There have been times throughout our history of outright hostility and persecution, and times where you couldn’t see daylight between the two. Yet, there has always been a Christian concern for good government (which is a big reason that Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langdon was an architect of the Magna Carta. At the Reformation, such luminaries as Luther, Hooker, and Calvin considered government–good, just (which, for them, meant Christian) government–to be a part of God’s providence for humanity.

And it came with a responsibility that the governed would hold its rulers to high standards, and criticise–even find ways of removing–those rulers if they did not live up to their divinely appointed responsibilities.

Without the God-language, that is much of what we celebrate here in the United States today. A system of government where people may speak their mind about the competency and character of those whom we elect to make, interpret, and execute the laws of the land. We have legal guarantees that doing so without violence or significant public disruption will not result in our being punished.

“Paying to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, in the context of the United States, practically demands that we do this. When you take an oath to the United States government (I did so about 20 years ago as a temporary office worker in a federal court’s department of parole and probation), you swear to uphold the Constitution. You don’t swear loyalty to those who hold office at any particular time.

What about paying to God what belongs to God?

At least in the Episcopal Church, when a person is baptized, the vows do not require loyalty or obedience to the minister of religion who performs the service, or even to the Canons and Constitutions of the Episcopal Church. And every time we witness a baptism of a new Christian, we reaffirm those vows that require only loyalty and obedience to God, and not to the temporal structures and governance of the church.

But, for some reason, we don’t understand that periodically (even if the “period” is every single day), what is owed to God is a fairly strong, observation-based, and theologically sound criticism of those temporal structures and that governance?

It’s not disloyalty, or lack of love, which prompts the critiques I often level at the church. Quite the opposite. I want the church to be as good as it claims. Or, as some of my Brit friends say, to do “what it says on the tin”.

Love doesn’t have to be uncritical to be unconditional.

Dogs give uncritical, unconditional love.

Less so with people. And last I noticed, churches tend to be filled with people, not with dogs.

From Augustine of Hippo to the present day, Christian theology has asserted that we are living in two “cities”. For Augustine, we are really on pilgrimage towards the City of God, in which our true home lies. For more recent theologians, it is recognized that we are citizens of both heaven and earth.

As a citizen of heaven, we should exercise our duty to critique the institutional structures, and the persons occupying the offices, which form the administration of God’s rule on earth.

We owe that much to God. I intend to pay it.


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