Editors note: This is part six of an eight-part series exploring the eight Jesus questions all of us must face, highlighted in Jim Wallis's new book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus (HarperOne), available now. These next eight weeks will help us go deeper than the headlines, to find our way back to Jesus in the midst of this intensive and exhausting news cycle.
Want to hear this in an audio format instead? We just launched an eight-episode podcast series called Reclaiming Jesus Now that features Allison Trowbridge and William Matthews speaking with Jim Wallis about these questions and their relevance today.
When Jesus answers the Pharisees’ trick question in Matthew 22:21 by saying “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” the text says they were amazed and went away, not having a good counterargument to offer.
But this famous teaching from Jesus inspires some logical follow-up questions. What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? How do we discern what belongs to whom? What level of allegiance, loyalty, or obedience do we owe government? When does obedience to God demand disobedience to government? These have long been important questions for followers of Jesus and feel particularly potent in this political era, when we often contend with those who misrepresent or abuse this text in an attempt to put the power of the state over the power of faith.
The truth of Jesus’ life and ministry is just the opposite: Jesus was and is a deeply revolutionary figure, a threat to the status quo — it’s this understanding of who Jesus is that desperately needs to be reclaimed.
We get the clearest glimpse of the deeply political implications of Jesus’ ministry, and the way he threatened the status quo of his time, by his triumphal procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday while riding on the back of a lowly donkey. The donkey symbolizes the humility, simplicity, and nonviolence of the kingdom of God. Jesus entered the city by the east gate as Roman governor Pontius Pilate processed through the west gate with his horses and chariots, presenting starkly contrasting visions of two very different kingdoms. As Jesus rode into the city, he brought his new order, his kingdom of God, and all those values into the place of power. He went into the city offering another way, and the people who laid palm branches on the ground were affirming his leadership, his being a king of a different sort.
In our conversation this week for the Reclaiming Jesus Now podcast, on this “Caesar Question,” Allison Trowbridge commented on how the familiar Palm Sunday — especially the way many of us learn it in Sunday school — has too often been sanitized and divested of its deeply political significance and the fear the people’s response to Jesus caused in the ruling authorities:
“It’s sounds kind of sweet, right? He’s riding in on a little donkey, and they’re waving palm fronds, and we don’t see the earthquake that’s happening in that moment,” she said.
That earthquake was, in fact, a dramatic confrontation with power, made all the more mighty when Jesus proceeded to the temple and overturned the tables of the money lenders. If Jesus hadn't taken his ministry into the city and directly confronted the power of both church and state, he’d never have been killed. Jesus was killed because he was perceived as a threat by the political and the religious authorities. We need to understand that and wrestle with the implications.
So was, and is, Jesus a revolutionary? On the one hand, Jesus did reject the violence of the Zealots who were the political revolutionaries of his day, but the way of Jesus, what he’s calling for, is indeed revolutionary in relation to the values of status quo. He completely turned the traditional ideas of who and what are important on their heads — his new order is, in so many ways, an upside-down kingdom, as he laid out in the Sermon on the Mount and reinforced with the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit ... Blessed are those who mourn” — who are sorrowful, who have compassion. Blessed are those who are meek and humble. Blessed are those who have a hunger for justice and righteousness. “Blessed are the peacemakers” — those who try to resolve conflicts. These are the people who are blessed and turned — and still turn — the world upside-down. Jesus’ way was deeper and more radical than the political options of his day.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that followers of Jesus should never obey the government. This is where a deeper understanding of texts like Romans 13 — which has so often been abused — can be helpful. In Romans 13, Paul talks about the role of the government. He talks about the role of governmental authority, which can broadly involve rewarding the good, punishing the evil, and doing what is best for the common good. There must be some rules of how one behaves, in order to have a functioning society.
Unfortunately, Romans 13 is often interpreted by those who favor obedience to the status quo as saying that God demands that we always submit to the authorities, because their power comes from God. The most egregious example of this position in recent months is when children were being torn away from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called family separation “biblical,” citing Romans 13.
Yet Paul does not say that cruelty is a justifiable tool or role for the government. Instead, he says in verse four that “government is meant to be God’s servant for your good” and, in verse three, that “the rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad.” Later in the chapter, Paul makes it clear in verse 10 that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” The task for followers of Jesus is to respect the role of what government is supposed to be but make clear where our loyalties lie. In other words, render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
Following Jesus in this way means that sometimes civil disobedience — to clarify who you are, to whom you belong, and who you’re most loyal to — is necessary. We sometimes call this divine obedience, which leads to civil disobedience and is one of history’s most powerful forces for justice. As William Matthews put it for our podcast conversation this week:
There’s something so freeing about Christ, through the Holy Spirit, being power to the powerless. He is power to the very people who don’t have power. He is power to resist, the power to love, the power to reclaim one’s life, even unto death, to say, ‘My life matters even if you can kill my body; you can’t kill my soul … When you begin to speak truth to power, when you begin to move in civil disobedience, when you begin to move in the authority of the kingdom of God, you naturally present a conflict with the kingdoms of this world and Caesar and empire … that feels radical. And I don’t know if that’s something the church has really understood as their radical calling, to embody that type of divine obedience.
This look at how Jesus lived and died, and what his teachings about government authority really mean, expose the notion — so prevalent among white Christians in the United States — that politics and faith are separate and that Christians shouldn’t “get political,” for the absurdity it is. Jesus should make us all uncomfortable with our political status quo, with our accepting things as they are, with our ignoring those whom Jesus deliberately instructs us to be most conscious of and most protective of. That is a revolutionary way of confronting politics in a deeper way. If religion is just in our hearts, if it's just private between me and God, then you can give Caesar everything Caesar wants. There’s no reason to go to Jerusalem, and certainly not to the center of power in the capital city, and say “I’m going to overturn these tables.” That’s not what you do if your religion is just for what’s in your heart. As I’ve often said, I believe in the separation of church and state, but not in the segregation of moral values from public life.
Christians in the United States who claim to be “not political” will, nevertheless, make a choice in November 2020. It can be a choice of silence, which works as an affirmation of the status quo. It can be a direct vote for an anti-truth, anti-immigrant, white nationalist administration. Or it can be a vote against those systems and prejudices, a choice proclaiming that the image of God still has value, and that the Jesus we follow turns the kingdoms of this world upside down.