γενήσομαι «ge-ney-soh-mey : i am becoming»
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
canada day: mark 12:13-17
I've always considered myself to be apolitical.
Sure, I admit, a small part of me felt that this was something to be smug about, but mostly I just wasn't at all interested in the realm of politics. Maybe I didn't fully understand how any of it worked; maybe I just didn't feel like it really made a difference to me.
Maybe it's true that I live in my own little world sometimes.
Lately, however, politics is not something I've found I've been able to avoid much. I mean, it's hard to ignore the turmoil and tragedies that are occurring and being brought to light here in North America. Pandemic aside, the social landscapes of the United States and of Canada are undeniably in upheaval. It's clear we're on the precipice of something—hopefully change and change for the better.
Additionally, in the aftermath of Donald Trump's presidency we are left with a more robust image of the disturbing creature mainstream evangelicalism has become. It's not at all a surprise 'exvangelical' is now a label with which many identify.
Personally, I have in recent years been pondering my own labels.
To start, in the few times I've preached, I have intentionally avoided using the term 'Christian' and I have instead used the description 'Jesus-follower' (or some variation thereof). This is a deliberate choice to distance myself from the mainstream image people default to about Christian evangelicalism—and it is also perhaps a subtle way of saying what I'm preaching doesn't necessarily align with what traditional/classical theism teaches.
That is, I am a Jesus-follower—or at least I strive to be—and I try not to overtly identify as mainstream Christian because socio-politically that often means something very specific. And I do not at all identify with that specific brand of Christianity.
Similarly, I hesitate to label myself Canadian.
Don't get me wrong, I am Canadian—I live in and benefit from this country's rights and freedoms, assuredly more than I realise. I was born within its borders and I contribute to its society as far as I'm able. But I do not consider my identity, my entity—my very Self—as Canadian.
By way of one small example of rebellion, I don't sing the anthem, and lately I've been debating whether our kids should sing it at school.
In my mind, as I approach politics theologically, it all quickly becomes a matter of allegiance.
Indeed, as Matthew Bates argues in is book Salvation by Allegiance Alone, allegiance is a key word for the gospel of Jesus. Bates argues that the Greek word pistis, which is commonly translated as 'faith,' in fact would be better translated as 'loyalty' or 'allegiance' in most contexts it's found.1
In support of that idea, if we flip over to Mark 12 and find what is known as the Tribute Passage, we see a discussion on just that topic. However, the problem is that the passage is traditionally misinterpreted.2
Traditional readings tend to claim that the passage in verses 13-17 confirm a dual reality—that is, that Caesar is sovereign over the physical, political realm and God is sovereign over the spiritual. Give Caesar his money and submission owed to him because of his political authority, and give God our quiet lives of privatised religious devotion owed to him because of his heavenly authority.
We are, after all, taught that we are citizens of two worlds—of heaven and of earth.
But—you guessed it!—this is not how the original audience of this little episode would've understood the exchange.
Teaching in the vein of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus used a lot of parables and veiled declarations. On the surface, 'Give back to Caesar the things of Caesar' certainly seems like an endorsement of paying taxes to Rome. However, this was a very cheeky response that had revolution bubbling beneath it.3
The question of paying taxes was, for the Pharisees and Herodians who asked it, a trap because if Jesus had answered outright, 'Yup, pay the tax,' it would place him on the side of the Roman oppressors and he would be discredited in the eyes of those who believed him king. And if Jesus outright rejected paying taxes then he would've immediately been labelled a political criminal, provoking the heavy hand of Rome.4
Instead, Jesus answers in a way that is reminiscent of prophets like Daniel, Jeremiah, and John of Patmos—all of whom used veiled criticisms of empire instead of plain language in order to protect themselves.
Jesus asks them whose likeness (εικών) and inscription (έπιγραϕή) is on the coin. The answer is Caesar, but the implicit callback is to Genesis 1:26 where humanity is made in God's likeness (εικόνα), and possibly also to Deuteronomy 6:9 which commands the Jewish people to inscribe (γράψεις) upon their hearts and door posts and gates that God is God alone.5
We have to remember that for the Roman Empire, Caesars were all considered divine beings—Sons of God—and therefore Jesus is subtly reminding his audience not only of the idolatry of Rome but also reminding them of the alternative and opposing Kingdom of which he'd been proclaiming. While Caesar claimed everything for himself, in Hebrew theology it is God who is sovereign over all—the physical and the spiritual, for these two worlds are intertwined—and it is Jesus who will be handed the throne of God's Kingdom.
So what we have here are two contenders for allegiance and Jesus is telling his listeners they have to choose—Caesar or God—because allegiance to one precludes allegiance to the other.6
The plain text reading suggests that we divide what we give to whom, but the contextual reading shows us that we have a choice to make—the Empire or the Kingdom.
And these are precisely the reasons I hesitate to incorporate any national distinction in my self-identity.
The more I study and the more I ponder, the more I see that Jesus' theology was monumentally and subversively political—and not strictly spiritual the way we've traditionally been taught. The more I study and the more I ponder, the more I realise that following Jesus and aligning with any political power are in fact two oppositional and contradictory stances. There is no political party or country that will ever or could ever espouse the principles of Jesus and still operate as a political body—the ways of politics and the way of Jesus are and will always be in opposition to each other.
But! But that doesn't mean we don't have a part to play. That does not remove our socio-political responsibilities—we have an obligation, as Paul would argue, to ensure that justice is being done. We are to honour governments who have authority over us—pay taxes and pray for them like the Jews were commanded to do while in Babylonian exile—but only as far as they act justly. When those powers abuse and misuse their reach—which is inevitable—we are to call them out, and not follow blindly. Our standard is the Kingdom, not any nation.
The martyrs of our faith—Jesus chief among them—were all those who came into conflict with empire and faced the consequences. Indeed, we are to live under empire in such a way that it has no reason to punish us—but at the same time we are to embody the way of the Kingdom which will inevitably clash with the powers-that-be. And that clash, if we've lived up to our calling, will expose the power's corruption and injustice.
To do otherwise is to become complicit and culpable, and tacitly aligned with Caesar. ✤
1. Matthew W Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 78-89.
2. N T Wright, 'God and Caesar, Then and Now' (Westminster Abbey, June 30 2003: Bishop of Durham).
3. In fact, Jesus' response is reminiscent of a statement made by Mattathias to his sons in 1 Maccabees 2:68. Mattathias, on his deathbed, is priming his sons for revolution and says, 'Pay back the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law.' Jesus' statement of 'payback to Caesar what is owed' may very well have been a subtle callback to this well-known story, intentionally inciting thoughts of revolution. Wright, 'God and Caesar,' 5.
4.Jeff Barr, 'Render Unto Caesar: A Most Misunderstood New Testament Passage,' Mises Wire, (https://mises.org/wire/...)