Posts tagged with: Render unto Caesar

Painting of 'Render Unto Caesar' by Peter Paul Rubens.

Painting of ‘Render Unto Caesar’ by Peter Paul Rubens.

Richard Weaver, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th Century, and author of Ideas Have Consequences, published an essay in the early 1960s on Lord Acton (pdf only). Much of Weaver’s essay is worth highlighting, but one excerpt in particular reminds us of the central significance of Christianity in the battle for freedom. It reminds us too of the dangers of secularism and where our indifference to God is inevitably leading us.

It was inevitable that, lacking one vital element, the ancient governments should have collapsed into despotism. That vital element was introduced by Christianity. This was belief in the sacredness of the person and thus in a center of power distinct from the state. What the pagan philosophers in all their brilliance had not been able to do, that is, set effective barriers to the power of the state, was done in response to that injuction: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ This instituted a basis of freedom upon which the world since that time has been able to build.

In Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time, published in 1964, Weaver noted the cure for the ailment of the decline of Western Culture,

But the road away from idolatry remains the same as before; it lies in respect for the struggling dignity of man for his orientation toward something higher than himself which he has not created.

The next skirmish over the country’s financial direction will come in September as Congress tries to prepare for the federal government’s new fiscal year, which starts October 1st. The Christian Left has quoted the Bible quite freely during the budget battle, throwing around especially the “red letter” words of Christ in its campaign to protect all of the federal government’s poverty programs (even those so riddled with fraud that the White House wants to cut them). It seems bizarre, then, that they never make reference to the most obviously political passage of the Gospels—Christ’s dictate to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: “Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it?” Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: “Why tempt you me? Bring me a penny that I may see it.” And they brought it him. And he saith to them: “Whose is this image and inscription?” They say to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answering, said to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)

On its face, of course, Christ’s reply doesn’t play well for Circle of Protection types in a sound bite war, since it seems to suggest that one’s moral responsibilities go much beyond the paying of taxes. A thorough examination of the passage would require that we understand Roman money and taxation, synagogue finances, and Hebrew politics at the time, and from the Church fathers to John Courntey Murray, various interpretations have been offered to satisfy almost everyone.

What does jump out of the text, though, is the question asked of Christ: it bears a great resemblance to Jim Wallis’s “What Would Jesus Cut?” The Pharisees come to Christ with the allies of Herod, having invented a question that entangles politics and religion—they would like Him to wade into the Jewish-Roman debate, where he might be caught serving two masters. Christ will have none of it—he quickly parries the question and leaves his questioners, as always, “marveling.”

2000 years later, attempts to frame taxation as a doctrinal issue should be given no more attention than the Pharisees’ received. It seems that in focusing to closely on the red letters of the gospel, certain Christians have missed the words of Christ’s interlocutors.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was named the next archbishop of Philadelphia on Tuesday, and mainstream coverage of the story immediately turned to sex abuse scandals. Which makes a lot of sense because, you know, that has dominated his tenure in Denver. As John Allen pointed out, that’s not the case at all, but George Weigel reminds us not to expect anything else.

What Archbishop Chaput is justly notable for is his Christian contribution to public debate. In his books, including the influential best-seller Render Unto Caesar, his writings in periodicals, and even his testimony before Congress, the Archbishop has been a model of evangelization of the secular world. He sees the Christian vocation to preach the Gospel as inseparable from an engagement in the public square. As he told John Allen, evangelization “is about trying to see the best of the world around us and to show how the Gospel makes it better and richer, and how the Gospel at the same time corrects it and purifies it. There’s no way the Gospel can embrace and purify the world unless it knows the world.”

Now Archbishop Chaput has been considerably more engaged in public life than many bishops, but he insists that an engagement driven by the Gospel cannot be a passive one, that a cleric is “unavoidably a leader, not a facilitator or coordinator of dialogue. A priest can’t just be a man of dialogue and consensus, because at some point he also has to lead.”

The Archbishop is a model for other Christian leaders whose congregations look to them for guidance when religion and public policy intersect. He combines Christian charity with absolute fidelity to Christian moral precepts and proper circumspection. His position on Health Care exemplifies this attitude:

Health care, of course, is one of the things the church has done in imitation of Jesus Christ, who came to heal the sick and to drive out evil in the world. It’s very important for us to be involved, but in a way that Jesus is involved, and not to do anything at all that would contravene the teachings of the Gospel.

As St.Paul said, “We may never do evil that good may come about” (Romans 3:8). Chaput is one of those bishops who understands that while Christians may have prudential disagreements about how to realize a good end, there are certain accommodations that a Christian may never make. The distinction is missed by many Christians and non-Christians.

Archbishop Chaput’s approach to public discourse may best be summed up by his answer to Allen’s Benedict-or-John Paul question at the end of their interview: “I hope that I have the evangelical energy of John Paul II, and the clarity of preaching of Benedict XVI.” That is quite an aspiration, but it is one which all Christians, and especially clergy, ought to share.