In the gospel for today, the Pharisees set up a trap for Jesus. It’s a trap many of us find ourselves in today. They want Jesus to choose between church and state. Because Jesus has been critical of the religious establishment, they are trying to set him up- to trap him. They ask him if it is lawful to pay a poll tax that was very unpopular with Jesus’ followers; unpopular because it was a huge financial strain. If Jesus answered that it was legal to pay, he would lose his following and popular authority. But it was a tax imposed by the Roman authority, so if he answered that it wasn’t legal, the Roman authorities would have his head for sedition. Either answer would end Jesus’ growing authority and threat to the religious establishment. Jesus, of course, outsmarts them and finds an answer that evades their trap. But the question it presents is really the question of the relationship between God and empire, between church and state.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann argues that the church has fallen prey to Caesar by limiting itself to filling roles that the state cannot play. The church has been glad to fill the gap of focusing on private, inward experiences, for example. This weakened church also does things like provide fellowship and warmth, or meaning- things that the state can’t do and which don’t threaten the state.
While none of these are inherently bad things for the church to do, these are primarily functions of civil religion. They are functions of a church that is complicit with the state. The Church was not born out of complicity with the state (as the question from the Pharisees shows us), and a church of civil religion comes out of a long and complex history of the church betraying those roots and bedding the empire, which is ironically the very thing Jesus was trying to avoid in his answer to this question.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian during World War II who was deeply troubled by the Church’s complicity with the state during the rise of the Nazi party.
I do not know if we are in a Bonhoeffer moment. But one article I read this week suggested that we may be, and that we do not need to be facing a Hitler-style attack on US democracy in order to be in a Bonhoeffer moment. The author suggested that the
ground may be slipping out from under our feet:
When mass murders occur in elementary school, houses of worship, music festivals, night clubs, shopping malls, and parking lots;
When Neo-Naazis surround a church chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” and when those protesting hate are run over or shot;
When courts find that voting law revisions have racist overtones;
And when Christian leaders respond with contradictory visions of gospel, church, and state;
Are we in a Bonhoeffer moment? If we are, what does that mean for the relationship between church and state? Is civil religion enough to stop the evil?
Bonhoeffer is so powerful I just want to read to you a quote from his 1942 Christmas letter:
“Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”
For Bonhoeffer, the answer lies in making our entire lives an answer to the question and call of God, because there are too many sacrifices required for us to live any way except through complete faithfulness. Reason fails because it doesn’t accomplish anything; it’s discarded by its opponents. Moral intensity fails because it gets trapped in minutiae. Conscience fails because there may only be bad choices, so we may not escape this with a clean conscience. And those who want to bury their heads in the sand just get numb to the pain of the world around them- not making any real change. It’s faithfulness that is the only answer.
The Church may be nice and we may need a rich inward life, a life of fellowship, and a strong institution to do that. But if we have those things without remembering that we are here to build the kingdom of God, to work for the Kingdom of God where love is embedded into the way every system, every relationship, every kingdom, every empire, every nation works, then we aren’t doing our job. In baptism, we Covenanted to put God’s law of love above any other law, and be joined as citizens of the Kingdom of God above any other nation or kingdom. That is what the Church’s primary purpose is– to effect God’s law of Love, even and especially when Caesar, or any other nation or power or province, threatens it. How serious and faithful are we willing to be about that?
“Give to God what is God’s,” says Jesus in his answer— and the joke’s on the Pharisees because there is nothing that doesn’t belong to God, even the coin to be given to the emperor. How often we want to separate Caesar from God, just like the Pharisees, or claim God when it is convenient.
We, the Church, aren’t very good at this faithfulness thing. We forget, and we succumb to partisan politics. We try really hard to make that question- the one the Pharisees’ asked Jesus about Caesar or God- we work to make it benefit the Democrat or the Republican platforms. “God’s on our side,” we pronounce, instead of asking, “How can we get on God’s side.” God has a side. But if one party or another happens to be on the same side, it doesn’t mean that the party that has been blessed now and forever! How do we as faithful people get on God’s side on issues where love is at stake while claiming our citizenship in the Kingdom before anything else? It’s hard, and we won’t always do it well. Maybe that’s why people get skeptical when the Church moves out of the realm of civil religion. But as both Moltmann and Bonhoeffer pointed out, to stay out of it altogether is to abrogate our whole mission as a Church.
Even though we will do it imperfectly, and even though we will disagree in the Church on how to do it, the beauty is that God is still faithful! That’s the point. God doesn’t stop working on this broken world, and our call as the Church is to come back here, over and over again, and to remember, and to go out there, and to help others remember, and to proclaim it, and to use that restored faithfulness to see the God in others, and be changed, and to let that change spread in the world, even when its hard, and even when it requires hard choices, and even when it may mean we have to give up our own principles and certainty, and even when we are made uncomfortable in looking for God in the other. That is just part of living a faithful life.
Are we in a Bonhoeffer moment? If we are, what sacrifices will we make to be faithful to God’s law of love? I believe that if this is a Bonhoeffer moment it may be a very different kind than the kind Bonhoeffer himself faced, or that at least we have a window yet to treat it differently. Of course we have to speak truth to power, and all the rest, but this last story is what is on my mind this day:
There is a new show I can’t wait to see. I’ve only seen the trailers. It is from a comedian I love, Sarah Silverman. Sarah Silverman, in past shows, is known for being ruthless in poking fun at everyone. She is hopelessly liberal.
But in this show she does something different. She goes out into rural America. She talks with people who have very different views from her on things like guns, gays, and God. And then she makes friends with them. I’m still not really sure how she does it. But it is beautiful. I’m not sure any minds are changed, but that is not really the point. The vitriol is changed. Relationships are formed, and the anger is sucked out of the room. And community is built. How can evil survive in those circumstances?
The Rev. Cn. Jeff Martinhauk
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.