Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk…(They asked), “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, hypocrites?” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” - Matthew 22:15-21
There’s never been a clear consensus about the relationship between Christians and their societies. Shirley Guthrie, who taught at Columbia Theological Seminary, wrote in his book, Christian Doctrine, that, as a “holy people,” we are “in but not of the world,” and that Christians have their ‘citizenship’ not on earth but in heaven (Phil. 3:20).” H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture, identifies five manifestations of this relationship: Christ Against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture. Where we see Christ in relation to culture helps reveal our own relationship to the secular, and why strong differences exist.
Here are a couple of examples of this lack of consensus, one from the 1500’s, and one that is current:
The German Peasants’ War, 1524-25, was partially inspired by the Protestant Reformation, with peasants seeking to end the oppression they suffered under the nobles. To their chagrin, Martin Luther was intensely against their revolt, endorsing the slaughter of the peasants, “as you would a rabid dog.” Luther believed that God institutes governing authorities, so people must be subject to them. As Paul says in Rom. 13:2, “Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed…” It’s estimated that 100,000 peasants met the fate Luther endorsed, and the nobles prevailed. However, Ulrich Zwingli, a leader of the Swiss Reformation (and early father of our Reformed Tradition), disagreed, supporting that rebellion. John Calvin would later write that, although he agreed with the notion that people should be obedient to the authorities, “earthly princes lay aside all of their power when they rise up against God…” Authorities had to live up to certain standards for obedience to be required, which opened the door to revolt.
A current example is what is being called “Christian Nationalism” or, more troublingly, “White Christian Nationalism.” Paul Miller, in Christianity Today, wrote, “Christian Nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way…(And it) “tends to treat other Americans as second-class citizens, (not respecting) the full religious liberty of all Americans.” Amanda Tyler, on a recent multi-denominational panel on the topic, said, “It’s a political ideology that seeks to merge Christian and American identities, so it suggests that to be a true American, one has to be a Christian, and to be a true Christian, one has to be an American…Both of these are fallacies. They violate foundational principles of American democracy (and of) worldwide Christianity.” It’s worth noting that our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has renounced the White Christian Nationalist ideology. Yet there are plenty of American Christians who fully endorse this kind of theocratic approach, while others prefer that the country embraces Christian values and principles as guides, without imposing a particular version of Christianity on everyone.
What is God’s and what is Caesar’s, and how can we be loyal to both? Can Christianity be superior to other religions in a multicultural democracy? How are we to understand the “separation of church and state”?…So many questions, and no prospect for consensus.