October 19, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
This morning we welcomed two new members into the community of faith by baptism. Baptism begins the process of the development of Christian character. This is a formation of an identity that is centered in a sense of God. This sense gives an identity for world care. It is a development of a faith that is more than private and has public implications for how we act and live in the world. We are forming a child of God so that they will reflect in their living the beauty and aim of God. An identity that has implications for our social and political worlds.
In the political events here and the USA, we hear much about what should be the role of faith in determining how we should be as a society. How should it influence how we organize ourselves as a community?
There are some who suggest faith is only private, should be private, and has no implications for action. Then there are others who suggest that the political realm ought to reflect Christian values - which we hear in the phrase we are a Christian nation. Still others struggle with the idea of separation of church and state, and understand that no one religious group ought to be privileged, and that the state ought not institutionalize one group or interfere in a religious group. And yes, there is a role for influence, but as one of many insights about how we are to be a moral state. Persuasion, not force - no absolute this is God’s will in this action, but more God offers an aim toward well being. In response we struggle to create provisional and human shaped ways of creating well being, for there are only generalized guidelines. It is a process of discernment and what we create is continually being revised and made better.
Our text for this morning reflects this issue. It has been used in many different ways to develop a political ethic. This reminds us that the reading of any text is always one of interpretation. And interpretation demands two reflective actions - the context of the text and our context. Each gives insight and our context shapes a reading or understanding of the text for us.
It is important to understand this ironic statement of Jesus, in its historical context, before we apply it as political ethic. Then we must be aware of our context to make the ethic helpful for our life today.
Remember that Rome was an oppressive empire. Caesar was considered to be a god by Rome. Within this context, two groups questioned Jesus about paying taxes. The Herodians were happy to do the dirty work of the Romans. The Pharisees were concerned with the reformation of Judaism and did not visible challenge the hegemony of Rome. The context was everything belongs to the Caesar. Jesus offers an ironic counter to this world view. Everything belongs to God, and thus even the Caesar and what he claims belongs to God. It is a challenge to the idea of Caesar is supreme.
One reading to be taken from this is all claims of absolute power of the state are to be questioned. And one can participate without giving allegiance in paying taxes, for God will make it for the good.
Our context is different. We are a minority voice in a political process that we have helped developed. What we have created reflects, in some way, the insights coming from the idea of this is God’s world and the aim of God is for well being. The political process has evolved where we now suggest that the role of the state is to bring well being and the state is not absolute - it is based on the will of the people.
This is in tension, though, with another theme of how we understand democratic values. There is the idea of that what we have achieved is best that there is and that in some sense democracy is a divine mission. The state, then, becomes the method of God to achieve the aim of God and is one with that aim. We see this in some of the rhetoric we hear proposed by the religious right in the USA and here. It is conflating the state to God, and thus making service to the state as the same as service to God. Here the ironic comment of Jesus is helpful for it reminds us that loyalty to the state has a limited demand on us. It is not my country right our wrong. For the Christian, identity is formed by a sense of God and our loyalty to the state is only a limited obligation. Giving unto Caesar is to understand that our political structures are human shaped out of reflections on the aim of God, the needs of others. This means every political structure is open to revision and transformation. For as we grow in wisdom and knowledge we can and must create more humane political structures.
This view also helps us challenge language like the free market is natural. For that language suggests how we organize ourselves economically is a given by nature, when it is not. The market is a context of exchange not a force. This is to see that economics is really a helpful fiction - a human shaped reality. This allows us to create and revise our economic theories so they will work toward the common good. Thus the aim of the common good will direct our shaping of society.
What then is the Christians role in political reality? We begin with the idea that values do influence action. We have a role in developing a more caring and compassionate reality. What we must do is to hold our insights humbly, as an important voice in the discussion. It to understand we need to offer our insights based on Christian values, and to understand those values are also in the process of growing in wisdom. We cannot identify our important and provisional insights as the will of God, for they are our reflections - our best approximation - of the aim of God toward compassion and justice. We get precision by testing our insights by participating in the open discussion of how we want the world to be, it is to grow in wisdom by seeing how our values actually do create the common good.
In a reflection* on why we vote, it was said we vote because we are part of social life and we indicate that we are a member of a larger community. Some research suggests that religious people are more likely to vote. Rendering unto Caesar is to understand that God works through human shaped institutions. We are called to help shape a world that cares for those at its edge, for creation. We do that in the political realm. Part of the Christian identity is, we are a community thus giving unto Caesar calls us to vote and participate is the civic world. Further, one researcher suggests we vote because we are concerned with the welfare of others. He added it is welfare about those like us.
This is a beginning of “other regarding behavior.” The Christian identity we seek to create moves us to the care of others who are different from us. We transcend self interest by seeing all of creation as God’s concern. This attitude transcends our self interested views which would lead us to vote for those who would enrich those like me. Other concern pushes us to see enrichment is for all, not just my group or family and thus shapes us for the care of all of creation.
The paying of taxes, then, is a statement of our values for our common humanity and our collective trust. It is to see that the least benefit from our well being and one way we do that is through the government. Our identity is to seek the welfare of our present world. It is also to work for a better world than we now have, to seek ways that all can participate in the common good. This is the meaning of baptism.
* The Ottawa Citizen Oct. 14, 2008 (A4)