By Debie Thomas
As I write this essay, the United States is twenty-five days out from an election that feels existential. Regardless of where we stand politically, it feels like everything we care about is on the ballot. As a nation, we are divided, anguished, bruised, and broken. Some of us have lost our ability to extend grace or generosity to people whose views differ from ours. Some of us have become so jaded, hardened, and cynical, we can’t afford to feel what churns beneath our numbness.
Personally, I write this week as a woman who finds President Trump’s misogyny inexcusable, as a person of color who is terrified by his racist beliefs and policies, as a parent who cannot stomach the indecency and dishonesty he exposes my children to on a daily basis, and as a daughter of immigrants who feels as if America is slowly but surely withdrawing its welcome from people who look like me.
But I also write in the full awareness that I have Christian friends, family members, and readers who hold radically different political views than I do — and to whom I owe every bit of love, respect, and faithfulness I can muster, apart from politics. So I’m struggling to find a way forward, struggling to do what Jesus asks of me in this week’s Gospel lesson: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
On its face, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel is about taxation. The Pharisees and the Herodians, eager to entrap Jesus and expedite his arrest, approach him with a question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (We know from history that it’s a trick question. The Pharisees of Jesus’s day saw the tribute tax as a heretical and antinationalist capitulation to a pagan emperor, while the Herodians viewed refusing to pay the tax as sedition.) Jesus understands that answering either way is a lose-lose proposition. He also knows that the question proceeds not from curiosity, but from pure malice. Though his interlocutors approach him with flattery (“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth”), Jesus knows that their intentions are sinister.
So he takes a Roman coin — a coin that honors the Roman emperor as a deity — and offers the Pharisees and Herodians an ambiguous, “both-and” answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” How typical of Jesus — not only to respond to a challenge with an even greater challenge, but to insist that the relationship between faith and politics is too complex to reduce to platitudes — or tweets.
It’s important to stop here, and note what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say that there are two distinct realms, the religious and the secular, and that they require our equal fidelity. What he says is far more subtle and complicated: the coin is already the emperor’s — there’s his face stamped right on it — so give it to him. But then consider the much harder question: What belongs to God? What kind of tribute do we owe to God?
The Roman coins of Jesus’ day bore the image of the emperor. From the opening chapters of Genesis, we know that as human beings created by God, we bear God’s image. God’s likeness is stamped into us and upon us. God’s signature is written across our very beings. Which means — if we keep the analogy going — that we owe God everything. Our whole and entire selves. Any fantasy we might harbor of dividing up the secular and the sacred is simply that. A fantasy. We cannot separate Caesar’s realm from God’s realm when everything — everything — belongs to God.
But what does it mean to give God what belongs to God in these hard and divisive days? How do we bear forth God’s image while our families, communities, and churches splinter over political and cultural differences that seem unbridgeable? How do we live into the all-encompassing reign of God while a scorched-earth, ideology-driven, “the end justifies the means” divisiveness reigns within American Christendom?
The thing is, when I read the Gospels, I don’t see a Jesus who cares more about the end than the means. If anything, he privileges the means: the one who calls himself the Way understands that the way we go about achieving our goals — the language we use or abuse, the stories we privilege or silence, the people we protect or oppress, the sins we confess or indulge, the truths we proclaim or deny — these make all the difference in the world.
As Christians, we don’t have the option of fudging on the love and mercy of God for some “greater” political end result. We can’t isolate our political choices and actions, as if they don’t reflect who we are as image-bearers of our Creator. If everything belongs to God, then our spiritual lives and our political lives must cohere. They must not contradict each another. Which is to say: what is technically “legal” isn’t always compassionate. What is politically expedient isn’t always just, merciful, righteous, or life-giving. Our political leaders are not our gods. Our “rendering unto Caesar” must always take second place to what we render unto God.
So. When I look to Jesus to think about how to practice my faith in the political realm, I see no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. I see no permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another person’s suffering, no evidence that truth telling is optional. I see no kingdom that favors the contemptuous over the brokenhearted and no church that thrives for long when it aligns itself with power.
Christians have spilled much ink over America’s current political situation. Every argument and counterargument has been made ad nauseam, and as far as I can tell, no one has the heart to listen to our opponents with genuine curiosity or compassion anymore. But maybe this is exactly the place where Jesus’ teaching becomes the sharpest and most relevant. As an image-bearer of a loving, forgiving, and gracious God, maybe what I owe God in this hour is the very grace and generosity he extends to me and to all of us.
Figuring out my taxes is the easy part. What’s much harder is living out my political convictions with a Christlike humility, with a compassion that embraces my political other as a brother or sister. But if I really belong to God, if I really am fashioned in God’s image, then I need to practice my faith and my politics in ways that reflect who God is — whether I like the current resident of the White House or not. It’s not a question of backing down, or of being dishonest, or of watering down my beliefs. It’s a question of remembering that the God whose image I bear is a God of endless and sacrificial love.
So yes, by all means give the emperor what belongs to him. But remember that our first loyalty is to a kingdom that will remain long after earthly empires rise and fall. “Caesar’s” realm is limited and temporal. God’s reign is eternal and all-encompassing. Give to God what is God’s. In short: give God everything.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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