There is trickery afoot in the political arena and it is nothing new. I am not referring to anything specific about recent debate banter, political tweets, or even flies landing on candidates. I am referring to a political tactic that involves a kind of spiritual trickery for your allegiance.
Most people have heard the popularized quote of Jesus from Mark 12:17, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and what is God’s unto God,” but relatively few people that I have met actually grasp the particular circumstances that Jesus faced when he gave that response. In Matthew 22:15-22, we get a better look at the situation.
The Roman Empire at its strongest point had conquered nearly 50 countries. When it did so, it would usually allow the native country to maintain most of its beliefs and rituals as it occupied the given nation. But the condition of this freedom was that the Romans required the occupied country to pay taxes to the Empire. This was the case for Israel.
For obvious reasons, the Israelites hated the occupation and the taxation that came with it. They wanted to be a sovereign nation and believed that they would be liberated by the coming Messiah.
The disdain for taxation was such a big deal among the Israelites that in about 6 CE, a Jewish man named Judas of Galilee led a resistance against the Roman aristocrat Quirinius, who had imposed the first census in Judea for the purpose of enforcing Roman taxes. Judas led a significant revolt against Quirinius with the help of Zadok the Pharisee and a large number of Zealots who were theocratic nationalists. The uprising was so significant that the Jewish historian Josephus ultimately blamed the actions of this group as being the cause for the First Jewish-Roman War that occurred later in 66-73CE.
And, if you remember from Jesus’ preaching, this is exactly the type of conflict that Jesus was regularly advocating against, continually warning that violence only begets violence. Hatred only begets hatred.
In Judas of Galilee’s case, that was exactly what had happened. When the Romans squelched the Jewish revolt, they decided to send a message to the whole of Israel by crucifying members of the resistance along the roads across the countryside. Everyone in Judea would have known about the incident, and many in Jesus’ time would have remembered witnessing these crucifixions. And as a result of this painful memory, the issue of taxation was still an inflamed political tension in Jesus’ day.
In Matthew 22, the religious leaders try to use these events that were still relatively fresh in the culture’s memory to discredit Jesus. They ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The purpose of the question is to put Jesus on the spot. It would be assumed that anyone leading a kingdom-of-God movement would oppose the tax, but if one were to do so openly, they too might end up on a cross.
Jesus dodges the spiritual trickery with the aforementioned retort, but he does so by demonstrating a fact that followers of Christ should keep in mind: our first allegiance must not be to any nation, but to God alone.
All of this reminds me of a story I once read. A surgeon, an engineer, and a politician were debating which of their professions was the oldest. The surgeon said, “Eve was made from Adam’s rib, and that of course was a surgical procedure. Obviously, surgery is the oldest profession.” The engineer countered with, “Yes, but before that, order was created out of chaos, and that most certainly was an engineering job.” Hearing this, the politician smiled and said triumphantly, “And just who do you think created the chaos?”
I don’t know about you, but when I watch political coverage on the news these days, that joke hits a little close to home. Our current political election cycle has become like an extended reality TV show, and “chaos” may be understating what is happening right now. All one needs do is watch the news and it appears that America is at war with itself. Slander, divisiveness, and vitriol surround our presidential candidates.
This has often caused me to ponder, what teaching from Jesus Christ taught us to view a political candidate–or any person for that matter–with such disdain, such hatred? Spoiler alert: there isn’t any.
To the contrary, Christians are to support our presidential candidates spiritually. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, the Apostle Paul urges Christians to be “making requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving for everyone” – for government leaders and all those in authority. Paul wrote this letter as a charge to develop the directive that he had given his young assistant: among other things, refute false teachings.
And do you know who was in power when Paul wrote this letter to Timothy? The notorious Roman Emperor Nero. Nero: the Christian Killer. The non-Christian historian Tacitus details Nero as “extensively torturing and executing Christians.” Christian writer Tertullian is the first to call Nero the first persecutor of Christians. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea writes that Paul was beheaded in Rome during Nero’s reign and that it was specifically Nero’s persecution that led to Peter and Paul’s deaths.
But, again, what does the apostle Paul urge folks to be doing? To be making requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving for everyone.
Quite frankly, we as modern Christians have failed to do our Christian duty in this regard.
What I’ve witnessed instead is mockery, slander, and dehumanizing verbiage. You know what I’m talking about; you’ve heard it for months on end. And I just want to point out the fact that when we lose compassion for other human beings and when we stop being intentional about going after the lost, then we are sacrificing individual and collective pieces of our humanity and exchanging them for evil.
Any follower of Jesus knows that the slander, the back and forth insults and accusations, the hatred that is displayed…we all know that is not of Jesus Christ. We know it. Both candidates are doing it. The media is doing it. Our local candidates are doing it. Many of us do it. But that is not the way of Jesus.
We need to progress to a place of Christian maturity where we are committed to continually praying for all of our political candidates, win or lose. And we need to pray regularly that they will be conformed to the will of Christ.
I believe that the deep division that we are seeing in our country today is a result of poor spiritual behavior. It’s a kind of spiritual trickery, even. It keeps us from progressing in our relationship with one another and with God.
When we say to one another, “If you don’t do things my way you are my enemy, and I will slander you,” or worse yet, “I will harm you,” or worse yet, “I will abandon you”– then we aren’t acting in Christ, we are simply holding each other hostage in evil.
We also need to remember that the reconciliation of the world can only happen though Love. Redemption can only happen through Love. Peace can only happen through Love. Justice can only happen through Love. And the lost will only be found in Love.
But if we abandon Christ’s command to love one another in our search for theological clarity, or if we are quick to abandon one another over ideological disagreements, then we have already succumbed to becoming the very opposite of what we aspire to be in Jesus Christ.
It’s like the old cynic’s saying goes: “If you think you’re getting too much government, just be thankful you aren’t getting as much as you’re paying for.” Observing what has been happening to our country in this political season, I think that we are all paying dearly, and what is at stake is far more than our tax dollars. It is jeopardizing our very integrity.
Jesus calls Christians to follow him before everything else: family, friends, our favorite sports team, money, power, political allegiance, and yes, even nationalism. Let us not forget that it is overly ardent nationalism that has spurred global wars. We must be careful to not forsake the liberty that others died for by replacing it with nationalistic fervor. God and God alone is worthy of the Christian’s worship and praise.
We are not called to forsake the image in which we are created in order to support nationalism; we are called to live more fully into our responsibilities as God’s image bearers so that we can help shape a better version of the world. We are not called to represent the party of the Elephant or the Donkey; we are called to represent the party of the Lamb.
Every Christian is called by Christ to love their neighbor and to seek the justice that represents that love. The Christian is not to be satisfied with the way the world is, but instead, we are to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world to help transform the world into a new, better, creation.
God’s grace is humanity’s long-term future, not some nation. I think that all Christians would be well served to remember these teachings of Jesus that remind us of a simple fact, that our allegiance is to God first, so that spiritual trickery will never discredit us and lead us astray.
Reality Changing Observations:
1. In your opinion, how do political elections impact the local church?
2. What single reform to the election process might encourage civic unity?
3. What can you do to exude the love of Jesus during political elections?