Jesus’ Government

Not again! Another politician “denies any wrongdoing,” but resigns his post. As the great American philosopher Jimmy Hatlo used to say, they’ll do it every time.

Why does corruption in government always surprise us? Why do we expect anything else from it? Government is organized force. It takes our wealth and makes war. And we think honest men would do that work?

Well, honest men have sincerely tried, but look at the results and ask yourself whether honesty has any inherent tendency to prevail in politics. War, taxation, waste, debt, inflation, hatred, hypocrisy, cynicism, social disorder. And also — amazingly enough! — corruption.

As I often say, expecting government to produce good results is like expecting a tiger to pull a plow. After the twentieth century, in which the world’s governments killed hundreds of millions of their own subjects, everyone ought to talk about the state the way Jews talk about Hitler. Yet we still have high hopes for this beast, because, after all, the mighty tiger is certainly strong enough to pull that plow if he wanted to! If only.

Even most Christians believe in the state, though Jesus never urged his followers to take political action. A very devout and intelligent Catholic socialist friend of mine argues that Jesus legitimized the state when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

But that’s reading an awful lot into a few words. Jesus wasn’t preaching to his followers at that moment; he certainly wasn’t preaching statism, let alone the authority of pagan emperors who claimed divinity and demanded idolatry. No, he was retorting to a trick question from his enemies, and he answered with a witty tautology. It might have been taken to mean, “Give Caesar everything he claims, and also give God his due.” But it could also mean, “Give Caesar nothing, and God everything.” Or it might mean something else; Jesus didn’t specify.

It was a brilliant ad lib. Jesus’ enemies were trying to bait him into endorsing either idolatry or sedition, and he deftly sidestepped them with a sentence the world still remembers. Not exactly a hearty vote of confidence in those who wield power, it seems to me.

Government doesn’t get much help from the Gospels. Don’t resist evil. Don’t fret about tomorrow. Trust your Father in heaven. The truth will make you free. He who takes up the sword will die by the sword. This is not advice our own Caesars are apt to take.

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