Friday, December 14, 2007

Liberty and Christianity Part I - Render “What” Unto Caesar?

As a Christian anarcho-libertarian, I wrestle continuously with the passages of scripture regarding the relationship and authority of secular government within the human realm. To many of my brothers and sisters, these scriptures putatively ascribe divine endorsement for the State, whatever that is.

The subject has been discussed in my friend Doug Bandow’s wonderful book Beyond Good Intentions, and elsewhere. Those discussions have always proved to be unsatisfactory to me and insufficient for me to arrive at a comfortable level of understanding and enaction.

In the upcoming essay “On Christian Citizenship” I will turn my attentions to those passages that appear to promote the legitimacy of civil authorities such as Romans 13 (almost universally misinterpreted), but for the moment I’m sticking to the memorable passage from Matthew 22.

15. Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.
16. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.
17. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
18. But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
19. Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.
20. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
21. They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.
Living as a believer of more than 40 years and among conservative evangelicals, I have always been surrounded by this tension of competing yet simultaneous citizenships. I am a member of the human race, a citizen of the nation-state USA, and a redeemed child of God. One urges me to be humane (usually without objectively defining it), another to be lawful, yet another to be righteous.

Recently I have gone back to the to the question of “Rendering therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” Perhaps as a result of living as a hostage through the reign of Xlintoon and contemplating its reprise, I wonder exactly what does that phrase mean?

The “render” part I get without difficulty. But what about “that which is Caesar’s?” I have no desire to be sacrilegious, but is it as superficial as the old economics joke punch line, “You can set the tax rate as long as I get to determine what is taxable”?

Who gets to say “What Caesar’s” is?

I am not talking about the instances where Caesar is explicitly commanding us to place him above God, to violate directly our duties to faith and obedience to God as we live out our lives of devotion and ministry. Only in the radical religious Left is there any sense that Caesar trumps God at all times.

“That which is Caesar’s” could have two very distinct and dramatically different meanings. The first, a materialistic view, could be paraphrased “that which is owned by Caesar.”

The second meaning, a more ephemeral construct, might be expressed as “those areas of human activity where Caesar has legitimate authority to regulate and control that behavior.” And, in fact, the vast majority of civil laws follows the latter model. Ideally, and mostly in practice, law serves to tell us what we cannot do that we would rather do if left to our own inclinations. This principle has been augmented (and corrupted) by the notion that law also requires us to do that which we would rather not do.

Yet a third concept, and the basis for all modern government, is that the State serves as the catalyst and vehicle for taking the property of one person or entity and transferring it to another to whom it does not belong and who has no rightful claim to it. [ed. note: See Bastiat's The Law for a discussion on "legal plunder."]

Let’s return to an analysis of “What Caesar’s is” first in the material, then in the behavioral realm.


Am I Caesar’s property? Is my mind? Is my labor and its fruit? Are my possessions his property?

As a practical matter of realpolitik and societal circumstances, the answer might be “yes,” but the coercion of politics is not the same thing as legitimate authority. Caesar may treat me as chattel and confiscate my abilities, my labors, and my possessions at the point of a gun, but that doesn’t make it legitimately his. One thing is certain: Scripture is explicitly clear about the role of self, talents, labor, and property in righteous stewardship. These things are not Caesar’s. They are God’s, entrusted to humans to use as wise stewards in His service.

But what about those who are not believers, who don’t accept the Lordship of Elohim and Logos in their lives? It doesn’t matter. Acknowledging or not acknowledging God cannot be the determining factor is describing the relationship of a citizenry to its civil authorities. To argue otherwise would be to justify the notion that “equal protection under the law” is an abhorrent idea. Caesar does not own us, he does not own our talents, he does not own our labors, he does not own our property regardless of our relationship to God.


But what about the realms of behavior? Doesn’t Caesar have a legitimate authority to control that? Absolutely yes. Emphatically no. The distinction, and ensuing confusion, descends from competing visions of “What behavior?” and “Who is controlled?”

While Scripture has a clear message for what human behavior should be, it is far more focused on what behavior must be for certain humans, namely the Remnant of believers, who are commanded to righteousness. The principles of general human behavior are codified in the Ten Commandments. This becomes even more specific in the New Testament exhortations on living devout lives. It is a set of instructions on how Christians should, and in some cases, must, live, not how their pagan neighbors should or must live.

In so doing, Scripture is drawing a distinction between righteousness and lawfulness, and sin and crime.

Caesar's Owns Almost Nothing

But what is the right and ultimate purpose of Caesar? To, protect me from myself, or to protect me from others, and them from me? Things I do to myself, or in concert with other willing participants, may be sinful but not necessarily criminal. On the other hand, behaviors I inflict on others who are unwilling participants, may certainly be sinful and criminal, and are therefore a legitimate area of “that which is Caesar’s.”

Since the passage in Matthew explicitly mentions currency, it is fair to conclude that transactions involving state-sponsored currency are also arenas falling under Caesar’s authority. But what about transactions based on bullion, or private scrip, or barter?

In the end, I have derived the following understanding of that “Which is Caesar’s.”
  1. Caesar has the legitimate authority to protect us from each other. That’s about it.
  2. He does not own me, although he may, as a practical matter, enslave me by force.
  3. He does not own my time, talents, and labor, although he may, as a practical matter, conscript me illegitimately.
  4. He doesn’t own my possessions, although he may extort or confiscate them at the point of a gun.
I now have no internal conflict about “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's” because that which is Caesar’s is almost nothing. In everything else I owe no allegiance to him, and do not feel compelled to render anything.


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