Christians in a Polarized Culture
29th Sunday OT_Cycle A
The first thing I was warned about when coming to Butte was to be wary when talking about politics. And in the inadequate time I have spent studying the history of this great town, I can understand why. There has been tremendous tension, sometimes violence, around that very topic. So, I enter this hallowed ground with the utmost respect for that history, and respect for each of you.
Yet, all the same, today’s gospel presents us with Jesus’ political theory. He gives us — in a single, pithy statement — the underlying principle and foundation for healthy relations between Church and State. We as Catholics must understand this relationship because it will help us not to fall into errors.
The gospel this weekend is political. Yet it is my hope to draw out the ways in which Jesus’ ‘politics’ don’t fit into our system. Jesus strives today to give us as Christians, as citizens of heaven and pilgrims on this earth, a political cornerstone of sorts.
First, before we dig into the implications of Jesus words, let us look at their context. There were essentially three groups within the Jewish people of Jesus time. First, the Pharisees with whom Jesus seems to interact most often, and who, although he is harsh at times, has great respect and reverence for. They are the strictest, most conservative group, and rooted in their religious zeal was a deep hated for Roman oppression.
There are the Sadducees, who are the aristocracy. They were more liberal than the Pharisees, and they did not believe in the resurrection. They were more friendly to the Romans.
Finally, there are the Herodians, who have thrown in their lot with the Romans, are fully cooperative with the Roman state, including its taxes. They were in favor of assimilation.
As you can imagine, these groups were not on good terms. Yet in their common desperation and continued attempts to catch Jesus off guard, all three were willing to team up.
So, Jesus is presented with a question- should we pay taxes to our Roman overlords? Standing in front of him are Pharisees, who would love to frame him as a friend of the Romans if he was in favor of the census tax, and the Herodians, who would go immediately to the local Roman officials and oust Jesus as a conspirator if he were to reject the Roman tax.
So, what does he do? He refuses to fall into their false dichotomy. These men were feeling out Jesus’ political worldview, trying to fit him into some understandable category.
Fitting Jesus in any sort of political box is, of course, impossible, for his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. Instead, Jesus presents us with a new political perspective.
First, by pointing to the inscription on the coinage and acknowledging the legitimacy of taxes in general, he is acknowledging a necessity of the civil power. Christianity is not a theocracy. We can see that, at its best, the Church has never tried to be a theocracy. There are certainly examples in history, either as the result of necessity or corruption, when bishops were effectively princes. Yet the ideal has always been the separation of civil and religious power. Why is this necessary? St. John Chrysostom had a great answer to this question- Why must the civil law exist? “Because people think more of the present than of the future.” By this he means that we forget about God and our Christian identity too often. Thus, putting the civil power into the hands of the Church- or the other way around- would lead to the corruption of both.
So, what should that separation look like? This has been the debate through the ages, and it is too much to fit into any homily.
Yet, we cannot leave it here, for Jesus words give us more than just a warning against the dangers of theocracy. What does he say: “Render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s, and unto God what is God’s.” What is Caeser’s? What is the scope of our government, what honor and allegiance are due it? If you asked 10 Americans that question, you would get 11 answers.
What is God’s? What honor and allegiance are due to our heavenly father? This, at least for us as Christians, ought to be perfectly clear. The whole universe belongs to God. To be a Christian is not to belong to a club or society or even to be a citizen of a country. It is to make a bold statement about the meaning of life.
Here we are, Jesus has affirmed the necessity of a civil power, but he has clearly set this civil power in its proper context — that is, the context that the universe belongs to God, so all human activity ought to direct us to that end.
Alright, what does the fact that I am Catholic first, American second, matter in my life today? I find it incredibly helpful — probably more today than ever before in our country. I think I can say without risk of backlash that our country is seriously divided, every topic is marked out and polarized. Also, something I find even more disturbing than the division is the way we frame the arguments. Every talking-point is framed in a way that forces division.
Americans are forced into liberal or conservative platforms. Yet, as Catholics, if we are honest, we do not fit into either of those categories. To buy wholesale into one narrative or the other in today’s political world is impossible.
Do I have an answer? Not in any detail, except to say that we as Christians need to strive to escape the polarized narrative that is presented to us. We cannot continue to let the culture dictate the terms of the conversation on any particular issue. We in the Church must let our mind be formed by God alone, not a news station- regardless of the angle!
This homily had to be political, and though I hope not to have offended anyone’s sentiments, I do feel we have to acknowledge our culture is tending toward post-Christian every day. And though we are called to Christian hope, we are not called to be naïve so I do not imagine we will change the trajectory anytime soon. This does not mean we back out of the political battle — that’s not in our blood — but it does mean we need to be prudent. Whose narrative are we listening to?
We can identify ourselves as many things. Are you first, before anything else, a disciple of Christ? I am. If you are as well, you must let that form your whole person, including your politics.