Citizens of God’s Kingdom
By Greg Albrecht—
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
”Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.—Matthew 22:15-22
During these early years of the 21st century, we North American Christians have struggled between loyalty to the countries in which we live and our faithfulness to God. In the last few years we have been challenged by what is called the war against terrorism, including the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our daily news informs us of seemingly endless bloodshed in the Middle East, not to mention the saber-rattling, or perhaps better described as “bomb blustering,” from Iran and North Korea.
There are a variety of Christian responses to warfare. Wherever Christians have lived and whenever they have occupied their place in history, Christianity has responded to war in a variety of ways. As with many issues, there are two extremes.
There are many faith communities that consider themselves Christian who see God on one side and government of any kind on the other. Government, by its very definition for such folks, is corrupt, evil and self-serving.
While there are times when we are all inclined to believe in this perspective, it does ignore fundamental issues that face Christians in this world. Does our calling as Christians mean that we should escape to a remote area, build a little log cabin, dig a well for fresh water, grow an organic vegetable garden and watch the world go to hell in a handbasket?
Are we, as Christians, given the luxury of getting off the playing field of what it means to live in this world but not of it (John 17:14-16), and retiring to the grandstand, watching everyone else deal with the challenges of society and culture?
Does the Bible allow us to take this detached, pious, divorced-from-all-reality posture, or to characterize it another way, to surrender our civilization to rank sinners who will run our world into the ground? Whatever happened to being a light, to making a difference?
Then there is the other extreme: believing a Christian should give complete, uncritical support to political and military powers (or at least, those whom we feel best suit our idea of what “Christian government” ought to be). Those who agree with such a view note that the Bible tells us (Romans 13:1-2) that God establishes human leaders and we should obey and follow them (at least if they, in our estimation, seem to be Christian, or, even better yet, our specific kind of Christian).
I believe one of the greatest examples of a Christian politician in contemporary America is former President Jimmy Carter. This is not to say I agree with all of his politics, in fact that is my very point. The fact is that President Carter was, it appears to me, far too much of a dedicated Christian to be an effective political leader.
I deliberately mention President Carter because he often polarizes the discussion for Christians, and at the same time presents a dilemma. There is no doubt in my mind that former President Carter is a Christ-follower, but for many fundamentalist-evangelical Christians, President Carter is not a good Christian, or maybe not even a Christian at all, because he is not a right-wing Republican.
Sadly, many conservative Christians have fallen for the idea that the only good politician is a conservative Republican politician. Many conservative Christians (yes, there is such a thing as a politically non-conservative Christian!) seem to be convinced that when someone whose politics and whose form of Christianity with whom they agree is in power, then God and politics are perfectly aligned.
For such individuals, including some highly influential Christian ministries (as I understand their views) patriotism and faith are one and the same. There doesn’t seem to be any boundary, given this view, between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.
Our passage today speaks to this issue. Matthew describes a time when some tried to get Jesus to choose between these two extremes. All they wanted, like so many religious people today, was a “yes” or “no” answer. Any answer, about any question or any issue, that is not a “yes” or “no” answer not only is unwelcome in many religious circles, it is viewed with grave suspicion.
The specific issue chosen by the Pharisees who wanted to trap Jesus was a poll tax. This tax was absolutely opposed and resented by patriotic Jews who had no difficulty blurring the boundaries between God and country, between faith and patriotism.
So this was a loaded question. If Jesus supported the tax, then he would be seen as unpatriotic. If he publicly opposed it, then his life may have ended long before it did, for the Romans did not take kindly to revolutionaries who fomented rebellion against their rule.
Jesus’ answer was masterful, wasn’t it? In so many words, Jesus said, “This topic is not my problem, it’s not my issue. Whose picture is on our money? Who controls the economy? Who produces the monetary instruments? They have the power to enact the laws that they feel they need in order to accomplish their goals. If you live within Rome’s jurisdiction, whether you like it or not, then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and of course to God what is God’s.”
We can conclude, from Jesus’ answer, that Christians may have differing political opinions. We might go to the voting booth as fellow Christians and come to different conclusions, or we might choose not go at all, and we may remain Christian.
But, there is something we must not do if we are authentic, Christ-centered, grace-based Christians. We must not tell others, Christian or non-Christian, that our way is always the only way, that we are always right about all political issues. It is biblically problematic for a Christian to tell another Christian that they may not vote, that they may not serve in the military, that they may not vote for one specific political party or candidate and that they must support a specific initiative or ballot measure.
The desire to control minds and hearts of its captives is one of the foundational goals of Christ-less religion. Big-business religion often attempts to influence the political affiliation of those it controls. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about freedom and choice—not authoritarian control exercised by religious intimidation.
Three biblical passages can help direct our thinking here:
1) History teaches us that part of being human is to be confronted with wars and rumors of wars. James 4:1 tells us that fighting and warfare come out of our human lusts and desires.
Am I concluding, from this passage, that since wars are inevitable we should just accept and embrace warfare because it’s “natural”? No, there are many behaviors that might be seen as “natural” that Christians would not embrace. James is merely pointing out that war is part of being human. It goes with the territory.
Don’t be surprised when wars happen. They are not necessarily the specific fulfillment of some Bible prophecy. War often happens when humans interact with each other.
2) In John 18:36 Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world. Kingdoms are in conflict, and the greatest conflict of all is the conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of our Lord.
To suggest that a kingdom of this world, whether it’s the United States of America or some other country, is perfectly aligned with the morals and values of the kingdom of God is to seriously misunderstand, devalue and diminish the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is not physical, it does not have national boundaries, it does not have a physical army, it does not issue physical passports. It is a spiritual kingdom, and as Paul said in Philippians 3:20, as Christians our primary citizenship is in heaven.
To give absolute, unqualified support to any country, to any political leader, to any political party is then a form of idolatry, for our kingdom is not of this world.
We do not, as Christians, invest any physical leader, confederation, economy or earthly power with our complete trust and absolute spiritual allegiance. We do not bow our knee to any earthly authority as we do the one true God.
This does not mean Christians are not, and cannot be, good citizens. Being a Christ-centered Christian means that we love God and our fellow man. According to Romans 13 we submit to the government in whose territory we reside and live.
But, there are many political climates that do not allow Christians to live a quiet and peaceful life. There are times when Christians migrate from one particular geographical area to another to find a safer haven in which to live out their commitment to Christ. There are some political climates that are far more accepting and tolerant of Christian faith than others. In fact, this premise is the very foundation for both the United States and Canada as sovereign states, giving freedom to people of faith to practice and live out their faith.
That being said, our dual citizenship, as a citizen of heaven and as a law-abiding citizen of an earthly government, can present challenges.
Within countries like the United States and Canada we, as Christians, are allowed, even encouraged by the laws and constitutions of our countries to voice our opinion. We may voice a dissenting opinion on a variety of issues that our government may support, including that of any specific war in which it chooses to be involved.
We may, and I believe we should, serve as a moral conscience to our nations, our states and provinces, our cities and villages.
We may, without becoming self-righteous, condemning “party-poopers” make our understanding of the teachings and standards of the kingdom of God known.
We may, and I believe we should, raise questions about morality, ethics, the rights of the poor and the greed and lust of corruption.
Christians should find themselves concerned about protection for those who are innocent, including children. We should be concerned with those who are victimized by crime or by any legal or illegal force.
Christians are rightly concerned about the plight of our environment. Christians have historically been at the forefront of building and staffing schools and hospitals. The needs of the hungry and the sick are issues that are at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Christians support efforts, whether they will ever completely and totally succeed or not, to help eradicate diseases that threaten so many parts of our world today.
Issues such as these can be purely political, they can be purely Christian, or they can be both. We as Christians should not turn a blind eye to those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison, homeless, orphans or the abused (physically or religiously). In Matthew 25: 31-46, in the parable we call the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus clearly gave us direction to be involved in such noble causes.
3) Jesus tells us,
“Peace I leave with you: my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” —John 14:27, my emphasis
This powerful, inspiring teaching of Jesus is far-reaching. When we think of peace in our world we usually think of the political and diplomatic process. But Jesus tells us that he gives us another kind of peace. Jesus tells us that he is not giving us the peace that is normally understood and defined as the period of time between two wars. The absence of hostilities is the best that the kingdoms of this world can give.
The peace Jesus gives us comes to us as a divine gift, from the Prince of Peace. The peace of God is, to use a Hebrew word, the shalom of God. Shalom means more than just external peace, it refers to internal peace, the peace of the soul.
It is this peace, the peace of our Lord, that the kingdom of God gives. The peace of our Lord is a peace that is both internal and eternal. Thus our prayer is much like that famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, who said “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”