June 2, 2015—It seems pretty much every day there’s a story in the news about the government’s (the state’s) “War on Christianity.”
No matter how one chooses to define this war or to what degree it is being executed, the truth is that it’s the nature of the violent, predatory state to wage a war of-sorts on pretty much anyone who is not a friend, family member, or supporter of the leadership of the state.
But as for the War on Christianity, the first thing a Christian can do is “know thy enemy.” And the Christian can look to Jesus’s very own libertarian-leaning perspective regarding the political authority of the state.
Jesus was all about the voluntary. He despised the coercive authority of the state. He understood the impossibility of trying to force or tax a human being into heaven. He understood that people could not be forcibly nudged by the state into acting “neighborly” as Obama likes to put it. In fact, what Jesus reserved for the state was “irony, scorn, noncooperation, indifference and sometimes accusation” as Christian anarchist Jacque Ellul notes. And as civil liberties activist John Whitehead reminds us, Jesus did die in a police state.
Indeed, there is an intersection between Christ and libertarianism. Libertarianism is a political theory which deals with the use of force – violence – in social life. And libertarians understand that the state is the designated social institution of organized violence. This truth was as apparent to Jesus back in his time as it is to libertarians today.
Here are four examples from the scriptures to prove the point. American Christians, who are often far too eager to cozy up to the state only to be shocked when the state turns on them, should take special note.
What did Jesus feel about the moral status of the state? Let’s look to Luke 4: 5-7, where Jesus rejects the devil’s temptation (all quotes are from the NRSV Bible):
“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him: ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I will give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will be all yours.”
The point is the estimation of the kingdom-states of the world: they belong to the devil. The state then, is a primary mechanism and means by which the devil can achieve his ends. The devil could not offer to give away what he did not possess. Detractors then, might argue that the devil was lying to Jesus about possessing all the kingdom-states of the world. But Jesus in no way denied that the kingdom-states of the world belonged to the devil. He simply rejected the devil’s offer.
Another indication of how Jesus felt about the state comes from Mathew 20: 25-28. The mother of James and John asks Jesus to seat her boys in positions of authority at Jesus’s right and left hands. Of course this angers the other apostles. Jesus addresses them all, reasoning:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Here, Jesus summons the wisdom of Samuel on the nature of kings. Jesus instructs the apostles not to lord over others – not to exert force or coercive authority over people. Jesus likens such lording to tyranny. How many American politicians who claim to be “Christian” share Jesus’s disgust for tyranny and the lording over of others? Clinton? Bush? Obama? Why don’t more American Christians call their “Christian” politicians out on this?
Now, some might point to two passages regarding taxes to suggest that Jesus actually endorsed state authority. Let’s take a closer look at both.
First is the famous “Render unto Caesar” passage from Matthew 22: 15-22:
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”
Here, the Pharisees and Herodians have designed a question to trick Jesus. So what does Jesus do? He certainly doesn’t endorse obedience to the state. Rather, Jesus doesn’t answer the question. Instead, in what James Redford calls “an ingenious case of rhetorical misdirection,” Jesus simply repeats the justice principle: give to people what they are due. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. But Jesus doesn’t specify what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.
Then there is this passage from Matthew 17: 24-27:
“When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple taxi came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”
First, different versions of the Bible use terms such as “strangers” and “people they (‘they’ being the kings) have conquered” rather than “others” to identify from whom the king forcibly extracts toll and tribute, or taxes. Also, “friends” is sometimes used in place of “children” to identify who does not pay taxes. All terms are appropriate. The point though, is that Jesus correctly asserts that “the children (friends) are free.” This means that the “others,” “strangers,” and “people they have conquered” are not free. Somewhat ironically, Jesus does instruct Peter to pay the tax. But this is less an endorsement of obedience to the state and more about Jesus’s determination to continue on in the purpose of fulfilling his destiny.
Jesus’s general perspective on the state is clear. And if American Christians are truly concerned with what they see as a War on Christianity, the first thing they should do is seek to better understand the nature of the beast — the state — they are dealing with. Jesus Christ, exhibiting a libertarian political economy, certainly understood the nature of the beast. He would expect no less from those who call themselves Christians.
Why do so many Christians have faith in the federal government and military? Share your thoughts below.
Jacque Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity
John Whitehead, Jesus Died in a Police State
James Redford, Jesus is an Anarchist
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