September 9, 2015—In “Is Jesus a Libertarian? A Friendly Response to Jason Peirce” Pastor Mathis responds to my article “4 Examples of Jesus Christ’s Libertariansim.” There’s a number of issues we disagree on, and some where we find common ground. I’ll try and address them all here.
Whether one is a Christian or libertarian or not, we all share that we’re forced to live under the thumb of government. At the very least, this is why addressing these issues is important: to illustrate to all the corrupt and violent nature of government in order to mitigate and limit it. At best, this debate also provides an opportunity to better understand Christ and libertarianism, should one be a Christian or libertarian, or both. I’m heartened by the opportunity presented by Pastor Mathis’ response.
First, I did not write that Jesus is a libertarian, I wrote that Jesus implied a “libertarian-leaning perspective regarding the political authority of the state.” This is true. Libertarianism rests on the Nonaggression Principle (NAP), which stresses nonaggression against person or property. Government necessarily violates the NAP. What did Christ think of government? As I wrote last week in an article on Pope Francis’ Channeling of Nimrod:
“…what did Jesus Christ himself feel about government? As Christian scholar Jacque Ellul has noted, for government Jesus reserved ‘irony, scorn, noncooperation, indifference and sometimes accusation.’ I’ve made a similar case here, using examples from the Gospels. At best, Jesus had no use for government. At worst, Jesus saw government as a mechanism of tyranny and oppression. Jesus did not advocate obedience to government. And after all, Jesus was killed by government. I’ve addressed the other parts of the Bible which do seem to advocate obedience to government, here.”
Now, Pastor Mathis takes to task two of my “claims” from the “4 Examples” article. Here they are, in his words:
- “Satan owns the governments of this world” and
- “Jesus did not command obedience to the governments of this world.”
The 1st Claim: “Satan owns the governments of this world”
Let’s examine the first claim. Citing Luke 4: 5-7, in which Satan tempts Christ by offering him the kingdoms of the world, I wrote that the kingdoms (governments) of the world “belong to the devil. The state then, is a primary mechanism and means by which the devil can achieve his ends.” I offered that Christ, in rejecting Satan, does not deny that the kingdoms of the world are Satan’s to give. Pastor Mathis countered by asserting that Satan is a liar (true), that “silence is not the same thing as acquiescence” (sometimes true), and that the point of Luke 4 is to illustrate Christ’s resistance to temptation and victory over sin. This last point I also believe true, but it’s not the sole point. The greater proof I offer folds into the context of the other 3 examples in the article, and other portions of the Bible which reveal the nature of government (we’ll get to them shortly). Pastor Mathis then quotes Christ in Mathew 28: 18 “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” True. But let’s dig deeper.
Consider John 12: 31:
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world be driven out.”
Who is Christ referring to here, “the ruler of this world”? Satan. Note that Christ is the ultimate authority of heaven and earth, as he will ultimately drive Satan out. But Christ still refers to Satan as “the ruler of this world.” Christ refers to Satan as such again in John 14: 30 and John 16: 11.
There’s also 2 Corinthians 4:4. Paul writes:
“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Who is Paul referring to here, “the god of this world”? Satan.
And what of Paul’s framing of Christ’s “enemies”:
“Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15: 24-25).
Does not “every ruler and every authority and power” include the governments that “belong to the devil,” the “ruler of this world” and “god of this world”? Here, these rulers, authorities, and powers – governments — are characterized as the “enemies” of Christ.
The point is, it is in this sense that I wrote that the kingdoms (governments) of the world “belong to the devil.” To the Christian, the governments of the world will not always belong to Satan, but they certainly will until Christ drives out Satan — “the ruler of this world.”
Now, what about where I wrote: “The state then, is a primary mechanism and means by which the devil can achieve his ends.” The state – government — does indeed hold a monopoly on the (alleged) legitimate use of force and violence. Again, government necessarily violates the NAP. Satan “the tempter” maximizes temptation and sin through government – a “primary mechanism and means by which the devil can achieve his ends” – because perhaps nothing fosters vice, moral hazard, and sin more than power facilitated and executed through government. So, Satan tempts Christ by offering him the kingdoms of the world – a monopoly on the (alleged) legitimate use of force and violence — and all of the vice, moral hazard, and sin that comes with it. Of course, Christ (voluntarily) rejects the temptation.
It is indeed Satan
“who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians, 2:9).
And what are we to make of “the beast” in Revelations 13? Does not the beast represent political power? Consider:
“They worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’”
The point for the purposes here is that political power expressed through the authority of government is a beast: “a primary mechanism and means by which the devil can achieve his ends.” The bigger the government, the bigger the beast. Said Lord Acton: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Unless you’re Christ, of course. Lord Acton also said: “Great men are almost always bad men.” But not Christ, of course.
Note that in the “4 Examples” article I also used Jesus’ point on the nature of power in Mathew 20: 25-28, and Jesus’ answer to the question of from whom kings coerce taxes (Mathew 17: 24-27) to illustrate Jesus’ perspective on the nature of government. (Please read the article)
But beyond Christ, what else does the Bible say about the nature of government? There’s this, for example:
“They have set up kings, but not by me: they have made princes, and I knew it not” (Hosea, 8:4).
And this as well:
“Put not your trust in princes…in whom there is no help.” (Psalm 146:3).
But perhaps the most thorough explication is 1 Samuel 8: 11-18 (which I’ve covered here). The people of Israel asked Samuel for a king. This displeased Samuel and God. Nonetheless, God instructed Samuel to give the people what they asked for. God also instructed Samuel to tell the people what to expect from the king and his government:
“This will be the manner of the king who shall reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for himself, for his chariots and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands and captains over fifties, and will set them to till his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectioners and to be cooks and to be bakers. And he will take your fields and your vineyards and your olive yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep; and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out on that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.”
The greater point behind the 1st claim is that yes, though Christ is the ultimate authority, he clearly has permitted Satan temporary power as “the ruler of this world,” and allowed Satan to exploit government — “the primary means and mechanism by which the devil can achieve his ends.” Again, it is in this sense that I wrote “the kingdoms of this world belong to the devil.” This reconciles with “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Yes, Christ will ultimately claim this world, and one must accept Christ on earth to get to heaven.
The 2nd Claim: “Jesus did not command obedience to the governments of this world”
Now for the 2nd claim. Here, Pastor Mathis takes issue with my interpretation of the famous “Render unto Caesar” passage. I wrote this:
“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.”
Pastor Mathis counters that “give” translates back to the original Greek meaning “give back.” But note what I wrote. The question to Christ is a “yes or no” question. Christ did not answer the question, and after calling his questioners hypocrites and asking whose image is on the coin, Christ simply recited the justice principle (give to others their due), applying it to Caesar and God. After citing the majority of my quote above, Pastor Mathis did not cite or address the last point: that Christ did not specify exactly what belongs to Caesar or God. This omission on Christ’s part is telling. As for the hypocritical authorities (the Pharisees and Herodians), Christ justly “gives” them their due respect. Stated differently, we could say Christ justly “gives back” to the hypocritical authorities their disrespect. And with that, Christ does not answer their question.
Digging more deeply, if everything belongs to God, as most Christians attest (“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”), then we must “give back” everything to God. What’s left for Caesar? What exactly belongs to Caesar which must be given back? Not the metal composing the coin which belongs to God, but perhaps the sin of Caesar’s graven image on the coin? What then is Caesar justly due? Disobedience, in the forms of “irony, scorn, noncooperation, indifference and sometimes accusation”? Is this what must be justly “given back” to Caesar?
Now, Pastor Mathis writes: “it is completely unclear how the command to give to those the things that are due to them is not a command to obedience.” But what is Christ commanding obedience to? Christ doesn’t answer the question. But Christ does state the justice principle: give Caesar and God their due. So Christ is commanding obedience to the justice principle. And again, what belongs to Caesar, if everything belongs to God? And if Caesar disrespects God, what is Caesar due?
Also, remember that Christ’s perceived disobedience to authority was the reason for the trick question in the first place. His questioners anticipated a disobedient “no” answer from Christ, did they not? After insincerely trying to flatter Christ, the Pharisees and Herodians acknowledge Christ’s disobedience in this very “Render unto Caesar” passage by stating that Christ shows “deference” to no one, and regards none with “partiality.” And after all, how many Christians, following Christ, were killed for their “disobedience” to earthly authority? In this context, and with the full context of the teachings of Christ, and within the historical context of the violent Roman occupation of Judea, and in understanding the true nature of government — as Christ certainly did — it strains credulity to believe Christ advocated obedience to government.
There are well-known, similar (but far from identical) interpretations of this “Render unto Caesar” passage. Here are a handful, beginning with Mohandas K. Gandhi:
“Jesus evaded the direct question put to him because it was a trap. He was in no way bound to answer it. He therefore asked to see the coin for taxes. And then said with withering scorn, ‘How can you who traffic in Caesar’s coins and thus receive what to you are benefits of Caesar’s rule refuse to pay taxes?’ Jesus’ whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes.”
Here is Henry David Thoreau on “Render unto Caesar” (from Civil Disobedience):
“Christ answered the Herodians according to their condition. ‘Show me the tribute-money,’ said he; — and one took a penny out of his pocket; — If you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar’s government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it; ‘Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God those things which are God’s’ — leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.”
Here is Mennonite Dale Glass-Hess on “Render unto Caesar”:
“It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would teach that some spheres of human activity lie outside the authority of God. Are we to heed Caesar when he says to go to war or support war-making when Jesus says in other places that we shall not kill? No! My perception of this incident is that Jesus does not answer the question about the morality of paying taxes to Caesar, but that he throws it back on the people to decide. When the Jews produce a denarius at Jesus’ request, they demonstrate that they are already doing business with Caesar on Caesar’s terms. I read Jesus’ statement, ‘Give to Caesar…’ as meaning ‘Have you incurred a debt in regard to Caesar! Then you better pay it off.’ The Jews had already compromised themselves. Likewise for us: we may refuse to serve Caesar as soldiers and even try to resist paying for Caesar’s army. But the fact is that by our lifestyles we’ve run up a debt with Caesar, who has felt constrained to defend the interests that support our lifestyles. Now he wants to be paid back, and it’s a little late to say that we don’t owe anything. We’ve already compromised ourselves. If we’re going to play Caesar’s games, then we should expect to have to pay for the pleasure of their enjoyment. But if we are determined to avoid those games, then we should be able to avoid paying for them.”
Here is Jacques Ellul on “Render unto Caesar”:
“’Render unto Caesar…’ in no way divides the exercise of authority into two realms….They were said in response to another matter: the payment of taxes, and the coin. The mark on the coin is that of Caesar; it is the mark of his property. Therefore give Caesar this money; it is his. It is not a question of legitimizing taxes! It means that Caesar, having created money, is its master. That’s all. Let us not forget that money, for Jesus, is the domain of Mammon, a satanic domain!” (This is an interesting interpretation, in light of “No one can serve two masters” — Mathew 6: 24)
And here is Leo Tolstoy on “Render unto Caesar” (take special note of Tolstoy’s final point below):
“Not only the complete misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching, but also a complete unwillingness to understand it could have admitted that striking misinterpretation, according to which the words, ‘To Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,’ signify the necessity of obeying Caesar. In the first place, there is no mention there of obedience; in the second place, if Christ recognized the obligatoriness of paying tribute, and so of obedience, He would have said directly, ‘Yes, it should be paid;’ but He says, ‘Give to Caesar what is his, that is, the money, and give your life to God,’ and with these latter words He not only does not encourage any obedience to power, but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Caesar.”
If everything does indeed belong to God, then what are we to make of Tolstoy’s last point: “and with these latter words He not only does not encourage any obedience to power, but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God (your life) it is not right to obey Caesar.”
Pastor Mathis concludes his “Response” article by pointing to Paul’s advocacy of obedience to government in Romans 13. I encourage you to read my take on Romans 13 and Paul, here. But my purpose in “4 Examples of Jesus Christ’s Libertarianism” was to illustrate Christ’s perspective of government, not Paul’s, nor the entire New Testament’s (although I did clearly pull from the wider Bible for this article). And in context, Christ’s perspective should be clear. There is a libertarian-leaning perspective, and it hinges on things voluntary and not coerced.
Now, I agree with Dr. Gary Wills that at the core Christ saw only two basic moral duties, “love of God and love of the neighbor,” and that “Jesus meant that love is the only law.” The “law of love” is of course, the Golden Rule, which as I’ve asserted, is wholly incompatible with government. Love cannot be forced. One enters the Kingdom of Christ voluntarily. On the other hand, all kingdoms of the earth – all governments — are exercised through violent force and coercion. Government — Caesar — necessarily violates not only the Golden Rule, but also the justice principle (the Silver Rule) and the Nonaggression Principle.
In closing, some questions. The first goes back to Tolstoy’s final point above. If you believe your life belongs to God, is it then true that “in everything which belongs to God (your life) it is not right to obey Caesar (government)”?
And what of taxes? I assume everyone reading this is completely appalled by many of the things funded by their tax dollars. Does it not violate Christ’s law of love to keep funding governments which violate Christ’s law of love?
“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
— William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Let us know what you think in the comments section.
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