[As preached in March 2008]
It’s that time again—we’re in the middle of another Presidential campaign. Religious issues have been in the forefront this year even more than usual. Mike Huckabee is a former Southern Baptist pastor; Mitt Romney was a Mormon bishop. Catholic candidates have faced increasing pressure from their bishops that they uphold Catholic teaching. Candidates from both parties seem to be competing to see how many ministers they can get to line up behind them at press conferences.
A political season like this is a good time to recall the principles of Scripture and the lessons in our own history regarding Christians and political life.
The most important text is our Scripture reading for today. Matthew 22:15-21. It begins with the Pharisees and the Herodians conspiring to trap Jesus. These were two groups who normally didn’t get along. But here they come together because they have a common enemy—Jesus. They start out with some flattery, “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.”
And then comes the hook: “Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?”
It was a perfect trap—if he said yes, the Pharisees would have condemned him as a collaborator. If he said no, the Herodians would have condemned him as a rebel.
But Jesus says, “Show me the money. … Whose is this image and superscription?” Caesar’s. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
But what if the government is evil? What if it uses our tax dollars to spread evil through the world? What if it engages in oppression of the poor, and spreads war and destruction? What if it kills children and persecutes the righteous? What if it tortures and executes its enemies?
Well, in fact, that’s what Rome did. Jesus wasn’t speaking in abstractions. He wasn’t speaking of a kind, benevolent nation. He was speaking of one of the most bloodthirsty and tyrannical powers ever to hold sway on the fact of the earth. He was speaking of the power that would nail him to a cross, declaring him a rebel. And yet he said, “Give Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.”
Another important text for us to consider is Romans 13. It’s written by Paul to the Christian church in Rome itself, twenty or more years after the crucifixion of Christ. Paul was a Roman citizen. He had traveled throughout the empire. He knew what Rome was about. He himself would be killed by Nero some years later.
And to the Christians living in the emperor’s shadow he writes:
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”
What did Jesus mean when he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”? Paul gives us the answer: Give him tribute, custom, fear, honor, obedience—and do good.
“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”
Peter also knew the tyranny of Rome. He, too, would be martyred by Nero. But he gives the same counsel, in 1 Peter 2:13ff.
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
There’s a consistency to Scripture—Jesus, Peter, Paul all teach the same thing: Honor Caesar. Give him what belongs to him. Don’t cause trouble.
And yet each of them—Jesus, Peter, Paul—was killed by Caesar as a rebel.
How could this be?
Because there’s something else in Jesus’ message: “Give to God the things that belong to him.” Love him with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Obey him in all things. Have no other gods before him.
The message of Scripture is clear and consistent—give Caesar every thing he asks for—unless what he asks for belongs to God alone. In such a case, we must respond as Peter did in Acts 5:29—“We must obey God rather than men!”
And that’s what led to the deaths of Jesus, Peter, and Paul—Caesar demanded something that they couldn’t give, because God had the first claim on it.
In the time of Jesus there were movements that took many different approaches to Rome.
- Some, like the Herodians and the Sadduccees, collaborated with the enemy.
- Others, like the Pharisees, put God first—but simmered with anger underneath.
- Still others, like the Essenes, withdrew, wanting nothing to do with Rome or its agents; they set up their own society in the desert.
- Then there were the Zealots, who thought Rome must be opposed with violence.
Jesus taught something different.
- Don’t be a collaborator, trying to save your own skin.
- Don’t simmer with anger.
- Don’t run away to the desert.
- Don’t use violence.
- Instead, love God and man, and obey Caesar until he asks for something that isn’t his.
Christianity is not a revolutionary movement; we don’t seek to undermine any kingdom. And yet the teachings of Christ are revolutionary, and if followed, they must undermine kingdoms. That’s why Jesus and Peter and Paul and all the other martyrs of the early church were put to death. Jesus said love one another. Turn the other cheek. Treat all men like brothers. Worship God only. All of these teachings were like the bitterest poison to Rome, as they must be to any tyrant. They were the strongest rebuke to her tyrannical exercise of power.
If you love all men, you can’t oppress any.
If you love all men, you can’t treat some as inferior.
If you love all men, you can’t destroy their homes and kill their children, or let others get away with murder.
If you love all men, you can’t steal from them, or let others get away with theft.
Christians aren’t called to be political, but Christian beliefs and actions can’t help but have political ramifications.
These texts are our starting point. They provide the basic Scriptural principles that must guide our consideration this morning. Having started there, I want to turn and give some examples from the history of the Seventh-day Adventist church; examples of men and women of faith struggling with the competing claims of God and Caesar.
The Adventist pioneers believed in the soon return of Christ. And yet they saw evils in their day that they felt compelled to speak against. They didn’t want to be caught up in partisan politics, but they couldn’t be silent in the face of evil. They wanted to be good citizens—but refused to disobey God’s law.
Their first struggle came during the Civil War. The early Adventists were New England Yankees, and were united in their hatred of slavery; some, like Joseph Bates, were active abolitionists—John Byington, the first General Conference president, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
When the draft came in 1863, the first in American history, Adventists were torn between their desire to support the government and the teachings of Jesus: Don’t resist evil. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. They wanted to support the government, but they would not kill for the government, not even when they believed in the cause.
In the first year of the draft you could pay $300 for an exemption, which many Adventists did. But in 1864 Congress closed the loophole and said only members of peace churches like the Quakers and the Mennonites could take advantage of it. Adventist ministers went to government leaders and said, We may be new, we were only organized a year ago, but we share the beliefs of those churches. We cannot fight.
In later wars provision was made for conscientious objectors to serve in noncombatant positions. Corporal Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from Virginia, served as an Army medic in World War 2. He was harassed through basic training and through his early months of service for wanting to keep the Sabbath and for his unwillingness to bear arms. But all this changed on a Sabbath morning in May 1945, on the island of Okinawa. His unit came under fire, and casualties were high, but Doss wouldn’t give up. He attended to each wounded, then lowered him over a cliff, then went back for another. He lowered 75 wounded men over that cliff, despite being wounded three times. On he went, and on, for God and country. For his actions, he was awarded the Congressional Medical of Honor by President Harry S Truman, the first conscientious objector so honored.
War brought one set of challenges—peace time brought others. After the Civil War, many preachers called for repentance for the sins that had brought such destruction on the nation. Some said individual repentance wasn’t enough—the nation itself must repent, and take a stand on the side of God.
The National Reform Association fought for several years to get a constitutional amendment declaring the United States to be a Christian nation.
When that failed, they tried a new tactic—they would seek enforcement of Sunday laws. These had been on the books since colonial days in most states, but no one paid any attention to them. Now, as they stirred people up, persecutions broke out, especially in the South, where Adventists were new, and few. Historian Richard Schwarz says that in the decade of the 1880s “more than a hundred North American Adventists … suffered penalties for Sunday work. They paid more than $2200 in fines, served over 1400 days in confinement, and more than 450 days in chain gangs” (Richard Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers, p. 243).
Some Adventists rejoiced in this. It was a sign of the end. It was confirmation of Adventist prophetic interpretation. Some even suggested making a point to break the law.
But the Adventist leadership, including Ellen White, saw this instead as an opportunity to make a public witness on behalf of religious liberty, and to defend the primacy of conscience.
In 1886, the Pacific Press Publishing Association began a new magazine, The American Sentinel, devoted to just that purpose—it would later be renamed, Liberty. It was edited by a young minister who had been converted when he was a sergeant in the Army, Alonzo T. Jones. In 1888 Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire introduced a bill for a national Sunday law, supported by the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Under pressure, he added an exemption for Sabbath keepers, but Jones testified before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor on December 13, 1888, that such an exemption did not change the fact that Congress had no business making a law on this subject. He said we might respond using the words of Jesus.
Show me the Lord’s day; whose image and superscription does it bear? — The Lord’s to be sure. This very bill which is under discussion here today declares it to be the Lord’s day. … Render therefore to the Lord the things that are the Lord’s, and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. It does not bear the image and superscription of Caesar; it does not belong to him; it is not to be rendered to him.
Jones was persuasive, and the legislation died in that committee chamber.
There was one area where Adventists did think they were called to seek legislation, and that was in the matter of temperance. They saw it a matter of public health and safety, and thus a matter of Caesar’s concern. Ellen White said in 1881:
The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example–by voice and pen and vote–in favor of prohibition and total abstinence (RH, November 8, 1881)
And in another talk that year she said, “perhaps I shall shock some of you if I say, If necessary, vote on the Sabbath day for prohibition if you cannot at any other time” (Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: A Biography, volume 3, p. 160).
There have been instances in our history when we as a church have seen it necessary to speak out in favor of religious liberty—to say to Caesar, this does not belong to you.
There have been times when we have identified moral evils that were detrimental to the nation, when we had to say to Caesar—this does belong to you.
But there’s one place we have never gone—one place we can never go—and that is to identify the cause of God with one political party or the other. That’s not our job.
We have a message to proclaim to the world, the Three Angels’ message. Fear God, and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who created the heavens and earth. Babylon is fallen. Do not worship the beast or his image.
It’s a message that warns us that the political powers of the world, “Caesar,” if you will, will grab more and more to himself as time goes on, demanding absolute loyalty and obedience, even in things pertaining to God. He will appear innocent as a lamb, but that lamb will speak like a dragon.
When he steps across that line, we must stand firm. We must be able to declare, “We must obey God rather than man.”
And we can’t just look out for ourselves. We have to think of other people. We have to be vigilant.
Martin Niemoller was a submarine commander in World War I who became a Lutheran pastor after that war ended. In the 1930s he became one of the leaders in the Confessing Church, the movement of Christians opposed to the Nazis, along with Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was arrested, and spent seven years in German concentration camps. Yet he knew his activism came late. In the first years of the Nazi movement he defended their persecution of the Jews. He expressed his sense of shame for this in these famous lines:
First they came for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist; And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew; And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
A few weeks ago my daughter Aimee and I went to a special dedication of a new exhibit at the Holocaust Museum. Outside there is a railroad cattle car, like those that carried millions of Jews to their death while millions of non-Jews remained silent. Next to it now is a boat. A simple, Danish fishing boat. One of hundreds that were part of a heroic effort in the late summer of 1943. The Nazis issued a secret order to round up all the Jews in Denmark, but their plan was discovered. The Danes warned the Jewish people, and got Sweden to agree to provide refuge. Over the next weeks the Jews made their way to fishing villages along the coast, where they were smuggled in little boats like this to freedom in Sweden. As a result, nearly all of Denmark’s Jews lived.
Whose liberty is threatened today? Since 9-11, Muslims have lived in fear, and have been subject to hostility—as have Sikhs, simply because they wear turbans. Catholic pharmacists have been fired for refusing to dispense RU486, the abortion pill. Christian student groups like Intervarsity Christian Fellowship have been banned at some public universities for expecting their leaders to uphold Christian teachings on human sexuality; one was banned from Savannah State University for practicing footwashing—the university said it was a form of “hazing.”
The religious liberty work of the church exists to help in this struggle, providing information and legal counsel. We still publish Liberty, educating about our great heritage of separation of church and state, and about threats to our liberty. We still testify before Congress—most recently, on February 12 of this year, when James Standish spoke to a congressional committee about the Workplace Religious Freedom Act—a bill that would protect the rights of religious people to wear religious garb, whether a yarmulke, hijab, or a cross, to take off holy days such as the Sabbath, Yom Kippur, or Good Friday, and so on. Under this bill, employers would be required to provide reasonable accommodation to religious needs unless they imposed undue hardships on the employer—that is, subjected the employer to significant difficulty or expense.
[Then followed some details about an event later that weekend featuring Lincoln Steed, editor of Liberty.]
The question before us is the same as that posed by Jesus—What belongs to Caesar, what belongs to God—can you tell the difference? Will you serve Caesar willingly, in those things that are his? And when the time comes, will you be able to boldly say to Caesar, “We ought to obey God rather than man”?