The discussion thread under the post "Locke: The Bridge of Tradition" was unusually interesting... and taxing. The chief interlocutor was "Joyless Moralist," and the theme began with the pros and cons of modernity, but then took a different turn as Joyless Moralist challenged me on the issue of Christian non-violence. The discussion eventually focused on the interpretation of the New Testament passage featuring the verse "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's."
Sometimes it's useful to be forced to explain something that seems natural or even obvious to someone with a different view. It may force you to realize hidden complexities or subtleties that you hadn't been conscious of before. In this case, I didn't have much success explaining what the passage seems to me to mean. Let me see if I can make it clearer.
The story in question appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here is the account in Luke:
Keeping a close watch on him, they [the teachers of the law and the chief priests] sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: 'Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?'
He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 'Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?'
'Caesar's,' they replied.
He said to them, 'Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.'
They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:20-26)
Several things to note:
1) Jesus does not actually answer the question with an explicit "yes."
2) Jesus's conclusion-- "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's"-- is question-begging. What is Caesar's, and what is God's?
3) The argument Jesus uses to justify giving unto Caesar what is Caesar's is legally invalid. The fact that Caesar's picture is on the coin does not, legally, mean that the coin belongs to Caesar. Indeed, if all coins with Caesar's face on them belonged to Caesar, it would defeat the purpose of a monetary system, because money could never be transferred, and therefore could not facilitate exchange.
4) Those who asked the question are setting a trap for Jesus. Apparently, they think that Jesus will either (a) say "yes, pay taxes to Caesar" and be branded a collaborator, or (b) say "no, don't pay taxes to Caesar," and get in trouble with the Roman government. The disciples and apparently the spies as well seem to think that Jesus's answer cunningly evaded this trap.
So what are we to make of this? Some Christians interpret Jesus's answer as a simple yes. Thus, Joyless Moralist writes:
An analogy is being drawn between our duties to God and our duties to civil authority, and he seems to be explicitly indicating that the taxes must be paid, not because refusal to pay them would require a rebellion of the sort that he doesn't sanction, but rather because *they are Caesar's rightful due.*
Just what Caesar would want you to think! And yet if Jesus meant "Yes," why didn't he just say "Yes?" Maybe he wanted to do more than say yes, to say "yes pay taxes and here's why..." But then why did he use such an unconvincing argument-- unconvincing if taken at face value, that is, and legally false? It would have been far more effective if he'd made the type of argument that Socrates made before his execution, about how the laws had done such-and-such good things for him. Also, contemporaries seem to have regarded it as significant that he did not say yes in so many words, for otherwise what would it mean to say they had been "unable to trap him?" You would think that if Jesus really thought the answer to "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?" was an unproblematic "yes," he wouldn't have resorted to a verbal dodge just because being branded a collaborator would undermine his popularity.
It's late, but I'll try to update this tomorrow...
UPDATE: I think it's illuminating to compare this with some other teachings of Jesus. First, from the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-41)
The teaching here seems a bit perverse: we are not only exhorted not to resist injustice, it would seem, but positively to encourage it! On the other hand, there might be benefits if everyone practiced this teaching, because the idea of justice, of defending one's rights, which is downplayed here, is a source of many quarrels, since people are always forming different ideas about their entitlements, usually in a self-serving way. For now, though, the point is that we could have predicted Jesus's response to the tax question on the basis of this verse. Caesar's claim to our tax money might seem to be better-founded that the rights of those who slap us, or sue us for our tunic, or force us to accompany them on the road, but that's irrelevant. Jesus says "give to the one who asks you" even-- apparently-- if the demand is unjust. So we should give to Caesar regardless of whether the asking is just or not. And the fact that Jesus's rationale for paying taxes-- Caesar's face is on the money, so it's his-- also carries the same theme of "going the extra mile"; don't just give Caesar your taxes, but give him anything that has his face on it.
The parallel between these two pages also suggests the sense in which the money is Caesar's and the reason that his portrait and inscription being on it is relevant. In modern times, the provision of a money with stable value is an important government service, indeed one of the prime examples of how the government's technocratic prowess (all those shrewd number-crunchers at the Federal Reserve) can enrich the nation as a whole. In ancient times the money consisted of precious metals, with built-in supply controls, and gold and silver could have circulated without Caesar's help; Caesar minting coins was more an example of the arrogant self-aggrandizement of power than of a public service. Well, let Caesar aggrandize himself if he wants! He puts his face on the money; fine, it's his, give it to him! (Of course, the joke would be on Caesar if Jesus's logic were accepted: if his picture gave him automatic title to the money, no one would have reason to accept it as payment, so it wouldn't do even Caesar any good; but that's probably reading too much monetary theory into the text.)
The other passages that are relevant are Jesus's teachings on wealth. For example:
The seed [representing the gospel] that fell among thorns stands for thos who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. (Luke 8:14)
How hard it is for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25)
No servant can serve two masters. Either he hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Luke 16:13)
Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break through and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break through and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
Two points to be drawn from this. First, if wealth is an impediment to salvation, by all means give it to Caesar! Caesar is doing believers a favor by taking it from them. Second, if Money is a rival to God and a source of temptation, then the fact that Caesar is putting his portrait and inscription on it doesn't look good for him. Indeed, the "Give unto Caesar..." passage is an eloquent addition to these anti-money passages. Look! When you earn lots of money, when you do big business in which these denarii are changing hands, you are giving your allegiance to this brutal usurper, Caesar!
Which is actually a profound point. When you gain wealth, you become more dependent on the state-- because you have more property that needs protecting. You become more bound up in the affairs of this world, more complicit in its injustices. At the same time, you become less dependent on God, because your money protects you against the vicissitudes of life. You have less need for faith.
So I don't think that "an analogy is being drawn between our duties to God and our duties to civil authority." First, the notion of any such analogy-- an analogy between Caesar, the brutal usurper of the Jews' national sovereignty, and the Almighty God?!-- would have been blasphemous to Jesus's listeners. Remember, too, that many Christians were martyred over the next three centuries for refusing to participate in the imperial cult, according to which Caesar was a god. That was why the trap was so clever: Jesus would either discredit himself or get himself into hot water with the law! Second, the shrewdness of Jesus's answer, which amazed the spies, lies precisely in that Jesus sanctioned paying taxes to Caesar without conceding the justice of Caesar's claims. Rather, the coins are tainted by Caesar's image in any case-- remember this is the Jews we are talking about, with their horror of "graven images"-- so by all means get rid of them! Not just your regular taxes, but anything with Caesar's face on it! The answer was so clever because Jesus managed, in his way, to be more anti-Caesar even than the Jewish Zealots who wanted to overthrow the Romans by force, while at the same time making no statement that could get him arrested as a political agitator, for after all, he did say, sort of, to pay your taxes.
Not only that, but his answer was also admirably consistent with the rest of his teachings. The elaborate flattery which the spies made to Jesus before their question-- 'Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth."-- was supposed to underline the hypocrisy and compromise with which they thought Jesus would have to reply, in order to avoid Roman punishment. Instead, Jesus really did speak and teach what is right, teaching the way of God in accordance with the truth.
Now, Joyless Moralist, who knows a lot more about the history of Christian thought than I do, quotes three of the "Church Fathers" (early Christian writers and saints who are considered especially authoritative):
St. Jerome: That is, tithes, first-fruits, oblation, and victims; as the Lord Himself rendered to Caesar tribute, both for Himself and for Peter; and also rendered unto God the things that are God’s in doing the will of His Father.
Hilary: Hilary: It behoves us also to render unto God the things that are His, namely, body, soul, and will. For Caesar’s coin is in the gold, in which His image was portrayed, that is, God’s coin, on which the Divine image is stamped; give therefore your money to Caesar, but preserve a conscience void of offence for God.
St. John Chrysostom: But when you hear this command to render to Caesar the things of Caesar, know that such things only are intended which in nothing are opposed to religion; if such there be, it is no longer Caesar’s but the Devil’s tribute. And moreover, that they might not say that He was subjecting them to man, He adds, “And unto God the things that are God’s.
She adds, "They all seem to have the idea that we are, at least in a conditional way, subject to temporal authorities." Well, no doubt we are; after all, one is subject, in a condition way, to the robber who enters your house by force to take your goods, at least in the sense that it is better to comply with him than kill him. (You might use restraining force against him, but that's not usually an option where the state is concerned.) JM would like to say more than that: that taxes are *Caesar's rightful due.* But is that what these authors are saying?
We should bear in mind that Jerome and Chrysostom at any rate (I don't know about Hilary) probably had a very different attitude towards the Roman Empire than did the contemporaries of Jesus. In Jesus's time, the Romans had just recently conquered Judea, overrunning the Maccabean kingdom which had been established, to the Jews' great pride and joy-- the holiday of Hannukah, I understand, commemorates the Maccabees' victory to this day-- a century before; the Romans destroyed the Jews as a nation-state, it turned out, until 1948. Naturally the Romans were hated then. By Jerome and Chrysostom's time, the Roman Empire had been the civic homeland of the Mediterranean peoples for centuries and they had come to rely on it and regard it with affection. Also, after persecuting Christians, intermittently but sometimes very cruelly, for some 300 years, the Roman emperors had recently converted to Christianity. This was rather a poisoned chalice, as it turned out: the suddenly-powerful Christian church was now a magnet for opportunists, and the new temptation of "the kingdoms of this world" was at the Church's disposal: it was now possible to put heretics to the sword, and the deliberations of Church Councils had political ramifications which made them more divisive. The Eastern Church, existing in the more intellectual part of the empire, was riven into Nestorian, Monothelite, and Orthodox branches (there were other heresies but those were the most geopolitically significant as far as I remember) and the alienation was so deep that many in Egypt, Syria and north Africa welcomed the Arab-Muslim conquest; thus the southern and eastern Mediterranean was lost to Christendom. In the West, the fusion of religious and secular power morphed into a theocratic model that would give rise to the Inquisition and the Crusades, and the city where Chrysostom's memory is revered-- Byzantium/Constantinople (now Istanbul)-- would be ravaged in 1204 by the swords of the Fourth Crusade, the first time in a thousand years that that great city had been conquered. In the East, Caesar's interference was also a source of much dissension: in the eighth century emperors who believed in the iconoclast heresy vandalized the churches, destroying beloved religious artwork; and more subtly, the Church hierarchy would learn a subservience to political power that was ridiculed in the West, with a bit of truth even if the charge was polemical, as "Caesaropapism," the Caesar being the (real) pope. Later, the Russian Church enjoyed its greatest spiritual vigor during the period when the Russian princedoms were tributaries of the Mongols; when a centralized state emerged in Russia, it led to a schism in the 17th century, and in the 18th century to the end of the patriarchy, which was replaced with a more servile Synod, and a sense lingered among the Russian people that the true religion lay with the sectarians and the Old Believers. In both Catholic and Orthodox Europe, the bond between church and state did much to discredit the Church, and helped to precipitate the Protestant revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution, respectively, and there was a powerful moral conviction in the zeal with which Protestants attacked Catholics and Bolsheviks the Orthodox, precisely because those who laid claim to virtue seemed to lack it, corrupted as they had been by the embrace of the state. Today Christianity is far weaker in the European lands where church and state became entangled than it is in America, where the church never held temporal power... well, except in New England in the Puritan period... and that only proves the rule further, for New England is the least religious part of America. This history is admirably encapsulated in "The Grand Inquisitor," from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, an account of how the Church (mainly the Catholics, though it is not clear whether he means to absolve the Orthodox) accept the temptation of Satan which Jesus refused on the mountaintop: "all the kingdoms of this world."
In hindsight, we may wish that fourth- and fifth-century Christians had been more wary, having an attitude of "I fear Caesar, even bringing gifts." But I will certainly not point the finger of judgment at them for the relief that they felt when 300 years of persecution came to an end.
That said, there is no need to object to these quotes as being falsified by pro-Caesar bias. Chrysostom is not talking about whether the state is legitimate; he is talking about when the state should not be obeyed, i.e., when Christians should engage in civil disobedience. This he does quite correctly: Christians should submit to anything from the state, except that which opposes religion. A contemporary application would be that Christians should not only defy the state, but should regard it as "the Devil," when it forbids Good Samaritan acts towards illegal immigrants, whether those acts consist of charity, religious communion, or providing employment or housing. Anyway, Chrysostom doesn't comment on whether the state's demands are just, It does seem that Caesar is, at least, not "the Devil" as long as he doesn't interfere with religion. But then, a robber who enters in your house is not the devil either; we should presumably regard him with love and "judge not that ye be not judged," reflecting that in the eyes of God his sins may be less than our own.
As Joyless Moralist points out in a follow-up remark, Hilary brings out the analogy between Caesar/coins and God/souls, which merits further elaboration because of its beauty even though it's tangential to the political issue. As Caesar mints coins, God mints souls. Our souls bear the divine image as they circulate through the world. As coins serve as mediators between Caesar and his subjects, so we serve as mediators between the Creator and Created Nature, and that is our purpose: we are flesh and spirit in one, we commune with both the natural and the divine realm. As coins are of great worth, so are we of great worth-- we are "the salt of the earth," as Jesus says elsewhere. And note how Jesus's argument works better as a theological metaphor than as a political argument: the coins are not legally "Caesar's," but in the order of the Kingdom of God we are God's. So there is a sense in which Jesus did draw an analogy between the Kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of God, as a teaching device in order to illuminate the nature of the latter, but that doesn't mean there is a substantive analogy between Caesar's rights and God's. In one of the parables, I think, God is compared to an unjust judge. The point of the parable is not that God is unjust, but that we should continue to pray to him for mercy. Many Old Testament figures have the honor of being "types," or analogies, of God whose behavior was less than admirable. Abraham, who fathered his first son by a slave-woman when his wife was infertile, gets to be a type of God when he (almost) sacrifices his son Isaac. David becomes the forerunner and symbol of Christ's kingship, even though he seduced one of his soldiers' wives and had him murdered so he could marry her to conceal the illicit pregnancy. Despite being fallen, the earthly kingdom furnishes useful analogies to Kingdom of God, but that does not vindicate the former.
Jerome's quote seems to refer to a different Biblical passage when he says that "the Lord Himself rendered to Caesar tribute, both for Himself and for Peter":
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, 'Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?'
'Yes, he does,' he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. 'What do you think, Simon?' he asked. 'From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes-- from their own sons or from others?'
'From others,' Peter answered.
'Then the sons are exempt,' Jesus said to him. 'But so that we may not offend them, go to the lak and throw our your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.' (Matthew 17:24-27)
Now it doesn't seem to me that "the temple tax" necessarily refers to Caesar's tribute. It sounds more like a collection made, perhaps on a semi-voluntary basis, by the Jews, to support the temple. Yet Jerome knew the Scriptures and the historical context far better than I do...
Anyway, what is clear about this passage is that Jesus makes a short argument why they should not have to pay the tax, but then pays it anyway "so that we may not offend them." This seems to be, in part, a more explicit expression of the interpretation I have offered of the "Give unto Caesar..." passage: we pay taxes, not because Caesar has a right to them, but to avoid offense. What is not clear, to me anyway, is what argument Jesus is making against his and his disciples' having to pay taxes. "The sons are exempt," but how can Jesus and his disciples be analogous to "the sons of the kings of the earth." The only way I can make sense of this is to assume that they're not talking about Caesar's taxes but about a semi-voluntary religious tax paid to the temple authorities (which would also explain why the collectors ask whether Jesus will pay it, rather than demanding it). Since Jesus and his disciples are religious teachers, and in fact they are (Jesus would say) far more authoritative than the temple officials, they should be "exempt" from religious contributions (indeed if anything the contributions should flow the other way). While Jesus's argument exempts himself and his disciples from the tax, it may suggest that "others" do owe the tax, which would make it distinct from Caesar's taxes, where no rights are conceded at all.
If we do take the "temple tax" to be a tax administered by Caesar's government, the implications are fascinating. Jesus apparently thinks that "the sons of the kings of the earth" are exempt, "the kings of the earth" presumably being a metaphorical reference to God. He and his disciples-- and all Christians? or all who live by the Sermon on the Mount, or all who lead the apostolic life of holy poverty?-- are "the sons." This notion resembles Henry David Thoreau's idea, expressed in the famous essay "Civil Disobedience," of a state which would recognize the right of non-consent, allowing some people to live in its midst without being subject to it, while also claiming no right to its benefits. This notion is latent in the ideas of Locke, and of radical Whigs like Jefferson who founded the US: if government is by consent, then people should be able to opt out and live in a state of nature vis-a-vis their fellow men. One can certain imagine a society in which a monastic class disavowed all claims to property and to the state's protection, and lived lives of holy poverty, and the state, in turn, regarded them as exempt from taxes and other civic duties. That may, perhaps, partially describe Russia in the time of the Mongols, or even early America.
In any case, even if these words of Chrysostom, Jerome, and Hilary were used by self-interested Caesars to justify their usurpations, I don't think the account can be laid at the Fathers' feet. None of them strayed from the teachings of Jesus or legitimized temporal authorities, though of course "we are subject to temporal authorities in a conditional way."