Posted October 22, 2017
‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ This saying of Jesus has often been taken to mean that Caesar’s realm, the sphere of the secular, is not really important to Christians, for their homeland is in heaven.
But why can’t we allow Jesus occasionally to use a clever put-down to silence his opponents without his every statement being taken as a solemn statement of principle? Certainly, if this particular saying of Jesus is to be taken as a statement of principle, then we have to admit that it is impossible to reconcile it with teachings to be found elsewhere in the New Testament that recommend to Christians a far more positive attitude to civil matters and to civil authorities and even, specifically, to the payment of taxes. St Paul, for example, perhaps goes to the other extreme when he tells the Christians in Rome that civil authorities are ministers of God, and therefore Christians should pay taxes as a matter of conscience. The New Testament offers a generally positive evaluation of the functions of the state and of the Christian’s involvement in secular affairs. And it is this positive evaluation that I want to develop briefly by means of two considerations.
The first is that with the democratization of societies in the modern world a whole new perspective is opened up on the question of the relationship between ourselves and Caesar: for in a democracy we ourselves are Caesar, in principle at least. Therefore the ordering and flourishing of civil society and the safeguarding of human freedoms no longer belong to some alien power imposing itself upon us. Rather, responsibility for secular society belongs to us, for Caesar’s domain is our domain. This must mean that in practice there can be no divide between the secular and the religious spheres of our activity. For we are the same indivisible persons, called into a personal relationship with God and, at the same time, along with our fellow citizens, charged with responsibility for the common good and the flourishing of society. We are worshippers and citizens in equal measure. We should move with perfect ease from the altar rail to the ballot box or even the protest march, and back again. The things that belong to Caesar belong to God – and to us, as servants of God. An important part of rendering to God the things that belong to God is to share God’s concern for the total human well-being of the communities in which he has placed us. For all that is human is our affair.
A second consideration that reinforces a religious view of citizenship stems from the fact that our religion by its very nature is involved in the world. For the Word became flesh. And the Word became flesh not just in the humanity of an individual but in the structures of society and in the fabric of human relationships. Christ came not to found a new religion but to create a new world. We share his mission to humanize and divinize the world. The leaven to which God’s Kingdom is compared in the parable of the leaven works not just in the hearts of individuals but in every aspect of society. It must pervade all that is human. Our mission is to be that leaven: for our religion is the religion of incarnation. That is what the Second Vatican Council meant when it said that nothing that is genuinely human fails to raise an echo in the hearts of believers; and it is why Pope John Paul insisted that members of the Church were ‘never to relinquish their participation in public life’, that is, ‘their participation in the economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural dimensions of life aimed at promoting the common good’. Or, as the poet put it, more succinctly: ‘Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it, take with you your all.’
We need to reaffirm this dimension of our religion, for perhaps we are tempted to confine our religion to the sanctuary, to worship, to our prayer and devotions. These are indeed the fount and the summit of all our Christian activity: but fount and summit imply that there is action in between, and a large part of what is in between is our involvement in the society in which we live, and our contribution to the communities around us. We ought, therefore, to examine our consciences and ask ourselves whether we take seriously our vocation to be the leaven of society, not just in the sense that our private communion with the Lord will indirectly benefit the world at large, which is undoubtedly true, but also in the sense that we must actually be there with our words and actions to make God’s truth incarnate and palpable in our local communities and beyond. I don’t mean only political involvement. I also mean involvement in and collaboration with those secular organizations that have the potential for influencing society, especially when such organizations are already working in God’s domain, even if they would not want to put it that way.
Are we keen, for example, to be involved in the social and humanitarian projects that are already afoot in our local area, or perhaps to initiate new ones? Does your religion prompt you to give practical support to the many projects that your local council promotes for the welfare of young people, for the assistance of immigrants and the disadvantaged, of those who can’t read and write, of the damaged and the vulnerable? Do you lend your voice to legitimate protest against unjust laws, against social evils and the degradation of the person and the violation of life? Does it ever occur to you that rendering to God the things that belong to God might include such things as joining a victim support group, joining groups dedicated to befriending the lonely, or taking part in inter-faith dialogue in your local area as an instrument of peace and community building?
Do you even know how to set about volunteering to share your skills with those whose quality of life would be greatly enhanced if only they had a small share in your skills? Key into Google ‘Volunteering in Camden’, or whatever your local area is, and you’ll quickly find an ample and varied agenda. Those of you who are professionals or have specialized skills, how much time do you give to volunteering in your community – and do you see that as an essential part of your religion? Those of you who are artists, architects, teachers, musicians, writers: What great potential you have to evangelize culture, to bring new vistas to people, young and old – to share with others the freedom, the vision, the creativity that your God-given gifts have opened up for yourselves? Or think of those who have only their humanity to offer and use it generously to help heal wounded lives. Think also of volunteer aid workers who go much further afield even at peril of their lives. The mind boggles at their courage and generosity. A post-Christian world sees what they do as ‘humanitarian’. We have to say that what they do is religion pure and simple. As St James says in his epistle: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’ We are called by our religion to be a leaven in the domain of Caesar, for that domain is God’s domain, entrusted to our safekeeping. It is our divine calling to render unto God the things that are Caesar’s: in our own little circumstances, to take responsibility for the world that surrounds us and to give it back to God.
Fr Tom Deidun