“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”   This, I dare say, is one of the more famous quotes from the Gospels–known far beyond the community of faith. The idea of “rendering unto Caesar” as it is traditionally phrased is an idea familiar to many, and gets particular play every April 15 when taxes are due.

About this Sermon
Part 5 of the sermon series The Seven Words You Can’t Say in Church
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 26, 2008
1 Samuel 8:4-10; Mark 12:13-17

But this saying of Jesus’ has caused a lot of debate: what does it mean to give to Caesar and the give to God?   Where is the dividing line?   What things are part of the political realm? The spiritual realm?

Is a Christian supposed to engage with the political realm at all?   What is the connection between our Christian faith and our political action, if any?


A.  The Church-State Union

For the majority of Christian history, from AD 313 to perhaps July 4, 1776, church and state were in an intimate relationship.   Constantine saw Christianity as a way to bring unity to the Empire.   And in exchange, the Church counted on the state to provide for the temporal needs of the people.

Throughout the middle ages, Christianity helped to give authority to kings, who claimed to rule by divine right.   The church could thus use leverage to get what it wanted.

With the Protestant Reformation that we commemorate today–being Reformation Sunday–we begin to see principalities across northern Europe embracing Protestantism not simply because of theological issues, but because of the political consequences of breaking with Rome.   Throughout Christian history, we have seen an entanglement of church and state, a mixing of faith and politics.

Even today, in the midst of a republic with no established religion, there are those who believe very much that Christian faith mandates certain political realities.   In this line of thinking, the very national political agenda should be shaped to reflect a Christian reality.   Laws should bear a distinct Christian imprint and that we are called to bring such a legal and judicial system into being.   While not quite a theocracy, there is much more of a presumption that the political sphere exists to enact Christian values into the national life.

B.  The Syncretism Danger

There is, however, a danger here.

The danger lies when we confuse our civil religion with the religion of Christ.   And when we blend church and state together, what happens as often as not, is that the state exerts far more control over the religion than the other way around.   And very quickly, the brand of Christianity become nationalized.

You can see this all the time in the supermarket checkout lanes, where you can by stars and stripes colored ribbons with a cross shape cut out in the middle. Or you can buy crosses that come with a stars and stripes motif on them.   There are churches you can go to where there will be big projections on the screen of fighter jets soaring overhead as an American flag billows in the foreground with the words “God Bless America” printed across the screen.

For as noble as the values of American society might be, they are not to be equated with Christianity.   The flag is not a Christian symbol.   The Constitution is not a Christian document.   And though most people assume it has biblical origins, the statement “The Lord helps those who help themselves”, while perfectly consonant with American Civil Religion, is not found anywhere in Scripture.

And so we see that the danger of the blending of church and state, of religion and politics is that the integrity of both is affected. And usually it’s the integrity of the church that is affected more, as was seen in Nazi Germany, when the majority of churches all but capitulated to the regime and even declared Hitler to be a saving figure sent by God.

C.  The High Wall of Separation

Against this background, it is clear why some are insistent that Christianity does not provide support for any political structure, lest tyrants make use of our faith to prop up their own political agendas.   Indeed, it was with that very threat in mind that Sinclair Lewis would say, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

The passage we read from 1 Samuel is an instructive one on this point.   In it we read of how Samuel relays to God the people’s request for a king.   He is disappointed, but God responds: ” Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them”.   God then goes on to tell Samuel to warn the people about everything the king will do to them–and none of it is good.   But the message of this passage is clear, God is the sovereign of the people, not any human authority.   It means that as Christians, we should be suspicious of human power, reluctant to grant to human institutions too much authority, or confusing human power with God’s power.

And this concept is the grounding of a theology that our faith and our politics are completely separate.   One does not inform the other.   Stanley Hauerwas, a noted Christian theologian, has long argued that the political order has nothing to do with the church.   Hauerwas and Yoder and other theologians argue not only for a strict Christian pacifism, but against the idea that Christian faith supports the political sphere.   That is, Christianity does not support monarchy.   But neither does it support democracy.   Christian faith supports only loyalty to God.   No political system can claim that it is what God wants. Hauerwas maintained that the church is not the same thing as the broader society, and further:

The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ. [1]

Hauerwas even would go so far as to say, “the church and Christians must be uninvolved in the politics of our society and involved in the polity that is the church.” [2] As one commentator notes, according to Hauerwas, “it is clear enough that whatever dialogue Christians might have with the world is a one-way street.” [3]

Some even argue, as Leo Tolstoy did, that total commitment to the Gospel, to the utter rejection of force and violence, means that Christians must reject all forms of coercion, that is, they must embrace anarchy. [4]

And so we are left with a difficult quandary.   How exactly ought Christians relate to the political sphere?   Are we supposed to disavow it?   To reject the system as evangelical Christians did for the first half of the Twentieth Century, believing that politics is beneath Christian dignity?

Are we to assume that the political realm is merely an arm of the church?   That the State is itself God’s instrument?   That our nation is God’s chosen people, and that we have a divine mission to fulfill in the world?

It does not seem that either extreme is satisfying.   We cannot have complete and total disengagement from the political realm.   At the same time, we cannot equate the state with the will of God, or any one nation with the people of God.

However, it seems that we cannot be completely disengaged from politics for one reason: Jesus was not.

When Jesus was crucified, they hung a sign over his head that said, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”–this is a reference to the charge for which he was executed: sedition and claiming the throne of Israel when Israel had a king: Caesar.   The sign over his head was written in Greek, Aramaic, and Latin, as one friend of mine notes, evidencing his rejection by the cultural, religious, and political arenas. Jesus’ life was a life of consequence and it had consequences in not only the esoteric religious arena, but the down-to-earth political arena as well.   Consequences that cost him his life.   It seems then, that we are not so able to simply turn our back on the political arena after all.

But how do Christians engage with politics, especially given the fact that politics seems so… un-Christian?


A number of you have heard me express my skepticism about the “Civitas” campaign on campus, the University’s program designed to promote civility.   I am not an opponent of civility.   Nor do I think its promotion by the University is a bad idea.   Certainly in our current political climate, we could use a little more civility.

Our Bishop, John Schol, issued a statement a couple of days ago in which he shared his thoughts about the upcoming election.   He noted a couple of things:

The first is how the intensity of political campaigns can heighten political rhetoric and deepen prejudices. I believe in good healthy, vigorous discourse during political campaigns. I am also concerned when discourse undermines our unity and our respect for diversity. This election is historic because there is an African American presidential candidate and a female vice presidential candidate. This demonstrates our nation’s ability to recognize people for their ideas and their gifts. Yet some are using this election as an opportunity to prey on deep seated prejudices. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has called all political parties and leaders to embrace a public discourse that is free of divisive and demeaning rhetoric. Respectful, principled, and vigorous debate on the issues is the only way to move into a future that offers hope and solutions to our common problems.

We have certainly seen the need for civility in our politics.   And I do think that’s where Civitas comes in, though not quite the civitasthe University is talking about.

A.  The City of God

Over 1600 years ago, the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Libya was contemplating the sacking of Rome by barbarian Germanic tribes.   It was a cataclysmic event in the life of the Roman people–a devastating event that undermined the people’s sense of security and stability.   Their faith in the political order.   And so this Bishop set out to write a theological reflection on what was happening.   That bishop’s name was Augustine, and the book that he produced is the masterpiece known as The City of God.

In it, Augustine uses the Latin word for city– civitas –to mean a community united by a common love.   And in this understanding, there were two cities: the Earthly City or the City of Man and the Heavenly City or City of God, civitas Dei. The earthly city was like Babylon or Rome, it was a city consumed with the quest for power.   In it, both those who were oppressors and the oppressed themselves were dominated by a lust for domination.   They worshiped the things of the world and made power its own end.

But in the City of God, people were united in their love of God, and sought not power, but service and charity. They lived as pilgrims in the world, with lives defined by hope.

Now the important thing to note about this, is that no one can tell just by looking, who is a citizen of the City of God and who of the City of Man.   In fact, citizens of both could hold public office.   Citizens of both might be high officials in government and engage in the political realm.   The difference was that one would be seeking power for its own sake.   The other would be seeking power in order to work for justice, provide for the needy, and create genuine community.

In short, what Augustine is saying, is that it is not the temporal structures of the world that define us, it is not the governments, or the political systems that we might use, or the privileges of office.   It is our love of God, our citizenship in the City of God that marks us.   We can engage in the political realm, if that realm is the means to the ends of love, rather than an end in itself.   That is the definition of Civitas that needs to be promoted.


There’s something interesting to note in the story of Jesus and taxes.   Jesus asks to see a denarius and then asks, “Whose head is this? And whose title?”   The Greek doesn’t really say head, it says eikon, “image” or “likeness”.   The response that the coin has the image of Caesar on it and thus is one of the things that are the emperor’s, often overshadows the other point: whose image is on you?

For we are made in the image of God.   In the likeness of God, we male and female, were made.   That means that whatever else we are, we are God’s.   And that is really the point.   Our true allegiance is not to political party or ideology.   It is not to a candidate or elected leader.   Our primary allegiance isn’t even to country.    Our primary allegiance is to the One who made us.   The one in whose image we were made and by whose grace we live.

If we can just remember that we are God’s, then our understanding of our own priorities will be clearer.   If we can remember that we are God’s then it should be easier to remember that we are called to be citizens of the City of God–oriented toward love, charity, and service of others.

If we can remember that those whom we might oppose in the political realm are also God’s, are also children of God, not to be demonized, not to be accused falsely, not to be the objects of fear-mongering and hate, then we can make a serious difference in the political culture of our nation.   If we can remember that both we and our opponents are deserving of love … imagine what that could do.

And the impact we could have, just by infusing our political reality with the genuine love of God, a love that reconciles us not only to God but to one another, that impact would be so much greater than any particular legislative agenda, any particular candidate’s election, any ballot initiative or referendum.   That change to our politics could be transformational, creating a genuine community, a genuine civitas, and shining a light of hope to the world.

The Texts

1 Samuel 8:4-10

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only–you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.

Mark 12:13-17

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

[1] J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics, p. 127
[2] Wogaman, p. 128.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, p. 34.

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