Render Unto Caesar

Remarks delivered at The North Texas Church of Freethought on April 6th, 1997

The synoptic gospels -Matthew, Mark and Luke — tell the curious story of an attempt on the part of "Pharisees and Herodians" or "the chief priests and the scribes," depending on the evangelist, to get an incriminating statement from the character of Jesus. In Mark's chapter 12 they "say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?

But instead of giving an answer, the character of Jesus asks for a coin and has it admitted by his questioners that the emperor's name and likeness appear on it. Then he says: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

"And they marvelled at him."

Well I marvel at him too. For, like a true politician, the Jesus of the gospels gets away with not answering the question. He might just as well have said "give everyone their due," which is a pretty good moral principle but dodges the question of what's due to people.

What is our duty? What claim do other people, the government, and even — if there were such things — gods have on us? Who is Caesar and what are "the things that are Caesar's?" The Bible — that book that "has all the answers," it's insisted — doesn't say. So if we want some understanding of these questions it seems that we'll just have to perform an extreme act of will and THINK ...

Since this month brings the closest thing that many of us will know to a real Day of Reckoning or Judgment Day — April 15th — let's start with the problem that the gospels' Jesus dodges: should we pay our taxes? Or, more broadly, what obligations do we owe to government?

Well, there are at least two ways of looking at this question. The first is to suppose that our very presence here in the U.S. indicates our agreement with a kind of "social contract" in which we agree to obey the laws and pay our taxes. In fact, this idea includes the notion that we agree to obey tomorrow's laws and pay tomorrow's taxes, whatever they might be, and whether we agree with them or not. The "social contract" is a broader version of the idea that when we get behind the wheel of a car, we're agreeing to abide by the rules of the road: stop on red, go on green, observe the speed limits, and so on. So if this makes sense to you, you should certainly pay your taxes, and you should pay them for the same reason that you expect there to be someone on the other end of the telephone when you dial "911."

The trouble with the "social contract" is, of course, that except for those of us who emigrated here from some other country, our presence here in the U.S. is not deliberate, but accidental. A birth certificate isn't much of a validation of something as important as this alleged "social contract."

Did you ever wonder about all those admonitions to VOTE around election day? Sure, vote for this or vote for that, but also just VOTE — for whatever.

Cui bono? Who benefits? Why, the very stability of civil society depends on it. Even in the former Soviet Union they had elections. It helped to persuade people that they were a part of the order of things, even though the order of things was a dictatorship.

Think of living under that sort of "social contract!" Or think about what life would be like if we had been born in the Muslim theocracy of Iran. Would we then be morally bound under the terms of the "social contract" theory to abide by the rules of the mullahs? Or what if Pat Robertson achieves his goal of controlling not just the Republican Party but the very levers of government at all levels here in the U.S.? Would we still be bound by the sort of "social contract" that is argued for on "The 700 Club?" Or are we only bound by the "social contract" when it doesn't depart too far from what we personally like or are willing to tolerate on the spectrum of political/religious conservatism/liberalism?

This line of thinking takes us towards libertarianism or even — gasp — anarchism. And, interestingly enough, that seems to be just the line of thinking that the Gospel Jesus' questioners hoped to get the man-god started down with their prefatory praise of "we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men ..."

But although the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels was afraid to take the bait, let's not be afraid to take a jaunt down this path, just for sightseeing if nothing else. Remember, as long as you keep thinking, you're not believing, and if you find yourself believing it's just because you stopped thinking ...

The people who constructed our present form of government argued that their labors would be unnecessary if men — and I think we can include women here too — were "angels" and could be relied on to always do what is right. But in a world where some people manifestlydon't behave very well, even a utopian anarchism would quickly degenerate into a Hobbesian "war of all against all." Out of this, doubtless, would come various gangs, just as we've seen emerge in lawless places like Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. Eventually, if one of the gangs gets big enough and strong enough, it can impose its rules on everyone else. Notice that U.S. foreign policy is generally directed at encouraging "peaceful negotiations" — that is, at fostering situations where the biggest gangs effectively combine their forces to rule.

I think most of us would agree that we could have done far worse than the U.S. Constitution. Even the Jews of New Testament times could probably have done worse than chafe under the rule of Rome. Like, for example, they might have stayed in captivity in Babylon for a few more centuries ...

But let's remember that the U.S. Constitution is no "living document." It's a piece of paper.

Only an appreciation of the vital principles that its architects understood and tried to codify gives the U.S. Constitution a practical reality. Principles like the separation of state and church. Freedom of conscience. Personal safety and security. It's a laundry list of shalts and shalt nots for the government. A very different thing indeed from the vaunted Ten Commandments. And a pretty good version of a "social contract" perhaps, if we were to sit down and draw one up from scratch.

But we need to continually bear in mind that it's no piece of paper that wields the power of the state. Nor does the piece of paper interpret its own meaning.

People do. And that's why it's so important that people think.

I would never tell any fellow Atheist to "go along to get along." I'm not in favor of tip-toeing around the outrageous superstitions that cause so much unnecessary unhappiness and misery in people's lives and in the world. And I'm certainly not in favor of cowering closet Atheism that fears to offend the sensibilities of the faith-followers.

But "in your face" Atheism doesn't foster thinking. It just incites emotionalism. We have to be careful. We have to be "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" [Matthew 10:16] in order to kindle the flickering flames of Freethought wherever we may find them, and however feeble and faint they may be. Fortunately. despite the obstacles, we have a slight advantage inasmuch as thinking is the natural mode of existence for human beings. And, besides, it's a continuing challenge to our ingenuity and creativity.

That, of course, is where our duty lies: in meeting our own personal challenge of thinking. And in helping to get others thinking, or getting them to get us thinking. Don't forget that part. Because there's no legitimate "social contract" beyond our obligation to try to do better: to think more clearly, to feel more genuinely, and to overcome the petty but stubborn obstacles to our accomplishing these things. It's a duty we owe to ourselves. And, because of the facts of reality, because of the social and political milieu in which we live, it's a duty we owe to everyone else — more or less — with whom we come into contact.

If we ever get to meet this "God" that some people keep promising is going to punish us for not believing what they say about him, we'll have to remember that we owe the same obligation to her, him, or it. I mean, did this "God" ever think before He/She/It wrote this Bible-book?

But I did say already that it's no piece of paper that runs the country, didn't I?

Consider the ubiquitous $1 bill. Some people might say — especially with April 15th coming up — that this piece of paper rules the country. It says here on it: "In God We Trust!?" Well, as one of the characters in their book says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's!"

Thank you and Good Morning!

© 1997 by Tim Gorski