Saving Jesus (Episode 4): Render Unto Caesar

This week’s episode of the Saving Jesus DVD series at my church featured John Dominic Crossan describing Christianity’s countercultural challenge to the political theology of the Roman Empire. It was a real eye-opener for me and the other students to discover that the kingly titles given to Jesus in the creed and liturgy — God from God, Prince of Peace, Savior and Redeemer of the World — were originally applied to Caesar Augustus. Those titles may scare us now because they sound so hierarchical, but as the early Christians heard them, they were the ultimate rebuke to human tyranny and the propaganda that supports it. Because we don’t recognize the radical critique of human power contained in the words “the kingdom of God,” we’re always tempted to read this language as a divine rubber-stamp for our imperialist projects.

One of the class members, who’s widely read in church history, noted that the processions that open and close the worship service in liturgical churches (Catholic and Episcopal) are modeled on the Roman triumphal processions, but with the imperial values reversed. In the Roman scheme, a procession celebrating a military victory would have the emperor at the head, the captured slaves at the rear, and everyone else between them in descending order of importance. In a church procession, the cross is carried at the head, and the priest comes last, because he is the servant of all.  

Crossan concluded with the question: What would the world look like if we acted as if God were in charge, rather than the Roman Empire or its modern equivalent? The kingdom of God is not reserved for a future place and time. It’s a new perspective that’s available to us right now.

Or, as Anglican theologian N.T. Wright put it in his article “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”, St. Paul’s missionary work


must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering their lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth. This could only be construed as deeply counter-imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result of his work he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly.
I’m going to give away how it ends, but you should still read the whole thing: 


If Paul’s answer to Caesar’s empire is the empire of Jesus, what does that say about this new empire, living under the rule of its new lord? It implies a high and strong ecclesiology, in which the scattered and often muddled cells of women, men and children loyal to Jesus as Lord form colonial outposts of the empire that is to be: subversive little groups when seen from Caesar’s point of view, but when seen Jewishly an advance foretaste of the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham and the nations will join Israel in singing God’s praises. From this point of view, therefore, this counter-empire can never be merely critical, never merely subversive. It claims to be the reality of which Caesar’s empire is the parody; it claims to be modelling the genuine humanness, not least the justice and peace, and the unity across traditional racial and cultural barriers, of which Caesar’s empire boasted. If this claim is not to collapse once more into dualism, into a rejection of every human aspiration and value, it will be apparent that there will be a large degree of overlap. “Shun what is evil; cling to what is good.” There will be affirmation as well as critique, collaboration as well as critique. To collaborate without compromise, to criticise without dualism—this is the delicate path that Jesus’ counter-empire had to learn to tread.
Wright’s analysis feels to me like more of a complete breakfast than the “Saving Jesus” perspective, which stops at the critique of state power without recognizing its tragic necessity. “Civilization has always been imperial,” Crossan asserted. But as one of the participants in our class asked, what’s the alternative? We don’t want chaos, either.

Although I don’t agree with his defense of the current war in Iraq, this article in First Things by Wilfred McClay, about the intellectual legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, eloquently captures our Incarnational faith’s paradoxical relationship to the princes of this world:


In his youth, Niebuhr was a devotee of the Social Gospel, the movement within liberal Protestantism that located the gospel’s meaning in its promise as a blueprint for progressive social reform, rather than in its assertions about the nature of supernatural reality. Social Gospelers were modernists who had largely dismissed the authority of the Bible and the historical creeds. But they insisted that the heart of the Christian gospel could still be preserved by being “socialized,” i.e., translated into the language of scientific social reform. As Walter Rauschenbusch, perhaps the leading figure in the Social Gospel movement, once put it, “We have the possibility of so directing religious energy by scientific knowledge that a comprehensive and continuous reconstruction of social life in the name of God is within the bounds of human possibility.” The Kingdom of God was not reserved for the beyond, but could be created in the here and now by social scientists and ministers working hand in hand.

Niebuhr soon grew impatient with this kind of talk. He found the progressive optimism undergirding the Social Gospel to be utterly naive about the intractability of human nature, and therefore inadequate to the task of explaining the nature of power relations in the real world. Sin, he concluded, was not merely a byproduct of bad but correctible social institutions. It was something much deeper than that, something inherent in the human condition, something social institutions were powerless to reform. In what was perhaps his single most important book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932 in the depths of the Depression, Niebuhr turned the Social Gospelers’ emphasis on its head, arguing that there was an inescapable disjuncture between the morality governing the lives of individuals and the morality of groups, and that the latter was generally inferior to the former. Individuals could transcend their self-interest only rarely, but groups of individuals, especially groups such as nation-states, never could. In short, groups generally made individuals morally worse, rather than better, for the work of collectives was inevitably governed by a brutal logic of self-interest.


Niebuhr dismissed as mere “sentimentality” the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome through intelligent social reform, and that America could be transformed in time into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades, holding hands around the national campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arena of national and international politics had to take full and realistic account of the unloveliness of human nature, and the unlovely nature of power. Christians who claimed to want to do good in those arenas had to be willing to get their hands soiled, for existing social relations were held together by coercion, and only counter-coercion could change them. All else was pretense and pipedreams.


This sweeping rejection of the Social Gospel and reaffirmation of the doctrine of original sin did not, however, mean that Niebuhr gave up on the possibility of social reform. On the contrary. Christians were obliged to work actively for progressive social causes and for the realization of Christian social ideals of justice and righteousness. But in doing so they had to abandon their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves. The pursuit of social righteousness would, he believed, inexorably involve them in acts of sin and imperfection. Not because the end justifies the means, but because that was simply the way of the world. Even the most surgical action creates collateral damage. But the Christian faith just as inexorably called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that gives no ultimate moral quarter to dirty hands. The result would seem to be a stark contradiction, a call to do the impossible.


But Niebuhr insisted that the Christian life nevertheless requires us to embrace both parts of that formulation. Notwithstanding the more flattering preferences of liberal theologians, the doctrine of original sin was profoundly and essentially true, and its probative value was confirmed empirically every day. Man is a sinner in his deepest nature. But man was not merely a sinner, but also a splendidly endowed creature formed in God’s image, still capable of acts of wisdom, generosity, and truth, and still able to advance the cause of social improvement. All these assertions were true. All have an equivalent claim on the Christian mind and heart. In insisting upon such a complex formulation, Niebuhr was correcting the Social Gospel’s erroneous attempt to collapse or resolve the tension at the heart of the Christian vision of things.


Toward the end of our class, my minister — otherwise a complete devotee of the Social Gospel’s message of self-salvation — came out with something orthodox and profound. When we try to rely on ourselves alone, he said, we become insecure and violent, fighting to protect the territory on which our livelihood depends. What if, instead, we back away and trust God instead of whatever social system protects our property, and recognize that all the world’s riches belong to God? We have to depend on a different kind of strength — not ourselves or our empire, but God — so we can feel safe enough to go to the back of the line.

12 comments on “Saving Jesus (Episode 4): Render Unto Caesar

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    …yes, and the law of Nature will then assure that our “backing away and trust (in) god”, avoiding the assertion of both individual and group self interest here on Earth, will help us to more quickly join HIM, in his better world, we presume.

    …and, yes, yes, yes, Reinhold’s interpreter, McClay,”…groups generally made individuals morally worse, rather than better…inevitably governed by the brutal logic of self interest…”;

    …and, in the case of groups, by the self-interest of the group leaders. And, so…what happened after the “original” anarchic Christianity, became the State religion, under Constantine…and since?

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    As always, you raise provocative questions, Hank. The implications of your first paragraph are disturbing. I think one can make a pragmatic, non-religious case for a certain level of altruism and nonviolence as actually more conducive to species survival than the “war of all against all” that you seem to be endorsing (or at least accepting as inevitable). You appear close to a Nietzschean position that the assertion of power here on earth is all that matters. From that perspective, Constantine was the best thing that ever happened to Christianity! Yet your closing words suggest a moral critique of that alliance, which contradicts your naturalistic philosophy.

  3. Hank Rodgers says:

    No, no, Jendi, you misunderstand me. I have seen several studies that very convincingly claim that it is cooperation among humnans and human groups that is one of the primary reasons FOR our survival as a species, even when sometimes opposed to individual, or even group self-interest.

    I am am an enthusiastic member of AHA (American Humanist Association), and despite being something of a pessimistic fatalist (sometimes to the point of despair), I think the we humans need more of empathy and cooperation, certainly not less!

    But, there is a difference between advocating the pursuit of human cooperation in common interests; and merely stepping back and trusting “God” to take care of those interests, either group or individual.

    Too it seems from what little I have read of the beliefs and practices of the early Christians, that the post-Constantine alliance between church and state has not been a good thing.

    It seems to have resulted not only in a considerable diminution and distoration of the earlier faith, but also in the development of dogma, ritual and practices; and corrupt, mutually self-serving, collusions, that are in, sometimes monstrous, opposition to that faith.

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for clearing up the first point, Hank. Where we differ is that I’m not advocating merely stepping back and trusting God as a substitute for human action. Jesus was pretty political during his earthly ministry! However, I think that faith in God’s protection can inspire us to heights of unselfish heroism that rational self-interested cooperation cannot reach. It’s one thing to be good because you can see a long-term advantage; it’s another thing to be good beyond the point where you can predict success or safety. To trust that God has the future well in hand may also deter us from forcing people into man-made utopias, which historically has led to tyranny (e.g. French & Russian Revolutions).

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