Politics and Religion
James Newton Poling
(first preached on Oct 14, 2008)
Text: Matthew 22:15-22, Render Unto God
Another national election in the United States.
And we are in the midst of an economic crisis that seems to have no end. I continue to go about my daily life like usual, but I have this feeling of dread that my life is precarious. Living in the midst of a national and global crisis changes our lives, and we don’t know what changes will come.
How do we talk about politics and religion? When I was a seminary student, debating politics was a daily activity. But in recent years, I have noticed the eerie silence in seminaries about politics. Maybe things are about to change. When do we interrupt what we are doing and have special prayer meetings and seminars with experts so we can figure out the best responses?
Jesus lived every day in the midst of crisis. His friends and neighbors were poor, hungry, sick, disabled, and disempowered by the alliance of the Temple Elite and the Roman rulers. The corrupt leaders had stolen the historic lands of the families in Galilee and turned the people into sharecroppers and day laborers. Jesus’ parables are full of stories of oppressed people who were lucky to get enough food for one day. They yearned for a just king who paid them their wages without cheating them. They remembered the day when their families owned their own land, but they despaired ever getting it back. These stories are one reason why poor Christians all over the world love the Bible.
We should hear Jesus’ words, Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s from the perspective of the global poor. Sometimes I wish he had given us some clear ethical principles, for example: “Give honor to your political leaders as long as they are doing what is right and just, and when they are corrupt, protest against them and work to change the government.” We know that Jesus was not afraid to speak the truth. In John 2:18-19, when the leaders asked, “What sign have you to show us?” Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Why did he avoid criticizing the Roman government? Weren’t they just as corrupt?
We are left with this ambiguous saying from Jesus, one of the many things he said about the political economy—that partnership between politics and business that determines so much of our human life. Into this gap, Christians have constructed all sorts of contradictory positions, from extreme patriotism, “My country, live or die,” to revolution, “Death to the king.”
Politics in Korea
Nancy and I lived for two semesters in Korea and one of the last things we witnessed in 2008 was thousands of police officers waiting for the largest street demonstrations since 1987. We were visiting the bookstore on Taepyeongno Street near City Hall. . Later that night, several hundred people were injured, including six policemen who were hospitalized in critical condition. The marches started in protest to the U.S. Korea Free Trade Agreement and the importation of U.S. Beef, but developed into a demand for the resignation of President Lee Myung-Bak who was just elected to a five-year term on December 19, 2007.
The Korean people take their politics seriously. They are a small country surrounded by Empires with global reach: China, Japan, Russia, United States and Europe. Our current economic crisis is a recent memory for every Korean family. Korean young adults have grandparents who remember hunger and severe poverty. The present generation remembers 1997 when the economy lost half of its value and every family had to change its plans for the future. Some seminary students had to drop out of school and return to Korea because their family could not double the money they sent for support. In Korea the people cannot afford to be silent about national and global policies which can change their lives overnight.
And what did Korean Christians think of the street demonstrations? They were all over the map. Some Christians are friends of President Lee because he is an active elder at the Somang Presbyterian Church in Kangnam, a neighborhood south of the Han River in Seoul. He used to direct traffic before and after church even though he was CEO of a Hyundai Corporation, one of the largest Chaebels. Supporters thought that he was being unfairly criticized after just a few months in office before he had a chance to do anything. On the other hand some Christians were excited to see the return of street marches like the democracy movement of 1987 when the military government was finally forced to submit to real democracy. For this group the demonstrations proved that the Korean people had not lost their spirit and that government must listen to the people. Some Christians were in the middle. Business people worried about Korea’s image abroad and whether foreign investors would be frightened off by the political instability and jeopardize the Korean economic miracle.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ words about Render unto Caesar do not help resolve the question of what Christians should do about the political economy. In Jesus’ time, there was no end to controversy over what believers should do. Because of the oppression from the Roman Empire, the community was divided over politics. Some believed that the people must revolt like the Maccabeans and try to overthrow Roman control. Others believed that this was foolish given the overwhelming power and brutality of Rome. They believed that they had to adjust the best they could until the power of Rome subsided. One group withdrew into the desert to save the Scriptures and wait until God brought in the eschaton. Which of these ways did Jesus support in his saying—Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s? Christians have been arguing over this question almost since the words were uttered.
When I was a pastor in Pennsylvania, one of the prominent interpretations was that Jesus’ message was purely spiritual and that he had no interest in politics. He came to save individual souls so they would go to heaven, and all the political intrigue was just an interesting backdrop of the real story of God’s plan of salvation.
The Korean Prosperity Gospel fits into this view. Nancy and I attended worship at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul. Everyone acknowledges that this is the biggest local congregation in the world, with estimates of 500,000 to 750,000 members. It was an exciting place to visit with charismatic worship, full orchestra and praise band, excellent preaching, and an enthusiastic congregation. The pastor’s sermon focused on individual conversion and healing and seemed to be a good example of the theology of Yoido Church—If a person is regenerated in Christ and receives the Holy Spirit, that person will experience divine healing and general blessing for well-being. Even though there were demonstrations in front of the national legislature just a mile away, there was no mention of politics. Maybe this Sunday was not typical, but in that moment, the church represented one of the main interpretations of this passage—Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (that is, to manage the affairs of this world), and Render unto God was is God’s (that is, to follow the plan of salvation and receive the blessings of God). For this preacher, the two worlds are totally separate and religion is concerned only with the salvation of individuals.
Actually the Yoido theology fits in quite well with the Korean economic miracle which has blessed many people with opportunities for education, health care, and economic prosperity. In 1960 the per-capita income for Korea was less than $US100 per year, 27 cents per day. Today the annual per-capita income is almost $25,000 or $68 per day. Those individuals who work hard, have good health, and have supportive networks have a good chance to prosper. Joining the Yoido Church is a good path to upward social mobility because it gives you confidence, inspires you to work hard, and creates a natural network of economic opportunities. So in spite of its non-political position, this church fits in quite well with the Protestant Ethic of hard work and support of government for the sake of individual prosperity.
For other Korean Christians, the formula is not so simple. Sometimes Caesar and God seem to be in conflict. A moving experience in Korea was our visit to Honam Theological Seminary in Gwangju, about two hours south of Seoul by fast train. We spent three days in a local church and seminary and toured the memorials and countryside. It is one of the most beautiful areas of Korea. Gwangju has been a site of political rebellion for over 100 years. It was the center of the Tonghak Rebellion against Japanese domination in 1894; the initiator of the March First Resistance to Japan in 1919, and the inspiration of the democracy movement marked by the Gwangju Massacre of 1980. The citizens of Gwangju have given their lives over and over to challenge undemocratic and colonial governments. Nancy and I visited the monuments to the high school students who died in 1919 and the thousands who died in 1980. Dr. Cha, one of our hosts, had been present at the demonstrations in 1980, and he showed us the exact streets where the violence took place. In Gwangju, many Christians have chosen God over Caesar and hundreds of martyrs witness to the high cost of such discipleship. Today the whole nation of Korea takes pride that there was resistance to the Japanese empire and the Korean military governments during the 19th and 20th centuries. Two recent presidents, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, had their political base in Gwangju.
God and Caesar
Christians have argued about Jesus’ words about God and Caesar throughout history, with opposing groups of Christians claiming to know the right balance in a particular situation. There are dangers in all positions. For those who encourage rebellion and prophetic criticism, they sometimes miss the opportunities to support the government when it does a good thing. Other Christians are more likely to err on the side of supporting the government even when it is corrupt. Jesus was accused of siding with the Pharisees because he would not support the zealot violent revolt, and accused of siding with the Zealots because he would not say more clearly that paying taxes to Caesar was legitimate.
In the U.S. we are close to an election in the midst of a severe economic crisis. It is a good thing that so many people are involved in politics for the first time. The candidates have brought a whole new generation of young people into the political process. Young people apparently love attention to environmental issues, economic issues, and war and peace. Yet other Christians are discouraged and may sit out this election without even voting. They grieve the loss of a national commitment to preserving life from conception, saving traditional marriages and families, and opposing terrorism. Many of our families are divided over these issues. Often we avoid politics at home and at the seminary in order to keep the peace.
I think Jesus gave an ambiguous answer because politics is a very complicated affair that must be decided issue by issue. There are real dangers in being too loyal to any politician. There are dangers in opposing everything the politicians do. There are dangers is opting out of the process as if one can avoid being ambiguous. The deeper lesson of Jesus’ words about God and Caesar is that our lives are fully ambiguous. We are all citizens of this world, and citizens of particular countries with all of their messy politics. We cannot be active citizens and avoid this ambiguity. The devil is in the details. We have to get involved and make commitments so that good things get done—the environment needs to be addressed; children, marriages, and families are suffering from the fragmentation of modernity; economic crisis condemns the majority of the world’s population to desperate lives; too many politicians lie and steal money. As citizens we are called to have opinions on all of these issues, and we should get involved. Hopefully we can also vigorously debate with one another within Christian community without demonizing those who disagree with us. We may not understand how someone else can reach the political decisions they make. But we can respect the ambiguity of the political process and reserve room for grace for others. Heaven knows we will need a little grace ourselves when our own political actions turn out to be wrong-headed judgments.
If I were a citizen in Korea, I don’t know how I would answer Jesus. Would I be a demonstrator against the government, risking my health and safety to express my frustration? Would I be the grandfather of one of the police officers who risks her life to protect the government? Would I vote for the Grand National Party, or the Liberal party, or would I opt out of politics?
As a U.S. citizen, I make my decisions about whether to vote and who to vote for. And given the ambiguity of all the issues, I need to engage in spirited and compassionate debate with those who have other opinions. For Jesus, citizenship has theological significance. It means finding the right balance between loyalty to God and appropriate support of political leaders. Jesus asks me to be an active citizen the midst of this ambiguity, knowing that any position I take will be contested and that I may well be wrong. In the midst of moral ambiguity, we must live with courage and humility. But voting does not make us good citizens or good Christians. We should end the silence about politics and economics on our campuses and begin a vigorous debate about what we should do as Christians in a time of crisis.