Friday, October 14, 2011

Caesar Fever

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? ’But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

The first I remember hearing that story was in 1956, when Daisy Jo Morrison read it to our Sunday school class in the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y. Daisy Jo was nubile and cute and triggered pre-pubescent stirrings in us 10 year old boys. Mostly I remember the way her lips formed the words, “I Would Be True,” which was hymn 180 in our little red hymnals. She’d lead the singing nearly every Sunday and we responded with wistful lisps, as if it were a futile lovers’ pact.

But I digress. The biblical reference to a coin attracted my attention because I knew the value of money. A dime could be exchanged for an thick Superman comic book at Dougherty’s Drug Store, and when I wasn’t absorbed with Daisy Jo’s evangelical tools I was trying to imagine what a biblical coin looked like. The Indian head nickels in the collection plate were possible clues, but I suspected they looked little like the coinage carried by Pharisees. So I wondered.

Naturally, there was no way to Google the Caesarian coin; Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin weren’t even born in 1956.

But now we live in an age of instant gratification where a few well-chosen keystrokes will fill the computer screen with pregnant links. Hundreds of photos of 2,000 year-old Roman coins appear to satisfy any numismatist’s curiosity, and so do links to thousands of articles about the Caesar who reigned in Jesus’ time: Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus.

Historians refer to him more simply as Tiberius, to distinguish him from his predecessor emperors whose names he acquired to show his superior pedigree.

Daisy Jo Morrison never went into this kind of detail and perhaps it was just as well. I don’t know how the other kids imagined Caesar, but my image was of President Eisenhower in a toga: ancient, smiling, bald, and good. When Jesus told the Pharisees to “render unto Caesar,” I didn’t consider that to be a bad thing. Probably my parents did the same thing, rendering their offering unto the collection plate every Sunday and unto Ike every April 15. It sounded like a reasonable plan to me.

But – and it’s a big but – Tiberius may have been a soldier-statesman, but he was no benign Ike. Those of us of a certain age learned all that in 1978, when I, Claudius – a BBC television adaptation of Robert Grave’s two novels on the first Roman emperors – appeared on PBS. Tiberius was convincingly portrayed as a paranoid, dispeptic, sadistic and homicidal wacko by George Baker, MBE, a British actor and writer who, in real life, was very nice. (Baker, 80, died October 7.)

Historians generally agree that Tiberius was not nice, although it’s hard to be sure because accounts of the emperors were written by either their friends or their enemies, both of whom were known to distort their anecdotes for devious ends.

Even so, we probably know more about Tiberius that either Jesus or the Pharisees knew when they beheld the Emperor’s countenance on a dinarius. Tiberius was the son of Livia, the second wife of the Emperor Augustus. At Livia’s insistence, Augustus adopted Tiberius, thus placing him among several possible successors to the throne. Livia moved to strengthen her son’s position by convincing Augustus to order Tiberius to marry the emperor’s daughter, Julia. This made it necessary for Tiberius to divorce his wife Vipsania Agrappina, whom he loved dearly. A marble bust of Vipsania, although missing her nose, suggests she was quite beautiful.

But Tiberius hated his new wife, Julia, and the forced marriage appears to have sent him on a downward spire. He declared he had no desire to be emperor, but by the time Augustus expired, all Tiberius’ rivals had been killed or died of what may have been natural causes. The way Robert Graves tells it, Livia arranged to have her son’s competitors poisoned or otherwise removed. It makes a better story, but the historical evidence is unavailable.

Once Tiberius ascended to the throne, he seems to have lost interest in politics. He eventually retired to Capri, where he pursued a life of sexual depravity. He delegated most of his power to a soldier crony, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who ruled despotically in Rome. Sejanus, as admirers of the PBS series know, was played by Sir Patrick Stewart, better known for his later role as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Sejanus eventually plotted against Tiberius so the emperor had him removed and executed. The rest of Tiberius’ reign was a blood bath of debauchery.

When Jesus was shown a coin with Tiberius’ likeness, he was looking at one of history’s most evil villains. In that context, an invocation to “render unto Caesar” sounds like an encouragement to aid and abet.

The question is whether Jesus’ is saying citizens have equal obligations to the church and their government. The problem is, both institutions are equally imperfect.

Once during the Vietnam War I helped prepare a young man to present a biblical case to his draft board to obtain conscientious objector status. “I told (the board) that Jesus said to turn the other cheek and love your enemy,” the young man reported later. “They said, ‘Jesus also said to render unto Caesar, and military service is how you’ll do that.’”

Throughout history there have been good Caesars and bad Caesars, and it seems unlikely Jesus intends us to render unto all of them.

I was born 16 months after Adolf Hitler died, but he was one bad Caesar whose evil impact endured long after he was gone. To my knowledge, no circulating German coins ever bore his likeness, but he did appear on Reich postage stamps. In fact, so many Hitler stamps were printed that they exist as worthless curiosities. It’s gratifying to note that a stamp commemorating a German pastor who opposed him has greater value.

Pastor Martin Niemöller is well known for this Nazi era statement:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.

The Nazis came for Niemöller in 1937 after he became the leader of a group of German clergy opposed to Hitler. He was sent to the Sachsenhausen and later to the Dachau concentration camps until he was released by the Allies in 1945. He was charged with “not being enthusiastic” in his support for the Nazi regime. The crime was actually a capital offense. His most famous colleague, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was hanged at the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. But Niemöller never wavered, and he remained under the constant threat of death at Dachau until he was liberated by the Allies in 1945. He became a president of the World Council of Churches when the ecumenical body was formed in 1948.

One of the most powerful tributes to Niemöller is a play written by Gordon C. Bennett, retired professor of language arts at then Eastern Baptist College: God is My Fuehrer, a dramatic interpretation of the life of Martin Niemöller. Written in the midst of the Vietnam era, the play is Bennett’s testimony that a Christian’s highest authority is God in Christ, not governments and certainly not draft boards.

The play is out of print, but its impact on my life has been long-lasting. I took several courses from Gordon between 1968 and 1970, and I recall his research involved a trip to Germany where he met with Niemöller. Gordon has spent his entire life as a witness for peace, rendering unto God the things that are God’s.

I never met Martin Niemöller, but I had colleagues at the World Council of Churches who knew him well. I think what makes him such an impressive figure is his ordinariness: soft spoken, small in stature, with unexceptional aims. He admitted that he supported Hitler when he first came to power, “mostly because I yearned for a return of the Kaiser.” But once it became clear that Hitler sought to take God’s place at the center of national life, Niemöller turned away from Caesar and never looked back.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ statement reverberates throughout history, not only as an ingenious rhetorical device to avoid a lawyerly trap but as a clear affirmation of what Baptists have historically maintained: the state and church must be kept separate.

That way, when the state begins to stray from the commands of God, it is easier to remember that Caesar’s authority is not equal to God’s: not in A.D. 30. Not in 1940.  Not now.

“For it is, and must remain the case,” Martin Niemöller said, “that we must obey God rather than human beings.”

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