Another post in the Food for Thought series, triggered by this nomination from Citizen Tom.
One rather famous verse in the synoptic Gospels (such as in Matthew 21) includes this line: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The same chapter contains many other recognizable phrases, and it has long intrigued me how many different Biblical expressions have made it to English conversational or literary use. For example, in this chapter are found the expression “Many are called, but few are chosen” and “Show me the money!” (often translated as “show me the tribute money” or “show the the tribute coin”).
Also here is the story of the wives for the seven brothers … in this case, a single wife, who outlived the first brother and was married by the second, and so on. Jesus is asked an interesting question about this hypothetical case, and gives an interesting answer.
A political answer
The chapter makes clear that Jesus was being questioned about paying the poll tax (a controversial issue at the time that had led to riots) in order to trap him. He would be forced into making a choice that would get him in trouble either with the State or with his supporters. His answer, the “Render unto Caesar” bit, is a clever sort of political answer that solved the problem using this subjective wording. What, exactly, is Caesar’s? And what is God’s?
The “what is God’s” aspect is complicated a bit by the relationship of God to government in the Bible. Elsewhere, the Bible states that Earthy rulers have a sort of divine authority. From Romans 13:
1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
This in combination with the tax rendering statements has created a command open to more than one interpretation. And that’s been a problem, to a certain extent.
War and protests
Many have decided that this instruction means that if the government asks you to go to war, or to pay a “war tax,” you should do so, as “God has sanctified the state.” Others, followers of “Christian anarchism,” maintain that any attempt at war is in violation of the Bible’s edicts against violence, and should be disobeyed. In between, and a fairly common discussion in modern times, is the notion that some Government wars are right and some are wrong, the concept being that of a “just war.”
The notion of a just war also resonates with many non-theists. Like most religious folk, we do not hold that a government is beyond reproach and incapable of error. In the case of the United States, it was set up as a very well-designed constitutional republic, but continues to stray further from this ideal. So, since the government can make a mistake, it is possible for such mistakes to be large, on the scale of war. (Material about Iraq moved out of this post to tomorrow.)
Austine, Luther, and the Two Worlds
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote about “Caesar/God” separation in a series of books called collectively The City of God. That work is on-line here. Note that these 22 books are divided into two broad sections, the first 10 dealing with pagans and secular rule and the next dozen with heavenly matters. Book One, for example, is a surprisingly grim and fatalistic discourse on the treatment of prisoners, the dead, and saints. It’s … not pretty.
Augustine’s basic point is that these are indeed two separate areas, and should not be confused. Later, Martin Luther made the same argument, describing the secular world as “the kingdom of the Left.” (Perhaps many would agree with that designation, especially after recent elections in the US.) Luther wrote:
God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly…The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that every one shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another.
But if the secular is to be separated from the sacred, Church and State kept separated, and belief not forced by government commandments, then what of blasphemy laws? They were part of Christianity from early on, though they evolved over time and circumstance. In fact, Luther’s Protestant Reformation ultimately strengthened the use of blasphemy laws in Europe, with the British monarchs also designated “Defender of the Faith” and “Head of the Church.” In 1676, an English judge wrote that blashemy was “a crime against the laws, State and Government…. Christianity is parcel of the laws of England.” Blasphemy, of tolerated, would “dissolve all those obligations whereby the civil societies are preserved.”
Yet, just a few years later, the Toleration Act of 1689 became a first attack on the notion of blasphemy as a state-enforced crime. More laws would follow, but blasphemy became less and less enforced over the next couple of centuries.
Blasphemy laws still exist, of course. These laws are currently responsible for deaths across the Islamic world, and in fact that recent uproar over the silly “Innocence of Muslims” movie trailer is that it violated Shariah laws against blasphemy. The assassinations of moderate Pakistani politicians recently, including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, were in part because they opposed blasphemy laws.
Blasphemy is forbidden by the Qur’an, and encoded in Shariah law … and it is this law that has been made so visible in recent times, with various persons sentenced to death or to flogging for offending the Prophet or Allah or one of the Earthly representatives. And unlike the Bible, which comes to us in many versions and many subtle changes in interpretation, the Qur’an (and Sunnah and al Hadith) are written in the language still used by Islamic scholars, so they do not consider “interpretation” to be much of an issue. Blasphemy is bad, period. And punishable, with no signs of any of this improving.
It creates the odd situation of Israel being the one country in the Middle East where a Muslim may renounce his faith without fear of punishment from the State. he still has to be wary of his Muslim neighbors, though…
Blasphemy in the US, early on…
What about the US? Weren’t we long past such notions when the country was formed? Not initially, as the Constitution’s 1st Amendment forbade Congress from making laws about religion, but not individual states. Several had official religions … and laws against offense to them.
In an 1836 case of blasphemy (against, ironically, a man named Thomas Jefferson Chandler), the Delaware Supreme Court upheld his conviction, finding that Chandler’s verbal attack on the doctrines of Christianity “struck at the foundation of . . . civil society,” because “the religion of the people of Delaware is Christian.” They went on to opine that Chandler’s angry shouts against Jesus and the Virgin Mary (I won’t repeat them here) were unconstitutional infringements of other people’s rights to enjoy their religion. From State v. Chandler, 2 Harr. 553, 1837 WL 154 (Del. Gen. Sess. 1837)
Doing away with blasphemy
Later, the 14th Amendment was interpreted as extending the Bill of Rights to the States, sort of, selectively, and in conflict with the 10th Amendment. It established that freedom of speech, and the separation of law-making from any and all religion, was sacrosanct (if I may use that word). Here, we had made a giant leap forward, and it is a position that the Islamic world has yet to be able to achieve. To be able to say what you wish, about religion or politics or whatever, and note clearly that your freedom of speech was not an issue that needed to be “rendered under Caesar,” was the mark of true enlightenment.
We were able to keep the Christian principles that made up a significant part of the inspiration for the country’s founding, combine it with reverence for individual liberty, and thus provide a platform combining elements of the secular and the divine worlds, while following the dictate to “render under Caesar [only] that which is Caesar’s” and thus keep church and state from stepping on each other.
Failures at the United Nations and other Islamic governments
The United Nations has not been able to cross this hurdle into enlightenment, as they are continually giving in to the Islamic world’s notions that one has complete freedom of speech as long as it doesn’t interfere with Shariah law. I’ve written before about that ongoing conflict, and the jihadists seem to be winning. I’d written about “Seven Hundred Years of Enlightenment” in which the Judeo/Christian faiths have it all over Islam. One year ago, I wrote about the disdain that mainstream Muslim leaders have for the notion of a “modern” Islam that could be compatible with the West.
Blasphemy is trendy again
The US should be, should have been, a shining beacon of enlightenment against this onslaught. But after leaping (somewhat painfully) over this free speech barrier more than a century ago, we have sadly fallen backward over it: The US now has blasphemy laws again.
But they are a new sort, in which our speech is once again no longer free — it is the crime of “hate speech.” Under this new doctrine, distinction blurs between what is Caesar’s and what belongs to the new god, Political Correctness. This secular god is fickle far beyond any Biblical account: It must be ignored if one would preach Communism in the classroom, but it must be appeased if you argue against Communism, or offend people in any of numerous rather subjective ways.
These laws are particularly odious as they are applied individually based upon one’s circumstances. A person of the wrong ethnicity can go to jail for using certain words at the wrong time, but others can make millions by including them in their songs. The spectacle thus produced includes the odd bit of National Public Radio a few months ago hosting a serious discussion of whether white people should be allowed to say the “n word,” and if so under what circumstances. The conclusion? Fine for blacks, but never for whites.
The Supreme Court and the New Blasphemy
And all of this is coming full circle again, as one of our sitting Supreme Court justices is advocating making blasphemy against Islam (but not other religions) into “hate speech” punishable as a crime. Oddly, this same SCOTUS justice gets his facts wrong on legal opinions and precedents.
We need a Saint Augustine again, perhaps, to separate worlds … and maybe to knock some sense into peoples’ heads.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle