Thursday, August 19, 2004

On God, Caesar and Government
GEM 04:08:12

“Render . . . unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” [Matt 22:21.]

With these startling words, Jesus rebutted the Pharisees and Herodians, who had hoped to trap him with a trick question: “Is it lawful to give tribute [tax] unto Caesar, or not?” Had he answered, “no,” Jesus would have been an open rebel against Rome. If he had answered “yes,” most Jews would have branded him a traitor. But instead, he called for a tribute coin and asked whose image and inscription were on it: “Caesar’s.” So, very wisely, our Lord told them to give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God, what belongs to Him.

There is, however, a subtle issue in the answer: Who decides what properly belongs to Caesar – or any other governmental official -- and why?

Of course, Caesar is not competent to answer that question: for, he has a major conflict of interest. Equally clearly, raw power or trickery or unjustly imposed decrees cannot properly be trotted out in the name of “law” or “custom” and passed off as the answer to a question of rights and justice. Nor, can a nation be simply a matter of property to be handed over from one ruler to another, for that would be mere slavery. (In fact, the Romans had been invited into Judaea by one side in a power struggle, and simply had never left: so, their C1 rule of Judaea was rooted in trickery, lies and naked force.)

The Psalmist has a better answer: “The earth is the Lord’s . . . and all who live in it” [Ps 24:1] – for he is our loving Creator. So, clearly, all government must be established under (and should acknowledge) God, as we see in Rom. 13:1 - 6:

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established . . . Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted . . . For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”

“The [civil authority] is God’s servant to do you good.” That is, s/he is God’s servant, i.e. accountable to God. Next, such a ruler is tasked to do you good – and in vv. 8 – 10, Paul then points out that “[l]ove does no harm to its neighbour” and therefore fulfills God’s Law. Thus, the first duty and qualification of the ruler is justice, in light of God’s law of neighbour-love: s/he is to be concerned to promote the right and good, and to restrain those who would do wrong. That is why rulers bear the sword to defend justice and have a right to collect reasonable taxes to support the work of government. In short, it is God who assigns to his servant, Caesar what properly belongs to Caesar; that he may promote justice. So, as Daniel Chs 1 - 6 show us, it is God who, in his wisdom that is far above our human understanding, raises up Governments; and as Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius’ satraps learned the hard way, God is not afraid to judge, punish or even overthrow rulers who become arrogant, blasphemous or unjust -- especially those who dare to persecute the people of God.

But, what about democracy – the rule of the people? Now, first, the people do not directly rule as a body, for that lends itself to the fickle tyranny and brutality of enraged crowds and the demagogues who manipulate them – the downfall of ancient Athens’ democracy and the root of the Reign of Terror in revolutionary C18 France. Instead, as the Bible and history jointly bear witness, free people should choose their leaders and set up laws as the framework in which government acts justly, under the supreme rule of God. Then, since sometimes governments are not merely incompetent, but are tempted to steal from the public purse, or may willfully undermine the public good, or may even use the force of the sword to attack the rights of the people or set out on imperialist conquest, we have a collective right to use the vote to reform government, by removing such mis-rulers and if necessary changing our laws, to correct the underlying fault.

We can therefore sum up the lesson of the past five hundred years: just and wise government, under the rule of law, in the fear of God [cf. 2 Sam 23:3], and with accountability to the people through regular elections – that is, “a truly democratic and God fearing society” -- is vital: for, the alternative is chaos, tyranny, and oppression; leading to recurrent and futile coups, civil wars and bloody revolutions.

As this has been increasingly recognised over the past several generations, we the people of the Caribbean, under God’s providence and blessing, have been set free from slavery and the worst excesses of colonial rule, and we have embarked on our own experiment of liberty and democratic self-government. Clearly, if we are to make a success of it, then, we must seek God’s wisdom and grace. So, now, let’s talk . . .

PS: A more detailed discussion, which will guide the next several sessions of Let's Talk as we discuss how Montserrat may become a truly democratic and God fearing society, may be found here . (It also is a wide ranging discussion of government and governance under God as the world rushes to the culmination of History.)

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