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Between God and Caesar: Christians and the challenge of politics

Whenever the word politics is mentioned in relation to faith, many Christians of today get rather nervous. Our minds go back to the old biblical…

Whenever the word politics is mentioned in relation to faith, many Christians of today get rather nervous. Our minds go back to the old biblical injunction, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21). Many critics of the Church’s involvement in politics continue to fall back on this Gospel text as a standard for leaving religion out of politics. Christian politicians are also wary of bringing their faith to bear on politics. Interestingly, Jesus did not mean the saying to be interpreted in that manner. He did not advise that Christians should have nothing to do with politics. Politics has to do with the mechanism of organising and governing society. The goal of politics is service of the common good and the promotion of peace and justice in the society. When Jesus was asked the question about whether taxes and tributes should be paid to Caesar, the motive of the questioners was to trap him. If he, a Jew, proposed that taxes should be paid to the Roman Emperor, he would incur the wrath of his own people who looked upon colonial Rome and Caesar as enemies of the Jewish nation. If he questioned paying tributes to Caesar, the Roman authorities would see in him a rebel.
Thus, knowing that their intentions were not pure, Jesus asked for a coin, and the coin that was brought to him had the imprint of Caesar on it. He therefore advised the Pharisees to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Those who live under Caesar’s authority and recognised his power should give him his due. However, we can ask: What belongs to Caesar that has not been given to him? In his response to the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus sets the framework for how we should think about religion and the state even today. Caesar does have rights. We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience. But that obedience is limited by what belongs to God. Caesar is not God. Only God is God, and the state is subordinate and accountable to God for its treatment of human persons, all of who were created by God.
Our job as believers is to figure out what things belong to Caesar, and what things belong to God, and then put those things in right order in our own lives, and in our relations with others. The origin of the world and of humanity in the first book of the Bible – Genesis – teaches us that God created the whole world and created the human person in his own image and likeness. Therefore, Caesar and whatever makes him human belongs to God. If Caesar’s coin and his empire belongs to God, it follows that the politics of running the empire and administering the coins has to be subjected to God’s supreme rule over the whole of creation.
One of the most common accusations that the clergy face today is that we are leaving our religious and spiritual duties and poking our noses into the murky waters of politics. But that is just one side of the story. On the other side are those who accuse us of folding our arms and sitting on the sidelines when we should speak out against the depredations of politics carried out by a reckless and corrupt elite. Like Emperor Nero, we are said to be fiddling away while our country, like Rome, is daily set ablaze by morally bankrupt politicians. Those who accuse us of poking our noses into the fire of politics are very quick to quote Jesus’ statement, which enjoins giving to Caesar his due and to God what is God’s. For them, the domain of politics is the terrain of Caesar. The domain of God is the religion. Therefore, those who are spiritual leaders are told to restrict their activities to the temple of God.
Those who lambast us for failing in our prophetic social responsibility remind us that we are not mustering sufficient righteous indignation and prophetic outrage against the ills of society, the kind of outrage that motivated Jesus to use a whip to drive out corrupt business people from the temple (John 2:13-20). Those who lambast us cast Jesus in the mould of a spiritual and socio-political revolutionary who brought breathtaking changes to his milieu. Many people wonder why today’s Christian leaders seem to have lost the steam of prophetic vibrancy, the type that led Pope John Paul II to wrestle strenuously against Communism in the heartlands of Europe, especially in his home country of Poland. They remind us about the revolutionary Anglican Archbishop of Johannesburg and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu who took on battle against the demons of apartheid. They hold in our faces the memory of Dom Helder Camara the legendary Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil who fought against the Americans and against the structures of sin they erected in his native country.
Many Christians remember the powerful role of the American Baptist pastor and civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who literally brought America to a standstill in his 30s in the battle against racial segregation through non-violent resistance. There is also the inspiring figure of Cardinal Jaime Lachica Sin, the Filipino Catholic prelate who spearheaded the People Power Revolution that toppled the corrupt regime of President Ferdinand Marcos and installed Corazon Aquino in 1986 and the 2001 EDSA Revolution that brought down the government of Joseph Estrada. In the Latin American country of San Salvador, a certain Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero started a social revolution without guns and without an army, but with the conviction that one man’s courage can be the most powerful weapon of all. We can also talk about Father Jean Betrand Aristide of Haiti whose passion for social justice and for the liberation of his people led him to the doorsteps of political power.
These great social revolutionaries in Christian garments resemble the biblical prophets of old from Amos and Hosea to Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah who denounced corruption, injustice, oppression and political brigandage in their own days. Many people are asking us today: Why are Nigerian Christian religious leaders so slow to take on the battle for a more just and peaceful society? With all our education in philosophy, theology, and the human sciences, why are we not in the vanguard of social and political change? Sadly, on the other side of the spectrum, we are faced with many good Christian men and women who have avoided politics like a plague with the fear that they are too clean to dabble into the murky waters of what has been termed a ‘dirty game.’ How can we change society when Christians do not take active part in politics?
Pope Francis has said that, “Involvement in politics is an obligation for the Christian. We Christians cannot ‘play the role of Pilate’, washing our hands off it; we cannot. We must be involved in politics because politics is one of the highest forms of charity, for it seeks the common good.” If politics has become dirty, Francis says, it is because Christians who are involved in politics do not enter into politics with an evangelical spirit. Poor education in the demands of political activity has produced many Christian politicians who are nothing short of “baptized pagans” – to use the words of George Weigel, a brilliant American Catholic theologian.  Apart from a few Christian politicians here and there who have generously offered themselves for public service for the sake of the common good, the vast majority of Christian politicians have approached politics with the “cafeteria mentality” where people are invited to come and eat. These accidental Christian politicians who stumble into politics by chance without carrying along with them the baggage of their Christian convictions and values are the very ones whose actions and inactions have brought shame and ridicule to the Christian name. The burning question now is: What is to be done?
Father Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.

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