Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” Let’s continue the Christian and politics theme this week by looking at what the Bible says about empire and power. To do this, we will look at the new book by Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford).
Let’s state the issue: power (with form and structure and empire). How do Christians who follow Jesus relate to the power of the State? How do they relate to that power? Do they seize it, as some are saying of the Religious Right, or do they avoid it, as some would say of the anabaptists? Do they simply follow Jesus and let politics be done by others? Do you think the following sketch by Christopher Bryan gets the big picture of the Bible right? What were the real options?
Bryan begins by observing that postcolonialism is very much a central theme in much of today’s political discussion. Furthermore, many Jesus scholars today exploit political discussions by contending that Jesus himself was in a colonialist situation and we can learn how to deal with power today by looking at what he had to say.
The first part of the book is about Israel and Power, and I want to summarize what he says because it shapes what we think today and it shapes how we understand Jesus’ political vision.
First, Israel dealt with empires, and had a singular theme to the whole gamut of experience and history: God is sovereign, and everything that happens is under God’s control. Dan 2:20-23: “He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings.” Second, Israel had a fundamental apathy but tolerance for kingship within its own borders. Three texts: Judg 8:22-23. Gideon refused rule: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” 1 Sam 8:11-18 warns about what will happen under a king, but vv. 19-20 concede kingship to Israel for pragmatic reasons. Third, the king himself was always subject to God and to God’s Torah, and that meant the king’s purpose was to lead Israel into justice and peace. Nothing is clearer to us than Nathan’s words to David: kings who abuse their power are accountable to God just like everyone else. Fourth, Israel learned that God’s sovereignty included other nations — and one thinks here of Cyrus (Isa 44:24–45:7).
In essence, the Hebrew Bible is not interested in “forms or structures of earthly power” but “in whether those who receive such power understand that it is a gift to them from God and that is given to them for the sake of God’s people, or even for the sake of the world” (22).
By the time of the New Testament, Judaism had four relationships to Rome and to Power and to the non-theocratic State, and each could be supported from the biblical tradition:
1. Acceptance of and full cooperation with Rome: Joseph, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
2. Acceptance of Roman rule, coupled with a willingness on occasion to challenge the powers nonviolently: Queen Esther, Daniel.
3. Nonviolent rejection of Roman rule: Eleazar and the mother with seven sons (Maccabean books).
4. Violent rejection of Roman rule: Judith, Judas Maccabeus.
Into such a world, Jesus stepped. What was his view? We’ll look Wednesday. He’s got a real surprise.