Sunday, October 19, 2014

What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?

The oldest political trick in the book is to get your opponent to talk about anything else except the issues. We have seen this many times over the past year. They bring up something a candidate's pastor once said. They question a candidate's commitment to his or her family. Rumors are started about possible shady business dealings. All this in hopes of getting the opponent to be on the defensive. Then the press will focus on the candidate's weaknesses rather than his or her strengths. Little by little, support for the candidate begins to diminish as he or she is required to talk about everything else except the issues.

This is a tactic which the enemies of Jesus tried often. In one famous episode from the gospel recorded by Matthew, Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. By asking him whether or not Jews should pay taxes, they hoped to catch him in a trap. If Jesus said they should pay taxes, he would lose support among his followers who opposed the Roman occupation of Israel. If he said they shouldn't pay taxes, then the religious leaders would have cause to report him to the Roman authorities as an insurrectionist. Whichever way Jesus answered, his enemies hoped that he would have to keep explaining himself, digging himself into a deeper hole and losing support among the people. 

As usual, though, Jesus is far more clever than his adversaries. His answer has become one of the most quoted verses from the Bible: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; but give to God what belongs to God."
When we hear Jesus' words, we have to ask ourselves: What exactly belongs to Caesar? What do we owe to our government and to our fellow citizens? We have a responsibility to pay taxes and follow the laws. Being blessed to live in a democracy, we also have a responsibility to vote and to voice our opinion. Along with that, we must study the issues facing our society and form our consciences so that our opinions are based on sound logic and good moral principles. All these elements go into being good and responsible citizens. God expects that of us, especially as he has blessed us with a country which values freedom so highly.

Too often, however, Jesus' words, "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's", are quoted by adversaries of the Church who try to tell us that religion has no place in political life. They are using that old political tactic of trying to keep us from talking about the issues. When they claim a wall of separation between Church and State, they hope that people of faith won't become involved in the national debate about abortion, homosexual marriage, the death penalty or stem cell research. They tell us that people of faith should keep their opinions to themselves. They dare to say that we have no right to voice our opinion because it is informed and motivated by faith. Sad to say, too often Christians have taken that criticism to heart and left their faith at the door when they entered the voting booth. 

But, it is absolutely un-American to believe that someone has less of a freedom of speech because his or her ideas are informed and motivated by religious faith. As a country, we have fought to guarantee that each person have the freedom to voice their opinions no matter what their source or what their content. Should a person's beliefs and opinions be excluded because that person is a Catholic Christian? Why are the opinions of Catholics any different from the ideas proposed by environmentalists, animal rights supporters or business people? Like every other American, we have a right and a duty to witness to our faith even in the political arena.

And, the fact is that people of faith have always been a part of the political process in our country. In the last century, it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of faith, who led the fight to guarantee civil rights for all people regardless of race. In the nineteenth century, people of faith were among those who stirred the conscience of our nation to recognize the evil of slavery. And, many of the drafters of the constitution and forefathers of the country were informed and motivated by their faith to make America a place of freedom and opportunity. In this century, it is up to us now to take up the cause of justice and to witness to the dignity of every human person no matter how weak or how vulnerable.

As a church, we must never endorse a political candidate or a political party. We can never fall into the trap of partisan politics. But, we do have a right and a duty to speak to the issues facing the society in which we live, work and raise our children. Because of our faith, we have much to offer. We have insights regarding the dignity of the human person, the sacredness of human life, the importance of the family and the role of government in protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens. As Pope John Paul II said so often, as a Church we do not seek to impose our views but to propose them to society, to enrich the debate through the witness of our faith.

Governments come and go. Political leaders come and go. But, God's word endures forever. The Church has survived numerous governments, both good and bad, from the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages, through Nazism and Communism to the present day. As a community of faith we have a treasury of wisdom built up over those many centuries which we must share with the people of our day and use to strengthen our society. Let us pray that we will have the courage to speak the truth of the gospel even in the public arena and pray also for our leaders that they may be inspired by a vision of justice that will lead us to true peace.

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