July 4th fell on a Sunday last year, a day I happened to be invited by a nearby church to come preach. As a guest speaker, I thought it would be a great opportunity to share what I think the Bible has to say about how our faith affects our politics. Though I’m a few days late for this year’s Independence Day, I thought I’d share a slightly edited version of what I shared then. I think it’s still relevant. (If you’d rather watch the message, click here.)
Do you know the name Winston Marshall? For years, he was the lead guitarist for the rock band Mumford & Sons, but he quit in 2021 because of a tweet about a book he apparently wasn’t supposed to read. It is a sign of the times that rock ‘n roll, which used to be about breaking all the rules and rebellious behavior, is now policed by Twitter.
But I bring it up not because of Marshall’s decision to quit, or even the reason he quit, but because of something he said in an interview that caught my attention. Marshall noted that before 2016, when the band would do publicity stuff, nobody asked them about politics; it was about their music. In 2016, he said, things flipped – and it seemed like nobody wanted to ask about their music; now it was about their politics.
Hmmm…did something happen in 2016 to flip the script? Seems like I remember an election that year, maybe…. And ever since, is it just Winston Marshall, or has everything become political?
Music and masks and journalism and marriage and pronouns and major sports and the workplace and the cereal you eat and on and on and on it goes – everything has become politicized.
As Bob Dylan sang prophetically way back in 1989: We live in a political world. If we did then, Bob, we definitely do now.
But what does all this mean for us? For the Church? For those of us who follow Jesus? Who build our lives on him and his sacrifice, and the hope he gives?
What does politics have to do with Jesus? And with us?
It just so happens that today we have a unique opportunity, where we get to gather on a Sunday to worship and seek God’s will – and we get to do it on the day our country was born. Believe it or not, 2010 was the last time the 4th of July fell on a Sunday, and it won’t happen again until 2027 – which means today is the only time Independence Day and Resurrection Day come together for 17 years! And if I’m not mistaken, that’s the same cycle as the cicadas. Hmmm… not sure what that means, except that it means we get to take this once in a 17-year opportunity and consider: What is the role of American politics in the life of a follower of Jesus?
Well, a good place to get some insight is a particular story from Jesus’ life. It’s an interaction that Matthew, Mark & Luke all record – where Jesus is asked a question about taxes. Look at Matthew’s version, found in 22.15-22.
Right out of the gate, Matthew makes it clear that this is not an academic exercise. Jesus’ questioners are not just looking for a good debate. This is, as someone has called it, Jesus’ “final exam.” He is in the midst of being tested by his opponents, and his answers have life-and-death consequences. They are looking for a way to trap Jesus in his words so they can hand him over to Pilate. And I don’t have to tell you that for Jesus, going to see Pilate will be no 4th of July picnic.
Matthew tells us that the questioners were the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees included those who believed that the restoration of Israel was tied to the restoration (and expansion) of the legal tradition. They followed the letter of the law, which often put them at odds with the governing Roman officials. And for all the negative things we can say about them, we can also say this: They were serious about their faith, and following the words of Scripture. The Herodians, on the other hand, as their name indicates, got along with Herod and the other officials who worked with the Roman authorities.
So, we have two opposing groups who have united around One Question where there seems to be no middle ground: Do we pay taxes to Caesar or not? To pay or not to pay. That is the question.
And even though their goal is less-than noble, it’s helpful that we have both the Pharisees and the Herodians asking the question, because we get two sides of the political argument here: where the Pharisees are going to oppose Rome at every step,
and the Herodians are going to try to get along in every way they can.
So, Jesus: it’s final exam time. Which is it, A or B? And while the Pharisees and Herodians disagree on the answer, the agree on the result: Jesus will have to pick one side, which is sure to put him on the wrong side with somebody.
Not long after Jesus was born, the Romans instituted a poll tax. The feelings about this ran from distasteful at best, to those who felt it was idolatry to pay this tax to a man who claimed divinity. And so it was a huge political and theological hot button.
All this is made abundantly clear when Jesus has his interlocutors produce a denarius for his use in answering the question. It has the image of Caesar on it, and the inscription would have gone something like this: “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus.”
This coin was produced in an occupied land, in a day where they didn’t have very many ways for political communication. No social media, no TV – so no political ads. No billboards, no direct mail, no door hangers, no yard signs. (Sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it?)
But, Everett Ferguson points out, the Romans had many other ways to get their message across, including the minting of coins. And so, in Jesus’ day, money isn’t just money; it’s money with a message, where coins communicate the propaganda of the guy on the throne in Rome. And the emperor’s message is clear: I am the son of the Divine, and I’m in charge.
And because the words on the coin were blasphemy, many Jews died over their insistence that paying the poll tax was wrong. So, for Jesus to say – Yes, pay the tax – he would have appeared to be acknowledging Rome’s authority and Caesar’s lordship.
But, to say No, don’t pay the tax would place himself directly against Rome and all it stands for. Which, of course, is not a very comfortable place to be. Clearly, they have Jesus set up. This is a no-win situation.
But, Jesus won’t be trapped by their either-or thinking. He basically says: The coin that guy just pulled out of his pocket has Caesar’s face on it. Well, then, give him back what he thinks is important. But – you give to God what belongs to God.
And in that answer, Jesus doesn’t pick political sides, while at the same time making a VERY important statement. His questioners can only marvel and walk away – maybe not really sure whose side Jesus was on, for he clearly didn’t say: Defund the Caesar. But he also didn’t say: Make Caesar Great Again.
So, what did he say?
Well, I like the way the late preacher Fred Craddock put it. He says that, in one sentence, Jesus addresses two dangers when it comes to politics. One is the sentiment that says, Caesar is Lord. Clearly, Jesus shows the spiritual danger in taking the position. But the other danger is also troublesome, and that is the one that says, Caesar is Satan. Nothing good comes from government.
In other words, we live in this world. Specifically, we live as people within the structure and the setting of the country where we reside. For me, and many of you, that means we live as Christians in America. We can’t avoid that, and I think Jesus says that we shouldn’t try. Instead, we are called to find our way as those who claim Jesus as Lord in a world where there are many other “lords” and authorities and voices.
I think a helpful image for how we are to live as Christians in American can be found earlier in Matthew, in chapter 10. In this chapter, Jesus is sending out his 12 disciples, and in verse 16 he tells them: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (NRSV).
What a fascinating phrase: wise as serpents and innocent as doves. When you think of a serpent in the Bible, what comes to mind? (See Genesis 3.1) On the flip side, what’s the one story in the NT where the imagery of a dove is used? (See Mark 1.10).
I believe that behind this vivid imagery that Jesus gives us is an invitation to KNOW the ways of our Enemy, but approach it with the MIND of the Spirit.
That’s our calling, and it fits so naturally with what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees and the Herodians. Perhaps one reason they walked away is because they weren’t ready for that – each one wanted just one side of the equation. But we have to have both – wisdom about the ways of the world while at the same time approaching it grounded in the leading of the Spirit, while also demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit.
Is that fruit: apathy, frustration, discontentment, impatience, mean-spiritedness, selfishness, ugliness, and the total lack of self-control? Of course not; that’s the opposite of the Spirit’s fruit. It’s what we might call the Serpent’s harvest.
But the Fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.
Now you tell me: how much of that Fruit have you seen in politics lately? Have you seen people from opposite sides being patient with each other? How about kindness? Self-control?
But we shouldn’t be surprised when the ways of the world don’t reflect the fruit of God’s Spirit. We shouldn’t expect those who don’t rely on the Spirit to reflect that same Spirit.
But what about Christians? Surely we are MUCH better about the fruit of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us? If only. I probably don’t have to tell you that this serpent stuff so often comes more naturally for us, too. But what we need – what the world needs to SEE in us – is the influence of the Dove. And perhaps the dove part is more likely to come when we realize who we are. As Jesus says in Matthew 10.16: I am sending you out as sheep in the middle of wolves.
The truth is: there will always be wolves. But those of us who go out in Jesus’ name should never be running with that pack. If Jesus is our Shepherd, we must be his sheep;
and when is the last time you saw a sheep get in a fight?
When we remember who we are, and WHOSE we are, then it fills us with the power and the purpose to be sheep in a world of wolves; where our ways are not their ways.
Our hope is not in a politician, or a political party, or even in our country. We don’t pledge allegiance to a position, or a person, or a platform, or a political idea. We belong to Jesus – not the Republicans or the Democrats; not to Biden or Trump. Our authority is the Bible, not Fox News or MSNBC. We are led by the Spirit of God, not by the spirit of this age. And we must not tarnish the name of our Savior by forgetting who we are.
We can’t show up in the political sphere as just another wolf who has been co-opted by a politician or a party or a pet theory. We show up – and we should show up – as people who understand what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar; knowing that there is only one King – the King of Kings – and our hope is in him.
As Jesus people, we can’t be bought or hoodwinked or used by a party or a person to advance their own causes. We follow Jesus and trust him alone. His kingdom is the only one that will last. His way of sacrifice and servanthood is the only way to ultimate victory.
So we don’t enter the public sphere: angry, or fearful, or just plain silly – but we come with God’s heart for Truth and Mercy and Justice and Love. And since we should be the ones who most value truth, we need to be the ones least likely to fall for conspiracy theories or misinformation. At the same time, we enter the public sphere with Hope, even when truth is redefined and life is misvalued – for we know that Caesar doesn’t get the last word.
We work for justice, because we serve a God who sees the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant and calls us to show them mercy. And through all of this, we are people of love – not just for those on “our side,” but for those – especially for those – on the “other side.”
I grew up singing the old chorus that says: They will know we are Christians by our … Love. It’s not by our anger, or our volume, or our facebook posts. No – they will know we are Christians by our Love.
In Romans 12, Paul is in the homestretch of a pretty amazing letter. It’s a chapter that starts by urging us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices – and not be conformed to the pattern of this world. And it’s a chapter that ends with these words: Don’t be trampled under by evil, but trample over evil in goodness. And in between, Paul has all kinds of challenges for the Roman believers – words to a church in the capital city of the vast Roman empire. Words in Romans 12, like:
Let love be genuine.
Bless those who persecute you – bless and do not curse.
Repay no one evil for evil.
As much as possible, for your part – live at peace with all people.
If those words were true then & there, how much do we still need them today?
In a world divided, where truth is up for debate and people so quickly pick sides and lob verbal grenades: what happens when we take seriously the Truth of Jesus and Paul? What does it look like when we go out into the realm of politics and ideas, not playing by their terms? What does it look like when we go into the world, not trying to run with the wolves, but instead, follow our Good Shepherd and his example?
Well, I think it looks something like:
- Entering into the world of politics with peace – knowing that our peace has already by secured by our Savior, and nothing that happens in Washington, our state, or our city can take that away.
- Speaking the truth in love.
- Showing patience, and kindness, and gentleness – to those in the church we disagree with, AND those outside of it.
- Blessing our enemies, instead of cursing them.
- Forgiving and showing self-control, instead of fighting fire with fire.
- And spreading, not hate or anger or falsehoods or assumptions or unkindness, but love. In all things, love.
For we are sheep – in a world of wolves, yes – but sheep who have a Shepherd who laid down his life for his enemies (and we were all his enemies).
He is our master. He is our Lord. He is our guide. And it is not politics or politicians or political parties or political positions that will change this world; it’s Jesus. It’s his love – his love, flowing through you and me, in a world that above all else, needs to see that love. And when we enter the realm of politics and culture, if we don’t first demonstrate that love, we might end up banging a very loud drum or clanging some pretty large cymbals that the world can’t ignore (see 1 Cor 13.1), but we might just have missed out on showing them the one thing that does more than change laws: the Love that changes lives.