Render unto Caesar EVERYTHING

Once upon a time, a radical preacher inspired a new and rapidly growing religious sect. After the death of the preacher, the sect continued to expand. Eventually, the civil and religious authorities of the region came to perceive the sect as a threat to the established order. Agents were dispatched to suppress the sect, often with violence. One such agent came to infiltrate the sect and rise to a position of leadership. From that position, he was able to effectively rewrite the tenets of the newly formed religion in a way that made it much more amenable to rule by the civil authorities. And eventually, the state not only condoned the sect, but adopted it as the official state religion.

Most of you have already guessed that I did not make this story up. The preacher is Jesus Christ; the sect is Christianity; the State is Rome; and the agent is Saul of Tarsus, later known as St. Paul the Apostle. There is no way to be sure that Saul of Tarsus remained a government agent after his “conversion”, but it certainly makes for a compelling interpretation.

Before the conversion, Saul apparently had the governmental authority to execute and imprison Christians. (Although he asserts that his authority came from the Hebrew religious leaders, it is somewhat incredible that the Roman overlords would simply allow people to run around killing and imprisoning other individuals under the protection of Rome.) After the conversion, Paul became a prolific writer. In fact, his writings comprise the bulk of the New Testament, much more than the words of Jesus himself. And when compared with the teachings of Jesus, Paul’s writings are decidedly more “pro-state”.

While Jesus’ position on secular authority (and social hierarchies generally) are ambiguous at best, Paul is all-in on the authority of civil government. Jesus said “render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” At most, this is a bland endorsement of following the law. More likely, when read with the rest of Jesus’ statements about money, this is an indictment of wealth-seeking. “You should not care about having to pay your taxes because you should be concerned with Godly things rather than material things.”

Paul, on the other hand, states explicitly that the emperor has moral authority to rule, and that to disobey the state is to commit a sin against God. Because all power comes from God, every king is an instrument of God’s will. And this position is not limited to good or virtuous kings. Whoever happens to be in charge, be they ever so vile, must be obeyed because they are in power by God’s grace. Grotius explains that for Paul, “the kingly office, even under all circumstances, was appointed by God… [so] regal power would retain its indelible sanctity, though in the hands of an ungodly man.”

That sort of blind obedience is exactly the sort of tenet that a monarchical empire such as Rome would want it’s growing fringe religious group to have. When crimes against the state are punishable by both corporeal and spiritual means, the religion has become a very valuable tool for power.


Beer of the week: Perla Honey – There has got to be some sort of lesson here about “too much of a good thing”.  I think that the components here are good, but in the wrong proportions. It definitely tastes like real honey, and the beer is smooth and seems good, but it is impossible to tell under the sheer quantity of honey. It is like taking a shot of honey. If the sweetness were dialed way down, I think this would be really good.

Reading of the week: On the Law of War and Peace by Hugo Grotius – This excerpt from Grotius’s treatise purports to refute arguments that Christian scripture proscribes war. He relies, predictably, on the writings of St. Paul.

Question for the week: If all kings, no matter how despicable, are ordained by God, it is clearly a sin to rebel. However, if a pretender to the throne is successful in overthrowing the king, he becomes the new king and all of his actions are sanctioned. The lesson appears to be that rebellion is only a sin if it is unsuccessful. Is there any way to salvage Grotius’ (or Paul’s) position on this matter without resulting in an absurdity?

2 Comments on “Render unto Caesar EVERYTHING”

  1. leonzadok says:

    We have come a long way in political philosophy since Grotius. The natural law as the basis of a general theory of moral obligation ‘ain’t no more man.’ But to play along, there is a flaw in the premise of your conundrum. The old theorists, like Hobbes all held certain inalienable rights sacrosanct. For example, in the Leviathan the awesomely powerful sovereign could not unjustly threaten the life of a subject and preclude the right of self defense. Where Grotious’ account may well suggest that rebellion is a sin, does it really suggest that all sovereign action may be deemed acceptable? And even if a governmental authority may be deemed as acting intra votes, or outside of any possibility of moral sanction, isn’t it the case that certain inalienable rights disincentivise the very worst behaviours. After all, if everyone holds the right to self defense and there is a mass rebellion, that is gonna be one fucked up king.

    Great post Jake

    • Thanks, Leon. Glad you liked it.

      You are certainly right that according to Hobbes the head of the Leviathan could not preclude the right of self-defense. But Hobbes doesn’t do away with our problem, he just manufactures a technicality: self-defense against the king only happens when the individual is no longer a member of the state. This is because when the king attempts to kill a subject, he is declaring a state of war between the state and that subject (which, by the way, the sovereign has the absolute right to do for any reason or none at all.) Therefore, as soon as the attempt is made on the subject’s life, he is no longer a member of the state. And so any act of self-defense is not an act of rebellion, but rather an act of a personal sovereign against his former state.

      And now that I think about it, in Hobbes’ terms an act of rebellion is probably not really an attack by a subject upon his sovereign, but an act of war perpetrated by a newly formed sovereign against another sovereign. A very convenient work-around for the question for the week.

      But I’ve not read any Hobbes in nearly a decade, so…

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