by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
And the religious leaders and the state come together, in spite of huge differences and great tension, to trap Jesus and ensure his death. This sounds all too familiar.
When religion is so corrupted by the desire for power they care more about retaining power than about God, death is often the result. When power is in question, when rebellion is fomenting, when there is a person or movement who could topple everything they have worked to build, religion and the state will come together to smash those who challenge their power. In this alliance, it is religion that loses. Every. Time. Because in the process of joining church and state, religion cedes its values to those of the state; it becomes a part of empire. The church becomes one with a system that is designed to keep *most* people on the margins, designed to have a gulf between the haves and the have nots – the thing that almost all religions work against.
Empire abuses the weak, separates us from one another by levels of wealth, power, gender, race, sexual orientation, tribe, and so many other things, so that we destroy each other while the powerful watch from on high. This last week, one of the more grotesque displays of religion mating with empire, The Values Voter Summit, gives us a pretty clear idea of what this looks like -- those who call themselves Christians cheering at the idea of their siblings losing health care. Every generation seems to have its version of empire co-opted religion, from the church’s support of slavery to the corporate executives who found the right preachers to help them campaign against the New Deal (seriously, read One Nation Under God for this, it is infuriating), to the southern strategy… on and on and on. Religion and the state both want power, and too often they will collude to hold onto it.
How does Jesus respond? He responds by calling out this desperate attempt to trap him and destroy his message, by calling the followers of the Pharisees play-actors (the literal definition of ὑποκριτής), pointing out that they are pretending to get along with the Herodians just to take him down (it is interesting to wonder if the were even dressed up like Herodians to fit in). He then points out to them that they have enough knowledge of this idolatrous coin to describe it (does one of them have it on them? Are they carrying idolatry with them?). Then he says that phrase that has so often been used to justify (rabid) patriotism alongside faith, “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, give to God what is God’s.”
In his sermon on this passage from Matthew, Martin Luther proposes that this was Jesus way of pointing out that they had already been co-opted by empire, they had already made a choice, so why not just go all the way with it. If you’re already walking around with idolatry give that idolatry to the idol. God doesn’t want it. God doesn’t need your patriotism, God doesn’t want or need your flag, God doesn’t want or need your national anthem. God wants that which bears God’s image: us. God has claimed us, God has called us, God has made us in God’s image and we are to give that to God. And, depending on who you are, that looks like putting your body on the line at a protest, that looks like kneeling for the national anthem, maybe that looks like standing up when women, people of color, immigrants, disabled people, or members of the LGBTQ community are being harassed or assaulted. It may look like using your body and mind to quit your job because your work doesn’t bring the world any closer to the kingdom. What it definitely looks like, for all of us, is standing against anything that is against God – and that means standing against empire.