I Pledge Allegiance…
Here is a half dollar from 1958 that is called the Franklin Half dollar because it has the bust of founding father Benjamin Franklin on the front. Franklin was a scientist and inventor,
And is famously known for flying a kite in a storm with a key attached to the kite string in order to prove that lightning is made up of electricity.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the writers of the Constitution of the United States, and soon after the Constitution was ratified, he wrote a letter to someone where he said:
“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Nonetheless, with all the uncertainty that we’ve lived through this year, maybe there is more truth to this statement than I previously realized!
Today’s scripture story is about paying taxes, and it fits pretty well right now in our country where a perennial hot topic issue in an election is whether the candidate will raise taxes if he or she is elected.
Most Americans like the idea of paying less taxes, though in reality, as Ben Franklin suggests, citizens paying taxes are a permanent and necessary part of a democracy that is by the people and for the people.
In our scripture today, the issue of paying taxes was a hot button issue in Jesus’ day as well. And two groups of people approach Jesus as ask him the following question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, to the Roman government, or not?
One group represented the Herodians, who were Greek converts to Judaism and who were more cozy with the Roman government. They would have supported paying taxes to Rome and were hoping that Jesus would say ‘yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the government, and something everyone should do’ gladly.
The other group represented the Pharisees, who were Jewish religious leaders of the day, and they were leery of paying taxes to the Roman Empire.
The Jewish people whose God was Yahweh were living under occupation from the Roman Empire, whose god was Caesar or whoever the emperor was at the time.
The Jews hated living under the shadow of the empire, because as with most empires, they demanded total allegiance which included bowing down to worship Caesar.
Worshipping other gods was of course prohibited in the 10 commandments that God gave his people through Moses way back on Mt. Sinai. And paying taxes to Rome was something that Jews did grudgingly,
They also didn’t like paying taxes because they were already paying taxes to the synagogue as their religious tithes, and these taxes alone amounted to anywhere between 10-20 % of their income. Like most of us, they didn’t like getting taxed to death.
To make it worse, those who were tax collectors for the Roman government were known to rip the Jews off and demand more than what they really owed. Remember the story of Zacchaeus?
But most of all, the Jewish people didn’t like the idea of supporting an earthly kingdom that was competing for their allegiance to the Kingdom of God.
When a new emperor would rise to power, he would quickly have coins made with his bust on them, so everyone knew who was in charge and who they were required to owe their allegiance to.
In the US, we only make coins to honor a person after they have died. For example, in 1964, the Benjamin Franklin half dollar was replaced by the half dollar of which president? (JFK, who was assassinated in Nov. 1963).
Anyway, with the different agendas of these two groups, they were definitely trying to trap Jesus; one wanted him to say “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar” and the other wanted him to say “No, you shouldn’t pay taxes to the empire”.
And Jesus, as he is so good at doing, gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy either group and leaves them amazed, and they went away scratching their heads.
What Jesus says is “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s”. (vs. 21)
So maybe this sort of ambiguous answer also leaves US scratching our heads, wondering, OK, Jesus, what do we do then? What do we do with our taxes and our allegiances?
First, let’s make it clear that the governments of this world play by a different set of rules than Jesus—
Earthly governments rely on force and worldly power through its military branches in order to defend itself and also advance its own interests in the world,
In contrast, Jesus, through his life and teachings and even through his death modeled a nonviolent way of living in the world, even in the face of enemies or persecution.
Jesus said “My kingdom, God’s kingdom is not of this world”, and if we identify as Christians, we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom and owe our ultimate allegiance to God, not the earthly government that we belong to.
We in the Mennonite tradition believe in the separation of the Church from the State. For the first 300 years of the church’s existence, it preserved this separation.
Like the early church, we believe that when you mix political allegiance and allegiance to God together, political allegiance will usually end up winning out.
Church history shows us how this submission to the will of the government has happened over and over again since the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire in the 4th century.
And in our country today, there are many Christians who believe that the US was founded as a Christian nation, and that we must continue to try to preserve that through promoting patriotism in the church.
Many churches have American flags in their sanctuaries, and if you go into a lot of churches around the 4th of July, the service will resemble more of a patriotic rally that pledges allegiance to the USA than a service that worships the God who favors no particular nation and who knows no national boundaries.
I’m grateful to be part of a church tradition that warns against pledging our allegiance to anything except God as revealed through Jesus Christ.
Here’s what part of Article 23 says in our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, titled “The Church’s relationship to government and society”:
The church is the spiritual, social, and political body that gives its allegiance to God alone. As citizens of God’s kingdom,2 we trust in the power of God’s love for our defense. The church knows no geographical boundaries and needs no violence for its protection. The only Christian nation is the church of Jesus Christ, made up of people from every tribe and nation,3 called to witness to God’s glory.
In contrast to the church, governing authorities of the world have been instituted by God for maintaining order in societies. Such governments and other human institutions as servants of God are called to act justly and provide order.4 But like all such institutions, nations tend to demand total allegiance. They then become idolatrous and rebellious against the will of God.
So our Confession of Faith says that the role of the government is to act justly toward its citizens and provide order in society, but we can’t expect anything more.
Waging Peace is the book we’re going to be using for our book study. It’s a powerful story of Diana Oestreich, a young woman who was an army medic in the Iraq war, and a situation that she faced where she had to make a tough choice.
Would she keep her military convoy rolling to keep her fellow soldiers safe, which is what she was expected to do, or would she disobey orders and stop her vehicle in order to avoid running over an Iraqi child.
She was torn between God’s call to love her enemy and her country’s command to be willing to kill. Oestreich chose to stop the vehicle and save the life of the child, to choose life instead of death, at that moment and during the rest of her tour of duty in Iraq, and after she returned home as well.
The confession of faith goes on to say this:
“…We may participate in government or other institutions of society only in ways that do not violate the love and holiness taught by Christ and do not compromise our loyalty to Christ.”
Some Christians have lived out not compromising their loyalty to Christ by refusing to pay taxes that are used to support war and military purposes.
As reported through the Congressional Budget Office, in 2019, last year, the total US government’s budget was $1.3 Trillion. Of that amount, $676 Billion was designated for military-related expenses (and we’re not even involved in a major war right now!).
That’s over half of the entire budget of our country, and our taxes help pay for it.
Some Christians have felt convicted that their tax money shouldn’t be used to pay for war or military expenditures, so they started an organization called the World Peace Tax Fund.
This organization believes that “Paying for war is participation in war”, they have been working for years to set up an alternative fund through our government where the amount of a person’s taxes that would normally be used for military purposes would go into a fund that the government would use to support efforts that work for peace in the world.
I don’t think that the World Peace Tax Fund has officially been approved, but nonetheless some people are withholding that amount from their taxes and sending that money to support peace-related projects. And some people have gotten into trouble with the IRS as a result.
If we claim that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar, we must all wrestle with what it means to be faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom while living here in the kingdoms of the earth, whether that be with our taxes or with other things that our government asks us to do that would involve compromising our allegiance to Christ.
I have heard the earthly governments that we live under referred to as the “lesser kingdom”. There’s actually a new column in the magazine Christianity Today called the “lesser kingdom” which wrestles with this very issue.
In this September’s issue, columnist Bonnie Kristian had some wise words that I’d like to leave us with as we face the upcoming election in just over two weeks:
“I don’t have an easy answer for what faithfulness looks like in our increasingly consuming political context. I try to remember that seeking power is not what it means to follow Jesus, and that no politician, party, flag, or nation can be the source of my hope or the recipient of my allegiance.
Jesus is Lord, so Caesar is not, no matter how much I like his platform. Temporal politics—the so called “lesser kingdom”-are deeply important and often have to do with literal matters of life and death. But they pale in comparison to Jesus, and they should pale in comparison to the work of the church, too.”
I care a lot about the outcome of this election. I think that it has major implications for the future of our country and even the world. But I take comfort in knowing that the Kingdom of God is the greater kingdom to me and to the Church,
It is the kingdom that is most rooted in justice, mercy and love, it is the kingdom that gives me the most hope for our world, and it is the kingdom that will outlast all the others. Because of this, I will put my trust in God’s kingdom, not any lesser kingdom in this world. AMEN.