How Do We “Render Unto Caesar” in a Democracy?

CaesarThe following exchange takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22: 16-22.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.[b] 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.[c] 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Several Trump evangelicals are using this verse to justify their support for the POTUS.

Over at the Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz asks a question about coins:

So how might we hear Matthew 22:21 differently if we’re looking at the metallic relief of a long-dead president who held limited power for a relatively short period of time, rather than that of a living emperor with the hubris to believe himself a figure of unimpeachable power?

Great question.

Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, adds:

Perhaps we’d then hear “render unto Caesar” as a reminder that, if American Christians owe limited allegiance to any secular authority, they owe it to no one person, but to the American people, who govern themselves through elected representatives sworn to protect the Constitution. The same Constitution that keeps even presidents from benefiting financially from their position, from obstructing the work of those who investigate lawbreaking, or from inventing fake national emergencies in order to subvert the work of those who make laws.

So render to God what is God’s: your image-bearing self commanded to love other image-bearers. And render to Trump what is Trump’s: your responsibilities as an American citizen to dissent from unwise and unjust uses of American power and to hold American demagogues accountable for their attempts to play Caesar.

Read Gehrz’s entire piece here.  It deserves a wide readership, especially for his thoughts on court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s use of this verse.

What is the Great Commission?

Great Commission

Yesterday I did a post on John Allen Chau, the missionary killed at the hands of an indigenous tribe on the island of New Sentinel off the coast of India.  You can read it here.

It is hard to gauge exactly how the post was received based on “likes,” retweets, and Facebook comments, but I think its fair to say that about half of the readers (or at least those who responded in some way) liked the piece and half of the readers hated it.  Most of my academic historian friends disagreed (some stronger than others).  Most of my evangelical friends seemed to like it.  This doesn’t surprise me.

I have received comments on almost every point in the post, but I was particularly struck by the criticism of something I wrote under point #1:

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more….

Here is one tweet that is representative of the criticism I received:

Several folks like Mr. Bailey have suggested that I don’t believe in social justice.  Not true.  Anyone who has read this blog or read Believe Me would know that this is not the case.  Here was my response to Mr. Bailey:

So I ask the question again?  What does the Great Commission mean to Christians?  Not just evangelical Christians, but Christians of all stripes?  Here is the passage from Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

As I noted above in the excerpt from my Chau post, I am specifically curious to hear how Christians interpret the phrases “make disciples” and “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Is the Great Commission just about caring for the sick and feeding the poor?  Or is it something more? What does “baptize” mean here?  And if it does not mean literal water baptism (or baptism with the Holy Spirit?), then how do we distinguish what is a literal exhortation in the Gospels from a symbolic or metaphorical passage? It seems that progressive Christians take the words and message of Jesus very literally when it comes to his comments about the poor, the rich, or the stranger.  I take them literally too.  But is there something I should know about biblical scholarship on Matthew 28 that would lead me to conclude that I should not take literally Jesus’s words about “making disciples” and “baptizing” them in the name of the Trinity?

And if the Great Commission is just related to acts of social justice, then how is Christianity any different than a non-religious group that does these things?

I am not necessarily interested in hearing from conservative evangelicals.  I already know how you are going to answer this question.  I want to hear from progressive Christians (evangelical or mainline Protestant) or Catholics or even Mormons.  What does the Great Commission mean in your understanding of Christian faith?  How do your churches interpret it?

Maybe I need to go to the library and take out a few biblical commentaries.

I apologize in advance to readers who are not interested in this conversation.  Thanks for indulging me as I work out some of these questions in such a public forum.

Paula White Responds to Critics of Her Recent Comments on Immigration

donald-trump-and-pastor-paula-white

Last week we did a post on Paula White’s defense of Donald Trump’s immigration policy.  Get up to speed here.

Now White has turned to the Christian Post to take on her critics.

Here is a taste:

During the interview I made an off-handed comment that although Jesus was a refugee as a baby, he didn’t break the immigration laws of his time, or else he wouldn’t be sinless or our messiah. Within a few days I was surprised to see my name all over the media as they excoriated a comment made by “Trump’s spiritual advisor.” On CNN’s Anderson 360, a Catholic priest said my comments were “appalling” and “reprehensible” and that he didn’t know what Gospel I was reading.

I don’t mean to impugn anyone’s character, but it certainly seemed like those reporting on the story were less offended by what I said as they were excited to criticize someone associated with the Trump administration. They weren’t just inferring I lacked compassion, they were calling me dumb, and by extension, all evangelicals who support the president.

As a blonde female, and as a pastor, this isn’t the first time someone has called me stupid. Sadly, it comes with the territory. And while the Bible may say turn the other cheek, it does not say allow bullies to treat you like a punching bag. The truth matters too much and, in this instance, the lives of thousands of immigrant children and their families are impacted by what our nation decides to do regarding our immigration policy.

Read the rest here.   White thinks that the only reason people criticized her is because they want to attack a supporter of Donald Trump.  In other words, she thinks this is all about politics.  Maybe she is right.  But many of us criticize Trump-loving court evangelicals because they use really bad theology to prop-up the president.

Court Evangelical Paula White is the Latest to Use the Bible to Defend Trump’s Immigration Policies

donald-trump-and-pastor-paula-white

Court evangelical Paula White, the prosperity preacher who claims to have led Donald Trump to Christ, is now using the Bible to defend the separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border.

Tara Isabella Burton is all over this story.  Here is a taste of her piece at VOX:

In recent weeks and months, a number of prominent evangelical leaders associated with President Donald Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory council, as well as members of Trump’s administration, have used Biblical precedent to defend Trump’s policy of family separation at the US-Mexico border.

Few, however, have been as brazen as Paula White, the prosperity gospel preacher (and Trump’s right-hand woman) who told the right-leaning faith-based Christian Broadcasting Network that Jesus could not have broken any immigration laws during his family’s flight to Egypt because Jesus, who was without sin, could not therefore have broken the law.

White spent the interview defending Trump on his policy of family separation, calling the camps in which migrant children are being detained “amazing.” She argued for the Biblical precedent of family separation. “I think so many people have taken biblical scriptures out of context on this, to say stuff like, ‘Well, Jesus was a refugee,’” White told the network. She added, “Yes, [Jesus] did live in Egypt for three-and-a-half years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah.”

White is referring to a part of the Biblical narrative recounted in the gospel of Matthew, as well as some books of Biblical Apocrypha. According to tradition, the King of Judea at the time of Jesus’s birth, Herod — fearful of a premonition that another “king of the Jews” has been born — slaughters all new infant boys in the area. Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus find refuge from Herod’s wrath in Egypt, returning only after Herod’s death.

Read the entire piece here.

Two quick thoughts:

First, as Burton notes, Jesus was crucified for political insurrection.  Last time I checked that involves breaking the law.

Second, White says that the detention centers are “amazing.”  She also said that the kids get “three square meals, psychiatric care, clinician, medical care, chapel, events, schooling, language, and love.”  I know the comparison is not exact or perfect, but when I read these words I thought about what Southern evangelical slaveholders in the early 19th century said about their slaves when slavery met with criticism from Northern abolitionists.   Here is a passage from George Fitzhugh‘s 1857 defense of slavery:

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with som muh of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments.

I will stop there and let someone else dissect the rest of these absurd Paula White remarks.  Want to learn more about White?  Check out chapter 4 of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

You Are Never Going to Believe Which Verse Was Most Quoted in American Newspapers Between 1840 and 1920. (And It Wasn’t Romans 13)

luke-18-16

With all this talk of Romans 13, it is worth noting that the most cited verse in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16:

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

This verse, which seems to have some relevance to our current immigration mess, was:

  • The third most quoted Bible verse in the 1840
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1850s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1860s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1870s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1880s
  • The second most quoted Bible verse in the 1890s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1900s
  • The third most quoted Bible verse in the 1910s
  • The most quoted Bible verse in the 1920s

Thanks to Lincoln Mullen for creating the tool that enabled me to write this post and make this point.

A Baptist Church Removes Jesus Statue Because It’s Too Catholic

Baptist JesusThe Red Bank Baptist Church in Lexington, South Carolina is removing a statue of Jesus because it is “too Catholic in nature.”

Here is a taste of Mary Rezac’s article at Catholic News Agency:

The white, hand-carved statue in question shows Christ with his outstretched and stepping out of the wall, while the reliefs depict images from Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Red Bank Baptist Church leaders sent a letter to the artist, Bert Baker Jr., earlier this month, informing him that the congregation had voted to remove the statue because it was being perceived as a Catholic icon and was causing confusion among churchgoers.

“We understand that this is not a Catholic icon, however, people perceive it in these terms. As a result, it is bringing into question the theology and core values of Red Bank Baptist Church,” church leaders Jeff Wright and Mike Dennis said in the letter.

Baker, a former member of the church’s congregation himself, was commissioned to make the statue for Red Bank in 2007.

Read the rest here.

This Explains a Lot

Great Commission

According to Barna, 51% of churchgoers have never heard of the Great Commission.

Here is a taste of Barna’s research:

In partnership with Seed Company, Barna conducted a study of the U.S. Church’s ideas about missions, social justice, Bible translation and other aspects of spreading the gospel around the world, available now in the new report Translating the Great Commission. When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) say they do not know this term. It would be reassuring to assume that the other half who know the term are also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion is low (17%). Meanwhile, “the Great Commission” does ring a bell for one in four (25%), though they can’t remember what it is. Six percent of churchgoers are simply not sure whether they have heard this term “the Great Commission” before.

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

image001John Turner is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Mormon Jesus?

JT: For years, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that many Christians insist that Mormons are not Christians even though Latter-day Saints so consistently and fervently demonstrate their devotion to Jesus Christ.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Mormon Jesus?

JT: Rather than a “new religion,” Mormonism is a vibrant new branch of Christianity. In visions, revelations, scriptures, hymns, doctrine, rituals, and artwork, Latter-day Saints have imagined and encountered a Savior who is both distinctly Mormon and utterly Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read The Mormon Jesus?

JT: I try hard — albeit without much success — to teach my daughter the differences between “needs” and “wants.” You don’t need to read this book, but you should want to because in its pages you’ll find men and women seeing Jesus Christ in visions, listening to their Savior’s words, wondering if they are his biological descendants, and creating beautiful paintings and statues of him.

One also has to consider the reasons for the LDS Church’s survival and growth. In part, it’s because Joseph Smith and his successors addressed questions of longstanding concern to many Christians: which is Christ’s true church? Does Jesus Christ, or does God, still speak to his church? How? What did Jesus look like? When will Jesus return?

Certainly, the Latter-day Saints introduced beliefs and practices that set them apart from their surrounding Protestant religious culture. Still, thinking about Mormonism as a new chapter within the longer story of Christianity opens up new ways to understand the LDS Church’s past and present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JT: Due to deficiencies in talent and height, professional tennis did not pan out.

I fell in love with history gradually. Thinking back, my attraction to history began through the narratives of the Bible, which were far more interesting than the sermons I heard in church. I also had great history teachers in both high school and college, and they introduced me to books — such as Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand and Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints — that in turn stoked my imagination. In terms of my focus on U.S. History, I had great professors who wove together literature, history, and theology in their own study of the American past.  

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m working on a history of Plymouth colony. Having started my career with a study of post-WWII American evangelicalism, I’m hoping to get to late antiquity or so by the time I retire.

JF: Thanks, John!  Great stuff.

 

Carson and Jesus and Trump

Perhaps some of you have seen this picture.  It is apparently hanging in former presidential candidate Ben Carson’s house:

Carson and Jesus

Apparently a new picture has surfaced in the last twenty-four hours:

Trump and Carson

Teaching "American Jesus"

Ed Carson in action at Brooks School

Edward Carson teaches history at Brooks School, an independent boarding and day school in North Andover, Massachusetts.  Last year he taught a short course at Brooks entitled “American Jesus” and I had a chance to participate. 

Carson’s students read my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction and I spent an hour Skyping with the students taking the class.

Brooks reflects on teaching this course in a recent piece at the Christian Century entitled, “Changing the Face of American Jesus.”  Here is a taste:

Teaching a course with Jesus in the title is risky here. New England, according to Stephen Prothero, is the least churched culture in the United States. Students who took “American Jesus” often lacked basic religious literacy, making conversations about American evangelical culture a greater challenge than anticipated. The term evangelical evoked suspicion. Often national religious figures such as T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Rick Warren were unfamiliar to students.
I created a syllabus in which the American construct of Jesus was on trial, allowing students to present their skepticism toward evangelical Christianity. I recognized the value of this personal exploration for students—and for me, as a southern African American navigating a traditional white world of privilege. My journey and the journey of this course had transitioned as I escaped an ideologically conservative institution: my previous school, which sought courses that expressed God’s grace in influencing America’s founding, rather than the free inquiry at the core of “American Jesus.”
Students were asked to discover their own points of view regarding the political nature of God and nation. They greeted John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? with a great degree of gratitude, finding it balanced in constructing a case for each side of this question. Students discussed Fea’s work and talked with him through Skype. He challenged their thinking about the historical forces that established Christianity as the dominant American thought. This also helped with later discussions regarding America’s ideological position in linking Uncle Sam to Jesus Christ. Topics such as printing “In God We Trust” on currency and naming God in the Pledge of Allegiance allowed discussions to shift from the Founding Fathers’ faith to the dawn of the cold war.

Dispatches from the History Major: Presentism and Jesus

I hope you are enjoying “Dispatches from the History Major.”  Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  –JF

Presentism is old news at this point in my college career. 


During my first year at Messiah College, I took Introduction to History with Dr. Fea and within the first two weeks we were discussing the concept of a “usable past,” using his book Why Study History? as our guide. After we finished talking about the ways the past informs, inspires, and provides us with meaning, Dr. Fea, in a subsequent discussion on the past as a “foreign country,” made sure to highlight the dangers of consuming the past in this way. I learned that we need to take the past on its own terms and not project our own modern biases on the people who came before us. The following year, when I took Historical Methods, Dr. LaGrand had his students read an article he wrote called “The Problems of Preaching Through History.” This article and subsequent class discussion further convinced me of the problems of examining the past with a modern agenda.

I’m glad my professors introduced me to these historical concepts early in my college career, because I see manifestations of them everywhere. The one which makes me cringe the most, and the one I’m going to talk about here, is the way people manipulate the historical person of Jesus Christ. 

My most recent encounter with this issue occurred when I was reading Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House last week for my U.S. Urban History class. I was struck by the way Addams ignored the ideological teachings of Christ and instead focused instead on his social teachings. For this progressive pioneer, Christ was a radical political figure who preached social equality and upset the status quo, not a spiritually-minded rabbi who focused on particular or exclusive teachings. Her Jesus was a progressive Jesus.


This got me thinking about all the other types of Jesus I’ve encountered in my life: Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, best friend Jesus, Caucasian Jesus, hippie Jesus, somber Jesus, military Jesus, homosexual Jesus, Jesus the 6-year-old wizard, lovey-dovey Jesus, angry Jesus…I’m sure you could add some more to my list if you gave it some thought.

A few of these types of Jesus may offended you. A few of these types of Jesus may have seemed almost accurate. All of them are reflective of historical presentism in some way or another.

And that’s why I wanted to write about this issue. Characteristically, we fail to think in the dimension of time (especially when it comes to Jesus) and this makes us oblivious to the pitfalls of presentism. However, as a Christian I believe that God chose to reveal himself to us as a creature in time. Therefore, it is imperative that we give Christ the same amount of respect that historians try to give other historical figures. Instead of projecting our own modern stereotypes onto him, we need to take Jesus on his own terms in his own historic time period.    

The Ubiquitous Blum and Harvey

Ed Blum and Paul Harvey are everywhere promoting their new book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.  They just returned from a swing through Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia and from what I understand they have a lot more stops to make.

Last week The Chronicle Review published “The Contested Color of Christ,” which I assume is drawn from the book.  Here is a taste: 

In a world filled with images of Jesus, this one made headlines. He stood in a stained-glass window wearing a simple white robe and a dark tunic. When sunlight struck the glass just so, kindness radiated from his white face and warmth from his brown eyes. This was a comforting Jesus, and for decades he had been with this black congregation in Birmingham, Ala. But on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, less than three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream of racial equality, dynamite set by white supremacists exploded outside the 16th Street Baptist Church, and four little girls who had gone to the basement lounge to freshen up were dead. The face of Jesus shattered into a thousand shards of glass. In the blink of an eye, the prince of peace was a casualty of racism.

Paul Harvey

The bombing would become a pivotal moment in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. The outrage that grew around the nation helped spur the voting-rights campaign and pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By 2004, two days after winning the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, Barack Obama flew to Birmingham to give a speech at the city’s Civil Rights Institute. He took the opportunity to cross the street and visit the church, by then a national historic landmark. When he entered, he observed a “still-visible scar” along the wall where the bomb had gone off. He saw portraits of the four young girls and thought about his two little daughters at home. He sat to pray, and above him in stained glass was the Jesus installed in 1965 to commemorate the bombing. This one seems sad, his arms stretched out, crucified. His hair is short, cropped; his face black.

I think this song is fitting for the Blum-Harvey barnstorming tour:

What is the Color of Christ?

Ed Blum and Paul Harvey explore this question in their forthcoming book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (North Carolina, 2012). 

Over the blog of The Historical Society, Hilde Lovdal and Randall Stephens interview Blum and Harvey about their book and the image of Jesus in American life.  Here is a small taste:

Løvdal and Stephens: Several other prominent religious history scholars have worked on Jesus in America. You mention the influence of Prothero.  What about other scholars like Richard Wightman Fox (Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession, HarperCollins, 2004) when you wrote this book?

Harvey and Blum: Absolutely, although the book that first influenced us was Kelly Brown Douglas’s The Black Christ, which was a short, but wonderful, study of African American perspectives on Jesus from slavery through the works of black liberationist James Cone and womanist Delores Williams. These three books were always in the forefront of our thought. We have used and incorporated material from these authors, and thank them in the acknowledgements.

At the same time, we felt we had a different story to tell. On certain points, especially the impact of power and access to media resources in terms of how Jesus is represented in American history, we challenge some of the arguments that Fox and Prothero make. Both works tend to suggest that Jesus always has been made over in the image of the maker. But in The Color of Christ, we show that this is not simply the case. Jesus was made both like and unlike communities, and the “I-Thou” distinctions mattered.  Moreover, many people throughout US history have not had the representational power or means to create Jesus in their image and have transformed him in other profound ways.

We think the main difference between our book and those of Prothero and Fox is encapsulated by our different covers. While they present Jesus either as a larger-than-life air balloon or the different icons, we focus squarely on how people – everyone from teenagers in Brooklyn to presidents in the White House – have lived with the material realities of Jesus in their midst.

Do You Have a Jesus Story?

Ed Blum and Paul Harvey are ramping up the publicity efforts for their forthcoming book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.  They have put together a website of videos, classroom materials, and excerpts from the book.  As part of the website, you can tell your own story about Jesus.  Here is a taste of a story from Benjamin Polk, a self-described “Jesus collector”:

I am a Jesus collector. More specifically, I collect Jesus action figures. Don’t worry, my Jesi (I prefer the Latin plural) are not sacrilegious. There is no Jesus with kung-fu punching action (what demon could deny a solid chop from the Living Word) or who changes from lowly carpenter to Transfigured Lord of All (surely a reversible head would suffice). No, these Jesi are advertised as providing children everywhere with the privilege of playing with the Christ rather than some hippie mutant amphibian, militant robot, or creepy baby doll. Most Jesi come with fishes and loaves as accessories, so children can have a tea party (or at least a satisfying lunch) with their savior right out of the box.

Expect a review of The Color of Christ at The Way of Improvement Leads Home soon.