Citizenship or Religion: Which comes first?

When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” what exactly did he mean? Is it possible?
That’s the subject of a discussion on the blog of Stanley Fish in the New York Times, and it’s an on-going discussion in religious communities worldwide. But it’s especially vigorous in the United States. Dale at Theoblogical makes it a foundation of his theology and often cites theologian Stanley Hauerwas who states unequivocally that Christians are “citizens” of the kingdom of God first. This is because history is not human history, it is God’s history and humans are incorporated into God’s history, not the creators of it.

Fish’s entry point is a discussion about liberalism and secularism. He says they are the same and his rationale is that both require religion to take second place in the public arena if a society is to be tolerant, inclusive and democratic. But, he argues, committed religionists must believe the state should be shaped by their religious views and values. Religion is by definition the way we believe the world ought to be, and the way we believe we should act to shape it. Thus, we are presented with the dilemma of conflicting loyalties if we don’t respect the primacy of religion.

And, compromising on religious principles undermines their life-shaping importance. Thus, we live with a dilemma that cannot be resolved unless one side wins out over the other. Fish summarizes the argument by saying we find our way as we go along, compromising and struggling because that’s the only way we can get through.

This gets even more nettlesome when we talk about the primacy of community or individuals. The elevation of the individual to a privileged place in U.S. society has resulted in a cultural and philosophical shift away from community. Even our suburban lifestyles reflect the atomization of nuclear families and the demise of communities. Who in the suburbs sits on the front porch and talks with neighbors as they stroll by on the sidewalk returning from the corner grocery? The very thought is unreal, isn’t it? We sit on decks in back yards that separate us from neighbors and give us privacy. The fronts of suburban homes are for entering and closing out the world, not inviting it in.

All of this leads me to wonder if congregations can be communities that offer inclusivity and affirmation while also reinforcing religious values. If so, how does that community shape the world? If not, why do they exist?

I’ve been mulling this over because it’s clear to me that if the health of the people of the world is to improve and a measure of the suffering ended, it will require partnerships between governments, religious organizations, corporations, foundations and others. No one group can do it alone.

But, if we draw aside into our enclaves and battle with each other over different values we weaken our capacity for change. And if we claim that government’s role is limited while individuals are primary, we make a strong claim about community.

Of course we compromise. But some of us compromise on some issues that others cannot abide. And the struggle continues. As Fish, I don’t have a good answer for this dilemma. I suppose we must agree to disagree. compromise where we can, and holding fast where we can’t. We’ve not seen good examples of this in recent years among some religious leaders who won’t or can’t compromise.

But I do know that the challenges we face globally require us to see others as neighbors in a global community. And they require us to recognize that our private enclaves are not immune to the infections, contagions and sufferings experienced by far too many of us in the human community. West Nile has come to suburban Nashville, for example. Like it or not, we are connected. And that reality is a call to action.

Jesus also said to heal the sick, relieve the suffering, comfort the grieving and free the oppressed. How to do this at scale is the question. It may be the work of Caesar and the religious community. If we can agree, we might make a difference. If not, we may as well sit on the deck and watch the world pass us by.

Join the conversation!

Post a reply in the form below.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image