Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Politicos and Their Coins

I have a new insight about the very familiar story concerning Jesus and the Herodians and Pharisees' attempt to "entrap" him, which is to say their desire to confine him, marginalize him, isolate him from at least half of those who are following him.

The story is simple. The Pharisees, who were religious, and the Herodians, who most probably were not, conspired together to ask Jesus a "hot-button" political question--whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar--and to our ears the question sounds more practical than political, a matter of degree rather than of conflicting allegiances. But for the Jews of Jesus' time, especially the religious and political, it was an incendiary as questions of homosexual unions or abortion. And whichever way Jesus answers, if he answers either "yes" or "no," he will offend one side or the other among the debaters. The Pharisees and Herodians know that--in fact, they are counting on it.

That Jesus answers differently and better is clear.

But here is the thing. It occurred to me today that whereas our attentions naturally go to the answers, and especially to the more comprehensive, spiritual answer Jesus gives--and most of our preaching deals with those things--it escapes our attention that adversaries and enemies do much the same thing in our own day. That is, they pose questions for us--should gays be ordained? are you in favor of abortion? can one be a Christian and a member of the armed services?--not because they are interested in answers themselves, but because they are trying to divide (in order to marginalize) believers. Either way we answer we offend someone; we are drawn into political squabbles; we find ourselves isolated.

Joseph Bottum has recently argued that the Mainline died when it was irretrievably politicized. It is a cliff Jesus avoided in this text, a ledge to which our enemies try to lead us over and over again, in the name of the "common good" or lip-service to faith's role in the court of public opinion. But beneath the innocent query there can be a diabolical agenda, and divide and conquer tactic that would be worth many coins both to Caesar and to religion's self-important detractors.


foxofbama said...

Dr. Steagald:
Your column today made the baptist site ethicsdaily.com
In the homestate of Jesse Helms and Tim Tyson, I'm not sure the question helps defog the religious political culture.
Garry Wills chapter the Rove Era in American Christianities, offers another starting point to address the same concerns you have.
The starting point of the discussion makes a big difference on what follows.
Baptist div proff Jonas Glenn at Campbell may approach the parable differently than you do, as would Charles Kimball.
I hope to come back to your thought and discuss it elsewhere.
Curious, who are you voting for in the Presidential election in the swing state of North Carolina, and why?
How does your faith inflect your political calculus?

Paul Maurice Martin said...

This sort of tactic has become especially effective in the age of the sound bite.