Justice Against the Oppressor–What to do with Imprecatory Psalms

Another gem of a passage from Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, offering perhaps the most satisfactory discussion of the issue of imprecatory psalms and forgiving enemies that I have yet read:

“The oppressed Christian who discovers Jesus’ solidarity with him must take account of one respect in which Jesus in his suffering prayed differently from the way the psalmists prayed.  Jesus prayed for his enemies’ forgiveness (Luke 23:34), thus practising his own teaching (Matt. 5:44).  The psalmists never did this: their attitude to their enemies is consistently unforgiving.  They pray for God’s judgement on their enemies (Ps. 10:2b, 15), sometimes in the form of solemn and extensive curses (Ps. 69:22-8; 109:6-20).  But such prayers are not unknown in the New Testament (Rev. 6:10).  They need to be accorded a kind of provisional validity, which does not excuse any Christian from the duty of forgiving enemies, but does help us to understand what is really involved in forgiveness.  Jesus’ demand for forgiveness of enemies does not, we might say, simply revoke these prayers, but takes a step further beyond them.  We have to appreciate what is valid about them before we can rightly take, as followers of Jesus must take, that further step.  

First, these prayers spring directly from the psalmists’ demand for justice.  Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, whose demand was for the judge to vindicate her against her adversary (Luke 18:3), the psalmists’ primary concern is positive—justice for the oppressed—but they cannot envisage this without its negative corollary—justice against the oppressor.  Nor, in concrete situations of political injustice, is it often easy for us to do otherwise.  Our prayers in and about such situations are not superior but inferior to the psalms if they do not manifest the psalmists’ thirst for justice and anger at injustice.  As John Goldingay writes, ‘If we do not find ourselves wishing to call down a curse of divine magnitude on some perpetrators of evil, this may reflect our spiritual sensitivity, our good fortune in not being confronted by evil of such measure, or it may reflect our moral indifference.’  Love and forgiveness of enemies should not be invoked to sanction an easy and careless disregard for justice.  The force of Jesus’ command to love enemies is lost if we forget that it presupposes real enemies, and makes no attempt to pretend that they are not enemies.  Love and forgiveness of enemies are authentic only as the costly and difficult step beyond the psalmists’ valid demand for justice.  

Second, the psalmists’ prayer for justice serves in principle to protect their concern for justice from degenerating into vindictiveness, even if it does not always do this in practice.  The prayer is essentially for God to execute justice, and draws the psalmist, beyond feelings of personal vindictiveness, into a desire to see God’s justice prevail.  Admittedly, it is possible for talk of divine justice to be used in the interests of personal revenge.  But the believer who is genuinely open to God in prayer is subordinating his own judgement of the situation to the standard of God’s righteous judgement. . . . 

Third, the referring of the situation to God’s justice is the first step towards love and forgiveness of enemies.  In expressing to God their rage against their oppressors and their desire for vengeance the psalmists are at least submitting and yielding those wishes to God, even relinquishing them to God.  Personal vengeance can be renounced, because one’s cause has been entrusted to the just God who claims vengeance as his own concern (Deut. 32:35-6; Rom. 12:19). . . . In the course of repeating Jesus’ demand for love of enemies—blessing, not cursing them (12:14), not retaliating (v. 17)—he [Paul] forbids his readers to avenge themselves (v. 19a), but does not require them to renounce their concern for justice.  Rather this can be left in God’s hands (v. 19b). This then frees them to treat their enemies forgivingly and to welcome their repentance (v. 20).  Where those in the grip of personal vengeance msut be frustrated, like Jonah, when repentant enemies are spared judgment, those who have committed vengeance to God can promote and rejoice in the compassion by which he at once safeguards and surpasses justice.  They can pray for their enemies’ forgiveness.” (pp. 65-67)


Appealing to Caesar

In accounts of Christian’s political responsibilities, it is not uncommon to hear appeals to the way Paul used his Roman citizenship and the Roman political system.  These range from the fairly modest–“Paul’s appeal showed that the Roman Empire, for all its evils, could still serve a useful purpose and Christians need not completely separate themselves from an unjust political system”–to rather more robust claims that Paul’s actions somehow constitute a ratification of the goodness of the Roman order and proof that Christians should be enthusiastic citizens of earthly polities.

In A Secular Faith, Darryl Hart offers something like the latter approach, using Paul’s example in favour of his thesis that Christians must have “hyphenated identities” as inhabitants of the spiritual and earthly kingdoms.  (The real problem with this claim is that in fact he is calling not for hyphenated, but bifurcated identities, not for ‘Christian-American’ but for ‘Christian//American’; but more on that another time).

But what was Paul actually up to?  And what lesson does his appeal to Caesar actually offer?


Hart claims that

“Paul’s Christian identity did take precedence over his Roman citizenship.  But the nature of his Christian commitment did not keep him from appealing to Roman law to prolong his life.  Short of having to forsake his duty to preach, Paul was willing to play by nonreligious rules.  In other words, he thought of himself as more than a Christian; his identity was hyphenated–Roman citizen and Christian apostle.” 

Hart is suggesting here that, while of course political citizenship should never lead us to go against the duties of our Christian identity, it need not be justified in terms of Christian identity.  We can and ought to participate in civic life out of the ordinary concerns of citizens, not out of specifically Christian concerns.  We are free to take advantage of political structures to save our lives, for instance.  While of course I think both the narrow point (it’s fine to protect yourself using political structures) and the larger point (Christians do not have to have a distinctively Christian justification for every participation in civic activities) are basically valid (though not necessarily in the way Hart wants to use them), Paul’s example, interestingly enough, supports neither point. 

This is particularly interesting because Hart himself provides the refuting evidence just a few lines earlier: 

“Paul’s appeal to Rome was unusual on several levels.  As it turned out, had he not issued it, he would have been freed in Jerusalem….But instead of being emancipated, Paul had to endure a long and precarious trip to Rome which resulted in further imprisonment and ultimately death.” 

Now this is curious.  In other words, if Paul was really using his Roman citizenship to protect his life, he did a pretty poor job of it.  It’s possible, of course, that he just miscalculated seriously.  But the narrative of Acts, as well as Paul’s letter to the Romans, suggest quite otherwise–that Paul in fact was extremely eager to come to Rome, and indeed to preach before Caesar, and that his appeal was a calculated attempt to bring that about.  Most likely, he was well aware that he could have been released in Judaea, had he so desired.

This suggests then that what we have is in fact an example of precisely the opposite stance to that Hart wants to encourage–a determination to subordinate political identity to religious identity in such a way that action in the civic sphere becomes a tool in favour of a religious agenda.  Paul, it seems, is consciously exploiting the structures of the Roman justice system for evangelistic ends, rather than coolly petitioning for legal protection on his own account.  Needless to say, this suggests a rather different political-theological model than anything Hart would want us to consider.

The Debt of Love: Romans 13:1-7 in Context

Regular readers of this blog know that I have an annoying habit of dropping enigmatic hints about my research on Romans 13 (which I did initially more than two years ago and have been chipping away at again over the last year or so), implying that it contains the answer to this or that problem in ethics or political theology, but providing precious few details.  Well, I don’t think my reading of this passage gives all the answers, but it does, I think, provide a more helpful starting-point not only for understanding this section of Romans, but for hopefully for understanding many issues in political theology.  So, I will stop being enigmatic and share an excerpt from a paper I’ll be giving at the SBL Int’l Meeting next week containing a very concise version of one of the key lines of argument–the literary structure of the passage in context.  Bits of this appear in previous posts, but this is much more systematic, I hope.

Can we explain Paul’s admonitions in 13:1-7 within the same logic of love that dominates the surrounding context?  

Paul strongly invites us to do so, I would suggest, through the word-play that interlinks 13:7 with 13:8: the stem opheil, which appears as tas opheilas (“what is owed”) in 13:7, and as meden opheilete (“owe nothing”) in v. 8.  While most commentators have either completely ignored this intriguing repetition, or else dismissed it as merely a rhetorical ornament, this seems odd when a substantive explanation seems so ready-to-hand.  After all, as a few interpreters have noted, 13:7 poses a bit of a riddle.  It says to render to all what is owed them, but it does not solve the problem which has plagued citizens from Paul’s time to our own–what is owed them?  I know plenty of American Christians today who look at Romans 13:7 and say, “Aha!  Render to the government what is their due!  Well, the taxes being demanded are much more than is their rightful due, and so we need not pay.”  13:8 offers the obvious answer–what is owed is not determined by principles of political justice, but by the demands of love.  13:8, on this reading, can be taken to sum up all that goes before, saying, “Every duty which you carry out toward anyone must be conceived as a demand of the duty to love one another.  Of all other obligations you are free, but love’s demands remain.”  Certainly 13:9-10 seem to strongly support this understanding of 8, explicitly subsuming all other duties under that of neighbor-love.  This explanation has been forcefully asserted by John Calvin and Emil Brunner, to name two of the most prominent, but has almost never been picked up on by modern commentators.  

If this reading is correct, then the idea of 13:1-7 as an “independent block,” a self-contained pericope, has been cast into question.  Let us look closer for more clues of its relationship to the context.


A few hints of word-play suggest more tie-ins between our pericope and its context than merely the repetiton of ekdikos and orge in 12:19 and 13:4.  For instance, we may note the pervasive repetition of the pair agathos and kakos in these verses.  We meet kakos first in v. 17: “Repay no one evil for evil”–in the context, it suggests in particular violence–we are to show peace in the face of violence.  Then in v. 21 we meet kakos again, opposed now to agathos: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  The sense again seems to be that in the face of violent force, seizure of their possessions, or other persecution, Christians ought to give freely and overflowingly, in the spirit of Jesus’s admonition: “if anyone seeks to take your tunic, give him your cloak also.”  It is this self-sacrificial peacemaking through giving that constitutes the “good” that overcomes “evil.” 

In light of this, we have a helpful framework for understanding the role of agathos and kakos in 13:3-4.  The ruler should not be source of fear to the one who does good–the Christian who is not solicitous for his own good, but gives freely even in the face of injustice–but to the evil–the one who uses force to further his own interests.   The “good”–those who peaceable and not defensive of their own interests, will generally receive favor from rulers who are above all interested in domestic tranquillity and intolerant of any unrest.  However, if you do resort to the “evil” that characterizes your persecutors–then you should fear the wrath–of the ruler and of God–that is falling on them.  

An additional connective appears in the word apodote, usually translated “render” in 13:7.  However, this is same word that appears in 12:17 as a participial imperative–apodidontes— “Do not be repaying evil for evil.”  If the sense of 12:17 can be sustained in 13:7, then we have the sense that our rendering of tax, tribute, honour, etc. to the authorities is meant to be a response to something we have received from them–we are repaying their actions with these gifts.  The concept of giving is present also in 12:20, where we are to give our enemies whatever it is that they ask for–for thus will our love overcome their evil. 

Finally, the word allelous–“one another”–appears in both 12:16 (“Live in harmony with one another”) and in 13:8 (“Love one another”), suggesting an inclusio.  When we line all of the foregoing connections up, this inclusio blossoms into a very interesting chiasm.

A. Live in harmony with one another (allelous) (12:16)

 B. Do not pay back (apodidontes) evil for evil (12:17)

   C. Live at peace with all men as much as depends on you (12:18)

   D. Do not avenge (ekdikountes), but give place to wrath (orge) (12:19)

    E. Specific commands about doing good to your enemy (12:20)

     F. Do not be overcome by evil (kakos), but overcome evil with good (agathos) (12:21)

      G. Be subject to the governing authorities, for there is none but from God (13:1)

     F.’ Those who resist incur judgment, for the rulers are a not a terror to the doer of good (agathon), but to the doer of evil (kakon) (13:2-3a)

    E.’ Do what is good, if you wish to escape fear. (13:3b)

   D.’ The magistrate is the avenger (ekdikos) for wrath (orge) (13:4)

  C.’ Be in subjection and pay taxes for conscience’ sake (13:5-6)

 B.’ Pay back (apodote) to each what is owed him (13:7)

A.’ Owe no one anything, except to love each other (allelous) (13:8)


This chiasm suggests that the imperative in 13:1, far from constituting an entirely new train of thought, is simply a natural application of the line of imperatives that crescendoed through the final verses of 12.  Incredulous interpreters today ask, “How could Paul have spoken so positively of Roman authorities who were so unjust and such enemies to the Christian community?”  But that is precisely it.  Paul is assuming that, from his readers’ perspective, the admonitions to bless persecutors, live peaceably with all, and give food to their enemies will raise the question, “What about the Roman authorities?”  Scholars have particularly drawn attention to two facts that likely made for a very tense relationship between the Christians in Rome and their rulers.  First, we know that Jews (including Jewish Christians) had recently been expelled from Rome, had only recently been permitted to return, and had reason to fear another expulsion.  For another, we know that there was a great deal of unrest and rebellious murmuring in Rome at this time over the highly oppressive taxes.  

Paul, however, takes this as an opportunity to apply his teaching about the need not only to patiently bear with injustice, but to show overflowing generosity in response to it.  This means not merely abstaining from the retaliatory “evil” of violent rebellion, but overcoming the oppressor’s evil through the “good” of joyful service.  The taxes being demanded were unjust, to be sure, so what would it mean for Paul to tell the Christians to pay the Romans what was due to them?  In context, this means to respond to the unjust demands with the unselfishness that love demanded–to the enemy that was hungry, they were to give food, and to the government that was greedy, they were to pay taxes.  

Such a reading, I suggest, is attractive on two levels–both the textual and the ethical levels on which Kallas and others are concerned.  On the textual front, not only does this make 13:1-7 thoroughly at home within its context and offer us an unbroken progression of parenesis from 12:1 through 13:14, but it sheds light on many smaller questions as well–though there is no time to go into these here.


On the ethical front, this releases us from the false dilemma that appeared in its sharpest form in the Reformation, when Protestants were divided between reading the passage as a wholesale endorsement of governmental authority, with totalitarian results, or else concluding that the passage must only be speaking of an ideal government, and so the call to submission had no force in the face of injustice.  This reading suggests instead a posture of what John Howard Yoder has called “revolutionary subordination,” in which we are able to challenge injustice, but not in the way it expects–not by leaping to our own defence and refusing all obedience, but by patient and conscientious service motivated and qualified by love, and confident in God’s ultimate control.  What this means in terms of concrete political action will differ depending on concrete political circumstances, and it may be that the modern West affords the Christian more room to actively confront the powers that be than first-century Rome did.  All this requires much further thought.  But a contextually grounded reading of Romans 13, rooted in the virtue of charity, is our best starting-point for this inquiry.

Reactions to the Assassination: An Attempt at Some Elucidations

(I posted a version of this on Facebook, as a follow-up to a flurry of discussion there yesterday; but here it is without all the links and references to comments from my Facebook interlocutors that I had interspersed.)

My initial reaction to the bin Laden news yesterday, justly perceived as somewhat flippant (“So we managed to assassinate an old man on dialysis sitting at home, along with a few of his family members. The Greatest Nation on Earth never ceases to impress me”), was, more than anything, an expression that I really just didn’t think this deserved the status of obsessive headline news and discussion, that we all ought to chill and get back to our daily lives.  However, I found myself quickly entangled in half-a-dozen threads of discussion about it, and attempting to field all manner of objections to my patriotism, sense of justice, and theological competence.  As everyone and their grandma has now weighed in on the news from their blog and/or Facebook/Twitter soapboxes, and as the discussion doesn’t appear likely to die down any time soon, I figured I might as well try to sort through the tangle a bit for those who, like me, feel that the discussion is in danger of degenerating into chaos.   

At first it appear that there are roughly three positions–(1) “MWUHAHAHA!  We killed him!  Rock on USA!”; (2) “Settle down, let’s rejoice in the execution of justice, but without undue pride, giddiness, or vindictiveness”; (3) “Um, shouldn’t we be like God and not rejoice in the death of a sinner, but wish rather that he should turn from his ways and live?”  (Most Christians I’ve seen in the discussion, for the record, seem to be happily in some version of (2), though there are certainly some who sound disturbingly like (1), and a few others, including myself, who have said something like (3).) However, on reflection, it appears to be a bit more complicated than that, and I’m realizing that it’s somewhat sterile to carry out the debate simply in terms of “Should we be happy or not?”  So I’m trying to parse out more carefully the issues at stake, and it seems that there are at least eight different points that are being made by various people who want to qualify in some way our exuberance.  

  1. First, are simple concerns over due process.  Did we violate international law?  Were we appropriate in our violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty?  If we were in fact intending to kill rather than capture him, as appears to be the case (I have read at least one article purporting to directly quote an administration official that it was), was this appropriate?  Shouldn’t we instead have gotten him tried before the World Court or whatever?  
  2. Second, some are calling for sobriety in view of the cost of getting us to this point–we should see this as a Pyrrhic victory.  Ten years of war, a million killed, more than a trillion dollars spent.  Not to mention (and this relates somewhat to point 1) the fact that we only obtained the information to kill bin Laden by wickedly torturing dozens of people.  In view of all these matters, many have suggested, our celebration should be tempered at best.  (Matheson called attention to this angle in his comment on my previous post.)
  3. Likewise, some are calling for sobriety in view of the future cost of this action.  If this action offered little direct military or security gains (as appears to be the case), won’t it be, in practical terms, a net loss for us, inviting a further violent backlash among bin Laden’s followers?  (This has been the most frequent concern stated in mainstream media sources.)
  4. Among Christians in particular, one is likely to hear concern that we not put an overly Americanist spin on this accomplishment.  Let’s have none of these “USA! USA! USA!” chants, or act like this is somehow vindication that we are the greatest nation on earth and God’s gift to the world.  We’re still a corrupt nation, and inasmuch as this is a victory, we should see it as a victory for peace and humankind, not for us merely, the great US of A.  (A helpful instance of this perspective is provided by my friend Robin Harris, and to an extent, by Doug Wilson.)
  5. On a related note, some have called for us to use this as an opportunity to be mindful of our own sins, realizing that we as a nation deserve divine judgment every bit as much as bin Laden.  In such circumstances, crowing too triumphantly about bin Laden’s death–whether as our triumph or as God’s triumph, is a bit like dancing around with a golf club in a lightning storm.  (Robin’s post is particularly helpful in this regard, though for some reason, it appears to be the point of Doug Wilson’s post to dampen such sentiments, suggesting that this leads to an unhealthy moral equivalence.  However, I’m with Paul on this one, who had no hesitation in calling himself “the chief of sinners” even when he clearly was not.)
  6. Again, related to the two previous points, some will point out that, while we may justly give thanks for the punishment of bin Laden as God’s enemy, we should not take pleasure in a personal revenge–“Well, we sure gave him what was coming to him!”  Needless to say, the revenge mindset is the norm for natural man, and it is not surprising that a great number of reactions to the news have used that revenge rhetoric.  

Thus far, all six of these are more calls for sobriety and temperance amid celebration, than they are claims that any kind of celebration is unjustified.  The final two, while still allowing that there may well be some form thankfulness or rejoicing that is appropriate, seek to go considerably deeper in theologically attenuating that rejoicing.

7. First, the weaker claim is that while retributive justice (and that is precisely what the assassination was) is ultimately necessary and appropriate, it is not something to be gloried in, it is not, in any sense, a sign of “greatness.”  Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” puts it well: “For man’s grim Justice goes its way, / And will not swerve aside: / It slays the weak, it slays the strong, / It has a deadly stride: / With iron heel it slays the strong, / The monstrous parricide!”  In other words, perhaps it was necessary and just that we killed bin Laden, but such justice is a rather grim business, and not something that calles for dancing in the streets. (This was one of the initial points I made in the Facebook discussion that developed.)

8. The stronger claim goes further and suggests that in principle, retributive justice is not something that humans ought to pursue.  Since Christ has taught us to pray for the forgiveness and redemption of our enemies, we ought to seek that at all costs, not just as individuals, but in our public and political life as well.  This is not pacifism–it acknowledges that if an enemy is actively threatening the lives of innocents and there is no other option but to fight and kill him, then that is appropriate.  But it refuses to engage in purely punitive action–killing someone merely because he has done something wrong, when either immediate protection of innocents is not in view, or could be accomplished by means other than killing, is not an option after Christ, who has taken the full burden of retributive justice on himself.  Gandalf is worth quoting here: “Many that live deserve death.  And many that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment” (though this could be taken as a statement of the softer point (7) above).  (This was what one friend on Facebook accused me of saying, what another friend defended me as saying, and which I subsequently admitted to holding, to the consternation of many.)  


I hope this helps elucidate–the exercise, at any rate, certainly elucidated things for me.


On Facebook, some asked for further clarification about my own view on retributive justice.   So I add a couple remarks, which should be taken as somewhat provisional.  (By the way, for those interested, a discussion last year on this blog, about similar issues, and also arising originally out of a Facebook spat, can be found here.)  

I am concerned on all eight of the counts listed above, which seems to put me beyond most people I have interacted with, most of whom are unwilling to go beyond (7) at most. Of course, this is perhaps simply a symptom of the circles from which most of my friends and interlocutors hail.  It is certainly my impression that in many other sectors of the church, especially outside of the US, (8) would be non-controversial.  And of course, the line between (7) and (8) is not all that clear-cut, after all.  One might well say (at any rate, I might well say–whether this is coherent or not is another matter), that Christians are to seek to overcome and oppose expressions of retributive justice, without thereby saying that any expression thereof is wrong in the sense of sinful.  It is rather immature, regrettable (though still affirmed as an indirect expression of God’s righteous judgment), something we should try to leave behind, rather than confidently affirming.  This position does not, of course, rule out just war–it simply confines just war to acts of ongoing defence, rather than as a “redress of a wrong suffered,” which many forms of just war theory affirm.  In short, if you come upon someone in the act of killing your mama, you can stop them, even if that means killing them.  But if you come upon someone who did kill your mama three years ago, you love them and forgive them (which isn’t entirely passive, mind you–perhaps they’re seriously messed up, and need to be institutionalized; perhaps even restrained for a time).  

This, I think we will all grant, is how we should act as Christian individuals.  The question is whether it also applies to states.  Most are inclined to say it does not.  I continue to ask “Why the double standard?” and as yet, still feel that any satisfactory answer is lacking.  90% of the answer appears to consist in a citation of Romans 13, which I have been convinced after thorough study does not in fact make the claim that people say it does–viz., that the civil authority is supposed to act as God’s direct instrument of retributive justice, such that any failure of it to do so is a dereliction of duty.  On the contrary, Romans 13, in context, appears to teach that the civil authority, outside of Christ, functions as an indirect instrument which God uses to exercise retribution, but which he does not command to do so (e.g., note how Assyria is used as such a tool, but then actually punished for it), and which, when in the hands of Christians, he does not want to do so.  And inasmuch as Romans 13 might be read in the traditional way, it is sufficiently ambiguous that it is irresponsible to rest so much weight on it, in contravention of other Scriptures.   


But, the point here is not to open up a lengthy discussion or debate about that passage–for those interested, a smattering of thoughts relevant to my studies on the passage can be found here, and if I ever have time to finish the book, a great deal more will be forthcoming.  

Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 1: A bit of exegesis

What should Christians think about taxes?  Why do we have to pay taxes?  How much do we have to pay?  What about tax shelters and loopholes?  What if we can legally avoid taxes–can we do so?

Such questions, which not all that long ago might have been considered no-brainers, are now a pressing ethical question for Christians, particularly in America.  As our governments increasingly lose the respect of their people and the aura of legitimacy, all taxes come to seem like an imposition, a coercive demand.  Many Christians are convinced that most of our taxes are in fact a form of theft, and hence to be protested and, if possible, not paid.  Any legal loopholes should be exploited readily as safe ways to avoid paying taxes we have no duty to pay. 

Although I’ve regularly given thought to related issues on this blog (see here and here), a recent question from a friend afforded me the opportunity to try to offer a more systematic ethical reflection than I’ve yet given the matter.  I certainly welcome any feedback.  A full response to this question would require a thorough consideration of the role of government in a well-ordered political theology, which is something I won’t pretend to offer here.  But a few key Scripture passages will provide us with some good starting points:


When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” 
He said, “Yes.” 
And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” 
Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” 
Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.  Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”

 –Mt. 17:24-27 (NKJV)

In this passage, a couple of things jump out at us.  First is Jesus’ striking flippancy regarding the whole matter– “They want money?  Heck, here’s a fish, take the money from the fish and pay it to them.”  Second is his apparent claim that Christians–“the sons”–can consider themselves “free” from the duty of taxpaying.  They should pay only “lest we offend them.”  Taken together, Jesus appears to give us a picture of Christian freedom, a freedom that expresses itself in service precisely because it is free also from selfish concern.  In one sense, you need not pay, but in another sense, you have no reason not to pay–it’s just money, after all. 

This is consonant with a recurrent theme of Jesus’ ministry, one we have seen already in Matthew–that Christians need not be overly concerned about money, their hearts are not to be set on it: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21).  It is not merely greed that we are to avoid, but a prudent preoccupation with just making sure we have enough; instead, we should trust that God knows what he’s doing, and will provide: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt. 6:31-33)


Something similar, I suggest, is going on in the famous “Render unto Caesar passage”:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk.  And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.  Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the tax money.” 
So they brought Him a denarius. 
And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” 
They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” 
And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

–Mt. 22:15-22 (NKJV)


What’s interesting here is that Jesus does not, as a matter of fact, answer their question at all.  Too often, this passage has been read as if he clearly did.  They ask, “Is it lawful?” and he answers, “Give unto Caesar what is his due,” so clearly he is saying that it is not only lawful, but necessary.  But of course, Jesus does not actually say anything about “what is due”–he merely notes that this money is, in fact, Caesar’s.  There are several things going on here.  For one, we notice again a flippancy, a lack of seriousness confronted with a question which, for many Jews, was deadly serious.   Instead of appealing to theological principles to answer this question, which for the Jew was weighted with theological significance, Jesus adjudicates it on the question of a picture: “The coin’s got Caesar’s picture on it, so it must belong to him.”  

But there is a deeper message, underneath the irony.  Jesus’ teaching ministry is permeated by a contrast between God and Mammon–you cannot serve two masters.  And Mammon is repeatedly identified with the power-hunger and violence of both Rome and the Jewish leaders.  “Caesar demands money?” asks Jesus–“Well of course he does, since his kingdom is all about money.  God’s kingdom, on the other hand, is about other things.”  Give Caesar taxes, then, and don’t fuss yourself about it, if you are truly of God’s kingdom.   


Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.  Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.  If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.  Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.  Therefore “ If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.  Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.  Render therefore to all what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are owed, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.  Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.   

–Rom. 12:14-13:8; NJKV (except for verse 7, which I have translated so as to make consistent with verse 8) 

As you may know, I’ve spent a lot of my spare time over the past couple years studying this passage, but I’ll confine myself here to a couple general points, without seeking to include the detailed justification for them that I’ve worked out elsewhere.  The point in this passage, I think, is not to lay out criteria of governmental legitimacy, upon which basis our obedience (including taxpaying) is required.  I think, on the contrary, that the point is to sidestep the issue of “legitimacy” altogether.  The Caesars were hardly “legitimate”–either in title or practice.  The taxes they demanded were largely unjust, both in quantity and in purpose.  But that doesn’t stop Paul from insisting that the Roman Christians continue to pay their taxes (or, if you translate the verb as indicative, as the NJKV above does, assuming that they will continue to pay their taxes).  This is because tax-paying is not primarily about legitimacy, but about love.  Jesus, as you will recall, told Peter to pay taxes “lest we offend them”; Paul here calls on us to obey and pay the authorities as a way of “blessing” rather than “cursing.”  Even if the government is an enemy, what are you supposed to do?  Feed the enemy.  What if it asks more than is justly owed to it?  Well, love should determine how much is owed, and there is no limit to love.  

The idea here is that Christians are not to be self-concerned in any of their relations–rather, they are to be concerned about how best they can show concern for the other, which includes enemies and authorities.  They are not to be be pre-occupied with ascertaining “legitimacy” and adjudicating “rights,” but are to be humble, confident that God is in control, and is using all things for good.  This is the context within which we are to understand tax-paying.  The main questions are not “How much can the government justly demand?” but “What opportunities for love and service does this demand provide?  How can I respond with maximum charity, faith, and humility in light of this demand?”  

Shifting from “rights” and “legitimacy” to “charity” does not necessarily make matters simpler.  Charity is a tricky business if there ever was one.  But it does help clear the field of false concerns that often blind us and entangle us before we even get to working out the tricky business of charity.


In these passages, I have taken what is, I suppose, a fairly Anabaptist tack, implying that the government is always bad and their tax-collecting illegitimate.  It is not my intention to make that claim.  Rather, the point is that, even if the government were bad and illegitimate, the core values and duties informing Christian taxpaying (and Christian citizenship in general) would still be operative.  If the government is in fact doing good and wonderful things for society, then all the more reason to pay up willingly.  

In the following post, I shall try to draw some implications from these passages and the rest of Scripture regarding tax-paying and tax avoidance.  I may also try to offer an additional post with some thoughts on tax protesting, if time allows.