Monday, October 17, 2011

Rendering to Caesar: On the Political Uses of a Biblical Text (and More on OWS and Bishop Finn)

A minuscule postscript to what I just posted about the Occupy Wall Street movement and religious communities:

Yesterday, we attended a family birthday party.  It was out in the country north of Little Rock, on a pumpkin farm that children love this time of year--hayrides, a corn maze, ripe orange pumpkins to be selected from a field, stands selling humongous corn dogs, a petting zoo, etc.

As we drive through the little town nearest the pumpkin farm, I happen to notice that the sign on the Methodist church advertises a sermon that day about Occupy Wall Street.  The sign is not very forthcoming, just something like, "Want God's word on Occupy Wall Street?  See Matthew 22."

When I read the sign, I had a sneaking suspicion what I'd find in Matthew 22 when I got home (having entirely forgotten to bring my port-a-bible along to the pumpkin patch).  And sure enough, when I cracked open my old Jerusalem bible and found the chapter in Matthew, I found it contains the "render unto Caesar" text.

I know my people.   I know how many of the white evangelical churches of the American South have long schooled their adherents to think about any and all movements that appear to threaten the status quo: render unto Caesar, obey the God-ordained authorities that rule over you.  Live soberly, waiting for the coming of the Lord, and don't cause trouble with the state in the meantime, since God rules us through both church and state, and both make legitimate demands on our lives.

In other words, the moment I saw that Occupy Wall Street (and, implicitly, the Occupy Little Rock march that took place here on Saturday) was the topic of the sermon in a small-town Methodist church near my city yesterday, I knew without even consulting the advertised text that the sermon would diss OWS.  That it would view OWS protesters and supporters as rebels against God.

This has been the line taken by the majority of Southern white evangelical churches from the period in which slavery began to be contested, right to the present--a reading of the scriptures that upholds the powers that be, biblical exegesis that upholds those in authority at the present time.  A reading of the scriptures that attacks those raising troublesome questions about the powers that be at any given moment in history . . . .

The churches that my ancestors attended (and often pastored) went from defending slavery to defending segregation, to defending male domination of women, to defending the "rights" of business leaders to break unions and attack workers, and, now, to defending heterosexual power and privilege and attacking those who are gay.  Quoting scripture verses all the while . . . .

And so, given this history and its weight on my shoulders, I find it fascinating to read A.G. Sulzberger reporting in the New York Times today that the pastor of St. Patrick's parish in Kansas City, Rev. Justin Hoye, chose that same text yesterday--"render unto Caesar"--to comment obliquely about the indictment of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City.  Sulzberger reports that Hoye preached that we must render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, and keep in mind human frailty and our obligation to forgive.

What's interesting is that the Matthew text was not, as far as I know, the official gospel text in Catholic liturgies yesterday.*  But isn't it fascinating that, in a small-town church in Arkansas, a Methodist pastor used it yesterday to delegitimate the Occupy Wall Street movement, while in the neighboring state of Missouri, a Catholic pastor used it to comment in an oblique way about Caesar's call, through the civil court system, to a bishop call to stand before the court.

And I wonder what this synchronicity--and the recurrent use of the Matthew text about rendering unto Caesar in some sectors of American Christianity--is all about, precisely.  And at a fundamental level . . . .

*But note Tim's correction in a comment below: this was the official gospel text in Catholic liturgies yesterday.  I had thought when I googled to find yesterday's text, that another one popped up--evidently from a previous liturgical year?  Shows you what I get for not attending Mass: ignorance!

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