Not again! Another politician “denies any wrongdoing,” but
resigns his post. As the great American philosopher Jimmy Hatlo used
to say, they’ll do it every time.
Why does corruption in government always surprise us? Why do we expect
anything else from it? Government is organized force. It takes our
wealth and makes war. And we think honest men would do that work?
Well, honest men have sincerely tried, but look at the results and
ask yourself whether honesty has any inherent tendency to prevail in
politics. War, taxation, waste, debt, inflation, hatred, hypocrisy,
cynicism, social disorder. And also — amazingly enough! — corruption.
As I often say, expecting government to produce good results is like
expecting a tiger to pull a plow. After the twentieth century, in which
the world’s governments killed hundreds of millions of their
own subjects, everyone ought to talk about the state the way Jews talk
about Hitler. Yet we still have high hopes for this beast, because,
after all, the mighty tiger is certainly strong enough to pull that
plow if he wanted to! If only.
Even most Christians believe in the state, though Jesus never urged
his followers to take political action. A very devout and intelligent
Catholic socialist friend of mine argues that Jesus legitimized the
state when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and unto God the things that are God’s.”
But that’s reading an awful lot into a few words. Jesus wasn’t
preaching to his followers at that moment; he certainly wasn’t
preaching statism, let alone the authority of pagan emperors who claimed
divinity and demanded idolatry. No, he was retorting to a trick question
from his enemies, and he answered with a witty tautology. It might
have been taken to mean, “Give Caesar everything he claims, and
also give God his due.” But it could also mean, “Give Caesar
nothing, and God everything.” Or it might mean something else;
Jesus didn’t specify.
It was a brilliant ad lib. Jesus’ enemies were trying to bait
him into endorsing either idolatry or sedition, and he deftly sidestepped
them with a sentence the world still remembers. Not exactly a hearty
vote of confidence in those who wield power, it seems to me.
Government doesn’t get much help from the Gospels. Don’t
resist evil. Don’t fret about tomorrow. Trust your Father in
heaven. The truth will make you free. He who takes up the sword will
die by the sword. This is not advice our own Caesars are apt to take.
Jesus did exalt the publican, or tax collector, who prayed, “Lord,
have mercy on me, a sinner.” Today’s publicans, of course,
are called “public servants,” and they deny any wrongdoing.
Or they have their lawyers deny it for them. Maybe they also let their
lawyers handle their carefully worded orisons.
Again, Jesus never used force or the threat of force, except, in
a way, when he saw his Father’s house profaned. That was a special
case, from which it’s hard to draw general conclusions, but he
was acting on his own authority, not acting politically. And he was
defying those in power, not supporting them.
In the end, the government murdered him. This fact ought to count
for something in any discussion of temporal power. Maybe capital punishment
is still justified, even if mistakes are made now and then and the
Son of God is accidentally victimized. But I’d start with that
Jesus’ mercy extends readily to the publican and the centurion,
but for our time the absence of political rhetoric, or political “solutions” to
human problems, is one of the most striking things about the Gospels.
The state, taxation, and war are themselves assumed to be perennial
problems, and there isn’t the faintest suggestion that “democracy” could
relieve them, or turn them into blessings.
Right from the start, Jesus has been a disappointment to anyone hoping
for salvation through politics. Many expected the Messiah to bring
political and military deliverance — peace through strength,
as it were. Instead they got a fiery preacher of peace who resisted
the political temptation proffered by Satan, the very temptation the
whole world is still succumbing to.
“My government is not of this world.” I think that’s
a fair paraphrase of his words.