The wording of my title has been carefully chosen. First of all, “Independence Day.” It is the one day of the year in which we’re especially called to be grateful for the gift of nation.
Then there’s the word “theological.” That speaks to questions like: how is God involved in it? Where is God to be found? And they are “reflections.” I don’t pretend this is some universal truth that applies to everyone. I’m speaking from my own experience.
And indeed, this is the viewpoint of “one” American. But though I am one, I am an “American.” In some ways, it’s fitting that I am an American. Having been adopted as an infant, I didn’t know who my genetic ancestors were. That is, until February 2018, when my birth mother tracked me down.
In a similar way, America as a nation has no single clear understanding of its genetic makeup. After all, what does an American look like? What does an American sound like? Our political history mainly ties us to England, but as a whole, Americans look to all parts of the world, not to mention those who were here before the Europeans ever showed up.
Increasingly, there are many countries which lack a single clear understanding of their genetic makeup, but my guess would be the United States best epitomizes that.
So there’s that. But I do have a better reason for saying, “It’s fitting that I am an American.” It’s because I love my country. I love America.
For the first ten years of my life, we were a military family. My dad was posted to various naval bases around the country, from coast to coast to coast to coast. (The Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific back to the Gulf and then to the Atlantic.) Obviously, that meant plenty of moving around, guaranteeing that I saw a whole lot of this country. Add to that my college experiences and the churches my wife Banu and I have served. That adds a few more states.
Like most of us, I was taught at an early age God has blessed America. And I believe that. However, my young mind—not so good with nuance—made the assumption since God had blessed America, we were better than people from other countries! (I’ve since learned that Banu was raised with a similar belief about Turkey—that’s there’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!)
There is still within the spirit of America a conviction that people have human rights, they shouldn’t be tortured, the government shouldn’t tell them how to think, they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That’s why it’s a shame when we don’t live up to those convictions.
I realize that many say faith and politics should be kept separate. (By the way, that’s a whole different animal from separation of church and state!) When it comes to airing one’s political opinions from the pulpit—such as telling people who to vote for—I would tend to agree. As Christians, we need to learn to think theologically, not just politically. As I said earlier, “Where is God in this? How do we think of God?” That’s what the New Testament church does.
There is a question often asked during presidential election campaigns. It is, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Clearly, that would be asked by the challenger! In my opinion, a better theological question would be, “Are your neighbors better off now than they were four years ago?” I would love to see that reframing of the discussion.
The gospel is inherently political; it’s inescapable. Words like “Lord” and “Savior,” in the first century, are political terms as well as spiritual terms. “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr) are titles attributed to the emperor. Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues, are especially insistent about it.
When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing. For them, it isn’t an empty phrase. It’s not something to put on a bumper sticker or post on Facebook. They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire. They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Give…to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21). Render unto to Caesar… I wonder, what does that mean for us, on our nation’s 247th birthday?
We see some Pharisees and Herodians sending representatives to Jesus. Understanding the mindset of those two groups shows what a strange combination this is. Pharisees were single-minded in their determination to uphold the law of God. Despite the broad brush of being boogeymen we see in the New Testament, there was diversity among them. Many were sympathetic to Jesus and to the church that arose in the book of Acts.
Herodians, as the name suggests, had a political nature, seeing in Herod the better path for the Jewish people. To put it lightly, they and the Pharisees weren’t exactly BFFs. We have put on full display the dynamic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”!
Matthew shows how disingenuous they are by their opening statement: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality” (v. 16).
I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students.”
As we all know, flattery will get you everywhere.
The backdrop of our story is the payment of taxes to the Roman authorities. Any loyal Jew, with any patriotic sensibility, considers being taxed by this foreign government reprehensible. The enemies of Jesus have racked their brains, trying to come up with some way to get rid of this guy. He’s drawing too much attention, and that can only spell trouble.
Somebody has one of those “aha!” moments, and says, “I got it!” If Jesus teaches “the way of God,” let’s see what he says about the tax law. If Jesus legitimizes paying taxes to Rome, he is in effect denying God’s sovereignty over the nation.
However, if Jesus says it’s not okay to pay the taxes, the Romans will step in and take care of him. Either way, we win.
The characters trying to trick Jesus haven’t done their homework, or they might have guessed their plan won’t work. Jesus is proactive, not reactive, about the job of reconciliation. He is intentional.
For example, among his disciples he’s included Simon the Zealot. The Zealots are a group dead-set on following the Jewish law, and by “dead-set,” I mean violence is a doable option. (You know, make my day!) He’s also included Matthew the tax collector. Tax collectors were especially hated because they helped finance the occupation. So we have a revolutionary and a collaborator. Not exactly birds of a feather. Compared with them, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are a match made in heaven!
Banu and I recently watched the TV show, The Chosen. It is a series about Jesus and the people who met him. It is very well done. Not to give offense, but in my opinion, many Christian movies and shows have one-dimensional narratives and bad acting. What we find in The Chosen is a show that creatively displays the stories we encounter in the gospels.
Season 3, episode 2 is called “Two by Two.” This is when Jesus sends the disciples out to preach the gospel, to heal, and to cast out evil spirits. He pairs them up and indeed puts Simon and Matthew together. There are some nervous and humorous exchanges.
In answering the question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus elevates the discussion. By changing the perspective, by reframing it, he gets to the heart of the matter. He gives the perfect answer to their question, one that invites them to challenge their assumptions. As we see, they are left speechless.
Approaching from a philosophical perspective, in her book At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell tells a story from 1946 Paris, right after the war. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Arthur Koestler were having a lively time at a Russian nightclub when “the question of friendship and political commitment came up. Could you be friends with someone if you disagreed with them politically? [I would add, theologically.] Camus said you could. Koestler said no: ‘Impossible! Impossible!’ In a sentimental buzz of vodka [this was a Russian nightclub, after all], Beauvoir took Camus’ side: ‘It is possible; and we are the proof of it at this very moment, since, despite all our dissensions, we are so happy to be together.’”
In an unfortunate development, “Sartre and Beauvoir eventually came to agree with Koestler… it was not possible to be friends with someone who held opposed political views. ‘When people’s opinions are so different,’ said Sartre, ‘how can they even go to a film together?’” Friends, is that us? Must our differences always result in our barely standing each other? Don’t answer that question!
In these past few years, the specter of intolerance has spread all over our nation, sometimes beginning with elementary school. By the time students get to college, there increasingly is the conviction that only approved ideas are correct. The concept of critical thinking is being tossed out the window. If one even dares to utter an opposing viewpoint, let alone actually agree with it, that person is castigated, intimidated, shamed. They might even get cancelled!
We are called, both as Americans and especially as Americans of faith, to expand our vision, to look outward, to be proactive about reconciliation—to take the first step in peacemaking. We’re called “to form a more perfect union.” (That is, a more complete union, a more perfected union.)
And again, as the church, St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:17-18).
Now, to recall my question from a few moments ago, how do we as Americans of faith live on the 247th birthday of our country? There is quite a difference between being an American and an American of faith, just as there’s a vast difference between Caesar and Christ.
As Americans who are part of the body of Christ, we are called to actively celebrate the good and to challenge the bad, not only in our country, but in ourselves. And in the church! To say that each person is born with inalienable rights means respecting and honoring those who are different from us, in whatever way.
It also means not denying our identity in Jesus Christ. It’s easier than we think to conceal the cross behind the flag—or to put the cross on the flag! Remember, there is a difference between Christ and Caesar. We mustn’t confuse the two as we rightfully remember, as we seek to be grateful to God for the gift of nation.
A hymn we all know is “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.” “America, America, God shed his grace on thee.” One of the lines has this proclamation. “O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years / thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” Indeed, friends, we’re not quite there yet.
I spoke of the first century church calling Jesus “Lord and Savior,” and how that carries a great deal of political weight. Still, without the living Lord within, the political stuff is but a dry husk. I pray these words can be more than words and that the living Word will empower us to be those who seek a better homeland, that is, a homeland infused with the light of heaven.
 Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café (New York: Other Press, 2016), Kindle edition, Chapter 11, section 2, paragraph 4
 Bakewell, 11.2.6