The economic, political, and theological are of a piece. Political theology must also be economic theology. This framework helps recall the ways that the political and theological have been suppressed and occluded, yet continually marshalled in an age where the market, the economy as such, reigns as a closed loop, as a no-place that serves as ideal space.
The proverbial “Render unto Caesar” passage (Mark 12:13-17; Matt 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26), to which the title of this symposium alludes, is often invoked glibly as if its meaning is apparent. Many American interpreters read it from the standpoint of the Establishment Clause and find an ostensibly obvious dichotomy between church and state. Jesus appears as a good classical liberal, after the manner of John Locke, perhaps, inaugurating a boundary between state power and religious authority, and advocating fiscal submission to the former, to boot.
Admittedly, this take is not merely modern. The history of interpretation reveals that the text has been used in various eras to justify some distinction of spheres. Clement of Alexandria appeared to take it to exhort submission to civil government. The passage would later remain in the backdrop and sometimes be invoked explicitly in debates about the scope of imperial and papal authorities through the medieval period.
Yet, what might appear at first glance in the “Render” passage as an obvious separation and even opposition is quickly complicated. We know that Jesus’ answer cannot be taken straightforwardly given the contextual aside to the reader that he is replying to a trap. His is a rhetorical ploy that obfuscates. Yet readers might also assume that Jesus is answering truthfully in some sense, even while prevaricating. Of course, this canonically conditioned assumption of truthfulness could be rejected—why not read Jesus as offering a bullshit answer to a bullshit question?
Even taking the words at their surface meaning, without excavating any double entendre that may be inaccessible given our historical, social, and cultural distance, what are we to make of this binary? Tertullian enjoins his audience to “render to Caesar indeed money, to God yourself. Otherwise, what will be God’s, if all things are Caesar’s?” (On IdolatryXV). Yet, one could easily invert the question and ask Tertullian, “what would be Caesar’s if all things are God’s?”
What would it mean to claim that there are things that belong to Caesar that do not ultimately belong to God? Certainly some readers might see this dichotomy as unproblematic if we take money as evil and therefore as “pertaining to demons” as Tertullian claimed. Money may just be an ungodly force or perhaps a “lordless power” as Karl Barth once declared. Yet if even Satan belongs to and is an agent of God in some sense (see, e.g., Job), the problems of ultimate monetary ownership seem theologically inescapable within traditional approaches.
Even as the passage invites consideration of the complex links between the religious and the political despite apparent division, it sets forth equally elusive connections between both the economic and the political and the economic and religious, respectively. While discussion of the passage tends to center on church-state tensions and allegiances, the exchange between Jesus and his challengers is just as centrally about economy, so obviously so that it is often missed.
Just as we “moderns” have become accustomed to thinking about the religious and political as distinct and separate spheres, we are used to thinking about the economic and the political as separate spaces and logics. This tendency has been disciplined into most modern societies for the last 300 years. The Europeans who theorized economic science in the 18th century presented the market as conceptually and practically distinct from politics and from the authority of the prince. The separation we take for granted between church and state takes shape in the same period that the state and market relation was dismantled.
The freedom that Kant championed, enlightenment as a coming of age and release from the tutelage of church and tradition, necessitated the steadying hand of political sovereignty. At the same time, as ecclesial power was chastened and eternal rewards sidelined, material rewards took center stage existentially and with them an entire ascesis of the self, a disciplining that sought not spiritual perfection but market success. In both political and economic cases, what was posed as freedom could be read as a reconfiguration of subjection, a swapping of masters.
Yet before it was constructed as a thing in itself to be theorized and measured, the market was a no-place, a utopia in its etymological sense. There was no market as such in the ancient or medieval worlds. Of course there were merchants, fairs, bazaars, and other sites of exchange. Yet economy was a thing one performed or exhibited. It did not subsist “out there.”
Even today, there is no market. Where can one go to find “the economy”? It remains a utopia. Ironically, the market has become utopian in the colloquial usage as an ideal toward which to strive or hope: as pure form, unencumbered by pesky politics and regulation; the market’s social and human realities as vigorously repressed. Such market reification is of course the eschatology of neoliberalism and its doctrine of market fundamentalism.
As I’ve explored elsewhere, the “Render” passage supported a tradition of interpreting humans as coins, stamped with the image of their heavenly emperor. Rendering to God what was God’s meant offering our lives as living sacrifices of worship to God, as one would offer coins as tax and tribute to one’s sovereign. The human was theologically monetized—or coined—in the name of dedication to God.
There was also a period of time when the coin’s image economies merged, where both Christ and emperor were stamped on it, complicating the answer to Jesus’s question, “Whose face is on the coin?” Theologically, socio-politically, and even materially, then, it is difficult to establish a clear line between Caesar and God when it comes to monetary tokens.
Similarly, given the history of being disciplined, formed, and stamped under sovereignty for as long as humans have lived in organized civilizations with centralized authority, it is difficult to delineate whose image the human coin bears, God’s or Caesar’s. The answer to the query, “Whose face is on the coin?” whether monetary or human, is both. Both God and Caesar have left their imprint on both types of coins.
The theorists who have sought to excise the human from economy, offering abstract models of rational utility and statistical curves to steamroll human idiosyncrasy, have also sought to excise money from economic theory, given the political traces it bears. Money’s obvious political character belies the myth of the free market.
As the economy has been constructed as an abstraction to mask its no-place, its fashioners have squeezed out the politics of money and the material conditions of its human actors. Both coins have been defaced to hide their implications. Yet the effects of such market abstraction on the bodies of the vulnerable, the precariat, the laboring and expendable classes, the unpaid affective and domestic laborers, remain very real.
In the modern reign of the market, both the monetary and the human have been elided, in a suppression of politics and transcendent claims in order to use them for economic ends. Reclaiming and reminting these defaced coins are steps toward rupturing the mythical no-place of the economy and exposing it for the dystopia it has become.