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Politics of Scripture

The Limits of Earthly Sovereignties

Jesus’ teaching regarding taxation and our allegiance to human governments challenges Christians who find themselves subject to contemporary governments to think about how we relate to their inevitable exploitation.

22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Matthew 22:15–22

Taxation is, by definition, a governmental activity. Only governments tax and demand tribute from their subjects. Failure to pay taxes or tributes constitutes grounds, from the perspective of the government, for legitimate punishment or discipline. In addition to contribution to the economic maintenance of the government, taxation symbolizes one’s acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the government. It is with this knowledge that Jesus is approached with questions regarding taxation, that is, with questions regarding the legitimacy of what he calls “earthly kingdoms.”

There are two instances in the book of Matthew where Jesus is approached with questions regarding the legitimacy of specific earthly kingdoms or sovereignties. In one, Matthew 22:15–22, Jesus is approached with a question whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome. In another, Matthew 17:24–27, Peter is approached with a question of whether his teacher, Jesus, pays the Temple tax.

In the former instance, the type of taxation seems fairly clear. Jesus is being asked if Jews should pay the Poll Tax. The type of tax being paid to the temple—a religious tax, or a national tax—however, is less certain. It seems, though, that because the text refers to the “payment” as a tax, and because the word Temple does not appear in the original text, the payment is in fact a national tax. Thus, in both instances, Jesus is being approached with questions regarding his recognition of the sovereignty of the kings and kingdoms of the earth, whether Roman or Jewish.

Jesus’ response to these questions is instructive for understanding what we would today call Jesus’ “political theology.” We can look first at Jesus’ response to the issue of tribute to Rome.

Jesus responds to the question about the Poll Tax thus: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This response could be interpreted as Jesus proposing a separation between politics and religion. However, this would be a problematic interpretation because Jesus’ services to the poor and sick did not occur in isolation to his critique of the existing Jewish religious leadership and the Roman empire. His critique of both forms of sovereignties was as passionate as his love for the subalterns of his day. Jesus, therefore, was not calling for separating religion from politics because his alternative was a kingdom (politics) of God/heaven (theology). Instead, Jesus’ crucifixion was a consequence of his theo-politics, a consequence of his ministerial and theological antagonism towards human claims to lordship. The confrontations that Jesus had regarding taxation are just a few instances that embody his theo-politics and rendered him a political criminal.   

In Matthew 17:24–27 when Peter is asked by the collectors of the temple tax whether his teacher, Jesus, pays the temple tax, Peter responds affirmatively saying, “Yes, he does” (verse 25). However, what is interesting to notice here is that the question posed by the tax collectors hints at their suspicion of Jesus evading the payment of temple tax. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t paying tribute to the temple. So, when Peter comes to Jesus, Jesus asks him immediately: “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” (verse 25). Peter responds, “From others” (verse 26). Following which Jesus responds, saying, “Then the children are free.”

The dialogue between Jesus and Peter reveals the idea that the governmental practices of the rulers of the earth are constituted by hierarchy and exploitation. Because of this, Jesus says in Matthew 26:11, “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” We should understand this statement in light of his other teachings. The statement does not indicate that he was unconcerned about poverty or apathetic to the poor. On the contrary, we should assume that he understands the cause of this poverty are earthly governments. He also understands that, precisely because of his simultaneous critique of earthy governments and radical fellowship with the poor, he may (or will) be killed.

A parallel reading of these texts reveals that Jesus was neither separating religion from politics, nor rejecting the possibility of rightly ordered community. Nor was he, it seems, against governance per se. Instead, he seems to have been radically opposed to the possibility of rightly ordered human governance, or human lordship. The alternative to human lordship, or the earthly kingdoms, is what Jesus calls the “kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven reflects a community wherein order exists without hierarchical coercion, without lording.

The governing principle, or regulating ideal, of such a community is thus not lordship but mutual service. In Sisters in the Wilderness, womanist theologian Delores Williams calls this form of mutual service a practice of “righting relationships” for the purpose of “survival and quality of life.” What is more, mutual service toward survival and quality of life takes place in the midst of the inevitable exploitation that accompanies hierarchical governance. It is for this reason that Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven, despite the existence of the kingdoms of the earth, is nevertheless already “amongst you.”

Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom of heaven, and his theo-political critique of hierarchical-exploitative governance—which is to say, his critique of every form of human government—is immanently important for those of us who consider ourselves Christians today. Jesus’ teaching regarding our relationship and allegiance to human governments challenges Christians who find themselves subject to contemporary governments to think about how we relate to these governments.

There are plenty of contemporary examples from which one could choose to re-articulate Jesus’ pessimistic critique of human lordship. For the remainder of this essay, though, I would like to focus on a context from which I hail, namely, India.

The contemporary political situation of India presents us with a concrete example of the kind of governance that Jesus was opposing. More specifically, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and their Hindutva ideology has proven precarious for many populations in India: women, Dalits, social activists, academics, and non-Hindu populations of India, particularly the Indian Muslims.  

Today, Indian Muslims live under the constant pressure to prove their allegiance to Indian/Hindu nationalism. Such coercive nationalism occurs in many ways, such as when Indian Muslims are often forced to recite in public certain Hindu religious chants by Hindutva mobs. A refusal to do so results in violence against the Indian Muslims. In addition to this, Modi and BJP’s advocacy for Hindu nationalism has drastically affected India’s citizenship policies. The recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is striking example of Modi and BJP’s exclusionary and nationalist policies.

The CAA is presented as evidence of hospitality, protecting the communities fleeing religious persecutions in other South Asian countries. It nevertheless evidences a fundamental Islamophobic hostility because it extends citizenship only to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. This policy, therefore, not only excludes Muslim refugees from applying for Indian citizenship, but also threatens them with imprisonment or deportation on their failure to verify their nationality. This grand gesture of discriminatory solidarity reveals BJP’s intention to lord over Muslims either through direct physical violence or by limiting their population in India through policy.       

Due to these anti-Muslim actions of Modi’s governance, many agree that Modi and Hindutva are reprehensible. But, we should not take Modi’s governance through Hindu nationalism as an opportunity to romanticize his liberal-secular predecessors.

Prior to Modi, Manmohan Singh and Indian National Congress (INC), the liberal-secular party, governed India. Despite being an economist, an academic, and liberal-secularist, ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not able to prevent a series devastating corruption scams in the country that involved INC’s own politicians and government officials. Both the current Indian political context of Hindu nationalism and the previous liberal-secular government are therefore legitimate objects of Jesus’ critique of earthly/human governance. The pessimistic theo-political teaching and practice of Jesus seems to be that we should not, and cannot, trust any “earthly kingdom” to organize human life rightly.

Jesus teaches his disciples, Christians, that justice cannot exist within institutions that themselves depend on coercion and the hierarchical lording of the few (governors) over the many. But he also teaches that the kingdom of heaven can be practiced even in the midst of such hierarchical and lording governments. If Christians recognize the teachings of Jesus as in any way fundamental, then it is not only the Indian Christian’s duty to critique the contemporary Indian government, but also to practice hospitality toward those who find themselves exploited by the Indian government.

What is more, it is also the Christian’s duty to refuse to imagine that the Indian government, or any government, has within its capacity the ability to be truly just. The kingdom of heaven is already amongst us, when we practice it, and such practice must be distinguished from governmental policy proposals. This is not to say, however, that we should never make policy proposals, but that we should not confuse such proposals—proposals made to a government whose legitimacy depends on coercion and military might—with Christian politics, or with the politics of Jesus.

To make reference again to Delores Williams, the kingdom of heaven is a ministry of mutual service for survival and quality of life in the midst of, and despite, the violence and coercion of all earthly “kingdoms.”

2 thoughts on “The Limits of Earthly Sovereignties

  1. Very thoughtful and helpful article. I like this clear explanation.

    “Jesus teaches his disciples, Christians, that justice cannot exist within institutions that themselves depend on coercion and the hierarchical lording of the few (governors) over the many. But he also teaches that the kingdom of heaven can be practiced even in the midst of such hierarchical and lording governments.”

  2. So relevant and contemporary. Thank you Poonam for this challenging and inspiring contribution. Delores Williams is my favorite too so was happy to see her name in the text. All the best as you continue on your journey.

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