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Sunday, March 4, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
You Can’t Catch Me
Lenten Sermon Series: Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
[As Christian citizens] obedience is our normal duty.
[Yet] obedience would be idolatrous . . . if it were unconditional.
Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity
In October 2002, the football team of Iowa State University was playing against Texas Tech, with Seneca Wallace at quarterback for ISU. Seneca pulled off perhaps the most incredible play in the history of Iowa State football that day. His team needed 12 yards to make a touchdown, and he was looking for a receiver—looking, still looking, but none of his four receivers were open. So Seneca Wallace found an alternative. Or rather he created an alternative. While the coaches and the crowd were thinking, “Throw the ball away,” Seneca was thinking, “I can make a play.” And he did. He took his drop, pump faked, rolled left, then retreated 20 yards across the field to the other sideline. He broke a tackle, turned the corner, tightroped the sideline for 15 yards, cut back again across the field, picked up a massive block, and then coasted into the left corner endzone. He covered roughly 135 yards to make the 12 yards, and 18 seconds later gave Iowa State a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. His jaw-dropping maneuvers to avoid being caught amazed everyone. Which brings us to Jesus.
Jesus was being pursued on all sides by opposition. Others tried to tackle him, and no one was blocking their efforts. The Pharisees saw him as a threat to their supremely orthodox Jewish practices. The Herodians saw him as a threat to the political power of Rome. The two groups—usually in bitter opposition to each other—found common ground in their desire to get rid of Jesus. They teamed up and found what they thought was an ingenious way to ambush Jesus: a yes-or-no question whose answer would have gotten him in trouble either way.
The question was “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” If Jesus replied yes, Jesus would have lost credibility and increased opposition with many people. The Jews not only resented being taxed like everyone resents it; they resented it even more for religious reasons. To a Jew, God was the only king; to pay tax to an earthly king was to insult God. To pay the tax was to be guilty of collaborating with the enemy.
If Jesus replied no, don’t pay the tax, he would have further alienated all who had accommodated themselves to Roman rule and even prospered under it. A no would also have increased the suspicion of the Roman authorities, who could arrest him for sedition. It was a catch-22.
But Jesus found an alternative. Or rather, he created one. While his followers may have been thinking, “Get out of there.They only mean you harm” or “Fight back. Retaliate,” Jesus chose a third alternative. Jesus knew these hypocrites were just out to trap him. He says to them, “Show me the money.” He asked them to produce a Roman coin and tell him whose image and title were on it. When they said the Roman emperor’s, Jesus responded, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” But that’s not all he said. Jesus also brought God into the picture. Jesus added, “and to God the things that are God’s.” Perhaps some of his hearers thought, “There he goes again, dragging God into everything!” But Jesus’ response left his hearers utterly amazed. They couldn’t catch him.
More is going on here than Jesus being incredibly witty or clever. He remained free from being constrained by an either-or polarity by appealing to higher principles. He also remained free from doing what most people do when under attack: take flight or fight. Flight looks like “throwing the ball away”—ending the situation before getting hurt, withdrawing, leaving the scene. Flight can also be giving up, rescinding your beliefs, surrendering to pressure, accommodating to the “spin” needed to remain popular with the public. Jesus did not take flight.
Fight is returning the hostility aimed at you, retaliating, seeking revenge, scheming to do in the other before they do in you, choosing violent means. Jesus did not fight either. Jesus chose a third way. He stood his ground, calling his challengers to a higher principle. He seized the moral initiative, bringing up God when they hadn’t. Those who sought to trap him he pushed to see things in a new light. Rather than retaliate, he created a third alternative: nonviolent resistance.
Nonviolent resistance was what Martin Luther King Jr. taught and lived. His understanding of Jesus’ third way was so imbued in his followers that it became the ethos of the civil rights movement. Here is one example, recounted in Walter Wink’s book Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa:
One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of the civil rights struggle, the large crowd of black and white activists standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church was electrified by the sudden arrival of a black funeral home operator from Montgomery. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police . . . , all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the . . . police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. [The] informant was the driver of one of those ambulances and he had driven straight to Selma to tell . . . about it.
The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind [the crowd], across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama State Troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” to which those who knew the song responded, “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?”—the Sherriff?! “Cer-certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in . . .
Reverend James Bevel then took the mike. “We are not just fighting for our rights, . . . but for the good of the whole society. It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”
. . . Jim Clark did change. When the voter registration drive in Selma was concluded, Jim Clark realized that he could not be reelected without the black vote. He began courting black voters. Later he even confessed . . . that he had been wrong in his bias against blacks. (Walter Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa, pp. 52–54)
For years the church has often misinterpreted the meaning of Jesus’ words “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” This text has been misinterpreted to mean that there should be a separation between the life of faith and the political realm. But that separation is not what Jesus meant. No one was more intent than Jesus on pressing the claims of God over all of life. God is sovereign, and God’s will is to be sought after and obeyed in every realm. Social, political, economic systems are all arenas within which God works and in which Christians are called to be actively engaged. Presbyterians place high value on being good citizens: voting, running for office, and advocating for laws and governing practices that implement values we believe are aligned with God’s purpose.
The sovereignty of God also means that nothing has an ultimate claim on us except for God. Many other things have a claim on us: the state, our nation, our families, the company for which we work, our church, even our constitutional rights. They all have a claim on us, but none should have our ultimate allegiance, for that belongs to God alone. Only God is God.
Presbyterians affirm that “God alone is Lord of the individual conscience.” As Christian citizens, obedience is our normal duty. Yet obedience to Caesar would be idolatrous if it were unconditional. Ordinarily we are to honor the laws of the state, but always and above all we are to honor God. There may be times when, in order to say yes to God, to whom everything belongs, one is led in good conscience to say no to Caesar. Our no should be nonviolent. Some laws, perhaps even parts of the constitution, need to be changed if they are causing harm and are unjust. Some may need to be resisted until they are changed. Christians have defied segregation or no-trespassing orders, participated in sit-ins, boycotted, demonstrated, withheld portions of their taxes, and been conscientious objectors. Currently some churches are offering sanctuary to immigrants who are at risk of being deported, which would separate them from their families.
Right now the nation is in the midst of a debate on gun control. Our Illinois government is currently considering several anti-gun-violence measures in light of the numerous mass shootings in our country. One that passed this week is requiring licenses for gun dealers. It still needs to be signed by Governor Rauner, and our World Mission and Social Justice Committee hopes you will sign a petition during Coffee Hour urging the governor to do so. There you can also find the other bills being considered.
Unfortunately many of our political leaders seem trapped in an either-or, fight-or-flight framework. If they say yes to new gun restrictions, they face opposition from the National Rifle Association and others who believe such action is an infringement on their constitutional right to bear arms. Many also think the answer to “bad guns” is “good guns.”
If politicians say no to such restrictions, they are fleeing from dealing with the very real danger guns are causing in our country, giving up doing anything because they can’t do everything.
How do we get out of this trap? The same way Jesus did: by bringing God into the picture, by creating a third way, appealing to higher principles. Coins bore the image of Caesar, so Jesus said they belong to Caesar. Who bears the image of God? Human beings. So what does it mean to give God what belongs to God? It means to cherish and protect the life of all people. It means we need to subject our constitutional rights and laws to God’s authority. The guiding principle in the gun debate should be that we do all we can to protect life.
Many Americans believe that having a gun in the house or having more people carry concealed weapons in public places makes us safer. But numerous studies suggest owning a gun actually increases a person’s risk of bodily harm and death. The 80 million Americans who keep guns in their home are 90 percent more likely to die by homicide than Americans who don’t. Moreover, they are three times as likely to kill themselves as non-firearm owners. It’s not that gun owners are more suicidal, but that they’re more likely to die if they become suicidal because they are using a gun. Also, authorities are generally uneasy about civilan interventions with guns because civilians don’t have the skills to handle an active-shooter situation (The Week, “Firearms and Self-Defense,” 6 November 2015).
Research has also been done to discover why there are more mass shootings in the United States than any other developed country. The studies looked at the variables of racial diversity, mental health care support systems, crime incidence, the rate of homicide, and even the frequency of playing video games. But the only variable that explains the high rate of mass shootings in America is the astronomically high number of guns owned by citizens. Switzerland has the second-highest gun ownership rate of any developed country, about half that of the United States. It’s gun homicide rate was unusually high, but still only a fraction of the rate in the United States. Swiss laws are tighter and reflect a different way of thinking about guns. The thinking of the Swiss is that guns are something that citizens must affirmatively earn the right to own, in contrast to the thinking held by many in the U.S.: that guns are something citizens have an inherent right to own (Max Fisher and Josh Keller,“What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer,” New York Times, 7 November 2017).
We are living in a very violent time in our country and in our world. We need to find alternatives to the fight-or-flight box. We must not fight violence with more violence. We must not flee reality by giving up because the problem is so huge. We must create a third way that both urges restraint from retaliation and protects life made in the image of God. This is what Jesus did, and we are called to follow.