I just finished Christoher Bryan’s, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower. Looking at the variety of stances toward the state, particular large, powerful, obnoxious foreign states that often made life miserable for the people of God, Bryan finds four basic responses.
- Full acceptance. God made the powers that be and we simply need to be subservient.
- Acceptance with a willingness to question. Government is God’s idea. But because the state is God’s idea, the state is always accountable to God. It’s job is to work toward God’s peace and justice.
- Non-violent rejection. The state is a power for evil, and through non-cooperation and peaceful protest we will stand against it.
- Violent rejection. These guys are horrible, evil pagans. We need to do everything in our power to remove them.
Bryan finds traditions of interpretation with in first century Judaism as well as the later church, that seem to adhere to each of these views. His consideration of Jesus and the New Testament, however, finds them to take position 2. Much like Jeremiah in Jer. 29, they recognize an exile relationship vis-a-vis the imperial power, but seek to be a blessing to the “city” in which they find themselves.
So if the early Christians followed Jesus in not seeing Rome as a big bad guy to be resisted, why was there so much persecution and resistance to the faith? Bryan’s theory is that the Romans’ primary reason for working against the Christians was their perceived atheism. The gods guarantee our happiness, safety and prosperity. When we see these on the wane, it must be because of the lack of piety, i.e., Christians, in our midst.
Since my own thinking on church and state has been molded of late by contemplation of Jeremiah 29:7, I find Bryan’s point of view attractive. I think his greatest weakness is avoidance of the notion of the church as an alternative people, a holy nation belonging to God. I’m still working on understanding how that nation relates to the nations in which we find ourselves.
I also think Bryan underestimates the degree to which the NT folks – from Jesus to Paul, Luke, Peter & John – took themselves to be offering an alternative vision of the meaning and purpose of life – intentionally different from that offered by Rome. While I don’t see Jesus, Paul, et al., agitating against Rome, seeking to replace the empire with a theocracy, or going into the desert to escape the corruption of the age, their teaching and corporate lifestyle surely posed a challenge to the established way of doing things.