The Almighty State personified: The demented Caligula (here depicted by Jay Robinson in the 1953 epic The Robe), who once openly wished that all Rome might have one neck so that he could behead the entire population at a stoke, was the first emperor to proclaim his supposed divinity while still alive. He was hardly the first or last ruler to do so, of course.
"You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men."
1 Corinthians 7:23
The world was too small for Alexander, Juvenal pointed out, yet in the end he found that a small sarcophagus was sufficient. By way of contrast, the tomb could not contain Jesus, who repeatedly explained that His kingdom is not of this world. For believers, Resurrection Sunday celebrates the victory of Jesus -- the only One truly entitled to be called a king -- over sin and death. It should also prompt us to reflect on our duty to live as free men.
Jesus carried out his ministry in an ignominious province of a globe-spanning Empire on the descending slope of its imperial peak. Yes, several centuries would pass before Rome extinguished itself, but the republic was long dead, and the afflictions that would kill the empire were already well advanced.
Decades earlier, Scipio the Younger had wept amid the ruins of Carthage, not so much because his conscience was wounded by the pitiless destruction of an enemy, but because he foresaw a day when Rome would be on the receiving end of what it had just dealt out. Sallust would later lament that Rome's precipitous moral decline began with the destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War.
That conflict, interestingly enough, began because Rome's long-standing rival, having been disarmed at the end of the First Punic War, abrogated the treaty in order to defend itself against incursions by a Roman ally. So we see that needless and opportunistic wars are hardly a recent invention.
By the time Jesus used a denarius to illustrate the limits of Caesar's jurisdiction ("render to Ceasar that which is Caesar's" means that we are to give rulers no more than that which they are entitled to under God's law), the Empire had already begun the process of debasing the currency through coin-clipping. Tribute from the provinces being inadequate to sustain the empire, the imperial regime resorted to this primitive but surprisingly effective form of pre-Federal Reserve inflation -- and the result, then as now, was to abet the malignant growth of government power and the wholesale corruption of public and private morals.
Clipping and adulteration of the precious metal content of Roman coinage began shortly after Tiberius (whose face disfigured the silver coin used in Jesus's parable) ascended to the purple in 14 A.D. "By the time he was assassinated in AD 37," write Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin in their indispensable book Empire of Debt, "there were 700 million denarii in the treasury -- far more than there had been at the time of Augustus's death."
Caligula, who inherited the throne, quickly wiped out this budget surplus and spent Rome into a huge deficit. When Nero came along, widespread currency debasement was undertaken once again, and it would persist until Alaric and his Goth buddies crested the seventh hill.
By the time Honorius found himself hip-deep in Visigoths, note Bonner and Wiggin, Roman currency "still bore the ancient form with the images of dead emperors pressed on it. But the value had been taken out; the currency had lost 99.98 percent of its value."
This quite understandably seems quite shocking -- until we remember that since 1913, when the Regime created its official counterfeiting arm, the US dollar has lost 95 percent of its value. What took Rome half a millennium -- the complete devaluation of its currency -- Washington has nearly accomplished in a little less than a century. It will be a miracle of sorts if the dollar survives this decade.
At the time of Jesus's ministry, Rome was mired in what Bonner and Wiggin call "a new system of consuetudo fraudium -- habitual cheating." Romans still "remembered their Old Republic with its rules and customs," and they still "thought that was the way the system was supposed to work" long after the senate had become a vestigial body and the emperor's will supplanted the law. Willing parties to this universal, State-imposed deception, Roman citizens and subjects practiced and fell prey to private fraud of various kinds. If credit cards and sub-prime mortgages had been available at the time, Romans would have defaulted on both at rates rivaling our own.
It seems to me that this kind of behavior is to be expected when the government-issued medium of exchange is fraudulent. This is particularly true of the Roman denarius, which was designed to propagate the cult of the divine emperor: The coin used by Jesus in His parable bore the inscription, Ti Caesar Divi Aug F[ilius] Aust Imp -- Latin shorthand for "Tiberius Ceasar, divine son of the Emperor Augustus."
The fraudulent Roman denarius: The irregular shape of the coin seen here attests to "clipping," a method used to steal its value.
Which is to say that the Roman currency claimed that the emperor, depicted wearing a laurel as a token of his future exaltation, was the son of a god.
Once this is understood, Jesus's familiar saying takes on -- for me, at least -- a much deeper meaning than I had previously appreciated.
Writing five decades ago, theologian Roland H. Bainton points out that this debased and blasphemous currency was "Rome's best device for popularizing in the provinces the cult of the divine Emperor." Not surprisingly, Zealots and other Jewish rejectionists rebelled against the Roman currency, hammering them flat, melting them down, and stamping them with Hebrew characters. "But many of the Jews," writes Dr. Bainton, "while adamant as to the Roman standards [of morality and religion], were pliant in regard to the coins."
Among that number, perhaps, were some of the Pharisees who -- with unearned confidence in their supposed cleverness -- posed their trick question to Jesus: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
The import of Jesus's answer -- "Render unto Caesar that which is Ceasar's, and to God that which is God's" -- is paraphrased by Dr. Bainton thus: "If, then, you trifle with your scruples and carry the tainted coins, give back to Caesar what he has given to you, but remember your prime allegiance is to God."
While pointedly limiting Ceasar's jurisdiction, Jesus did not specify how much the emperor was entitled to. My belief is that He deliberately left that question to the individual conscience. He expects us to know when Caesar or any other ruler (or representative) has transgressed the limits of his authority, thereby attempting to lay claim on an allegiance we owe only to God.
What was the market value, circa 70 A.D., of a pinch of incense? A trifle, by any standard. And speaking the phrase "Caesar is Lord" as that minuscule amount of incense was burned in front of the Emperor's likeness incurred no tangible expense. Yet the cost of this gesture, to Christian believers, was prohibitive, and many of them regarded death by torture a comparative bargain when the alternative was to deny their Lord, their faith, and their freedom.
Such Christians understood that Caesar was their ruler, and that they could do little to change that reality. One thing they could do, however, was to refuse to recognize them as their master. That is the demand every State eventually makes of its subjects, and it was prefigured in the blasphemous coin used by Jesus in his parable.
Does this mean that it was a form of idolatry to use Caesar's coins -- that is, to participate in the imperial economic system at all? Jesus never said as much. But His parable, when understood in its historical context, clearly anticipated the time when the Roman State, which already demanded so much of the bodies of its subjects, would lay a proprietary claim on the souls of the Christians living under its jurisdiction as well. Every State, if permitted to, will eventually do the same.
Freedom, in its most elemental sense, is the power to withdraw one's consent when the State -- or anyone else -- lays an improper claim to one's life or property. For the Christians ruled by the Roman Empire, this meant defying terrestrial authorities by assembling in the catacombs to worship, by refusing to serve in the Empire's armies of conquest, and by refusing to worship emperors either living or dead. Thus for many of them, the only way to refuse consent was to choose the path of martyrdom.
Many early Christians who didn't suffer martyrdom understood that the State was the implacable enemy -- not only to them, but to God as well. As the brilliant libertarian philosopher George H. Smith (a professed atheist) observes in an essay published by the Acton Institute, many Fathers of the early Church, while not counseling revolution, treated the Roman State as entirely illegitimate because everything it did was backed by actual or threatened use of lethal violence.
Tertullian (born in Carthage, ironically, as the son of a Roman centurion) "argued that `all secular power and dignities are not merely alien from, but hostile to, God,'" recalls Dr. Smith. "Secular governments `owe their existences to the sword.' All institutions of the Roman government, even its charities, are based on brute force. This is contrary to the way of Christians, among whom `everything is voluntary.'"
How it might have been: Tribune Caius Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton, left) purchases a refractory Corinthian slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature, right). Marcellus and his slave are sent to Judea, where Demetrius becomes a follower of the Troublemaker whose crucifixion Marcellus is ordered to supervise. Eventually the slave leads his "master" to Christ; they become friends and brothers in the faith. Did it happen? Probably not, but it made a terrific movie.
What is the limit of Christian submission to a State of that description? According to Origen, explains Dr. Smith, the Christian must “`never consent to obey the laws of sin.' His first allegiance is to `the law of nature, that is, the law of God.' The Christian will submit to secular punishment rather than transgress a divine law."
Those sentiments read like a distant ancestor of the Declaration of Independence, which properly recognized the law -- God's "perfect law of liberty" -- rather than any terrestrial ruler, as the power to which all must submit. In a republic, the law is king, and all political leaders exercise their authority by the grace of the governed, with the understanding that it can be revoked at any time.
Taking up the sword against an evil-doer: Tribune Gallio, defying imperial "authority," defends a Christian enclave at Cana from an unlawful assault by troops he once led. Like I said, it's a pretty cool movie.
It was under this vision of republican liberty (however imperfectly realized) that Americans had the opportunity to be the first people ever to carry out the divine mandate to live as free men under God's law. That right was secured through righteous rebellion against un-Godly tyranny -- each man, empowered by God's law, taking up the sword against evil-doers in positions of supposed authority.
We've squandered that opportunity. Will God condescend to give us another? I don't presume to know. It is clear, however, that we've traveled a great distance down the same Roman thoroughfare to ruin, and that the Regime ruling us is ripening into the kind of Reich (that's just a fancy word for "empire," after all) that would claim jurisdiction over our souls.
Many Americans will readily pay that price, so far gone in materialism that they don't realize that a "soul" can be found in their personal inventory. Others will profess allegiance to Christ while acting as enablers and inquisitors for Caligula.
Some of us, if our country pursues its present course to its logical destination, may find ourselves caught in a predicament akin to that of Tribune Marcellus Gallio, as depicted in my second-favorite film, The Robe.
Like many other "bathrobe epics" of the 1950s, The Robe could be seen as a form of Christian midrash -- in this case, a story that could have happened, but probably didn't, that draws from situations described in the Bible. In the story Marcellus is the wastrel son of a senator who is a political opponent of Caligula before Little Boots ascends to the throne. Marcellus and his slave Demetrius are exiled to Judea; there the latter becomes a follower of the Galilean Troublemaker whom the former is assigned to execute.
Eventually Demetrius leads his master to Christ, and Marcellus finds himself on trial for high treason before Caligula, newly installed as Ceasar. Knowing that his words will convict him, Marcellus doesn't cavil at telling the unvarnished truth:
"If the Empire desires peace and justice and goodwill among all men, my King will be on the side of the Empire and her Emperor. If the Empire and the Emperor desire to pursue the slavery and slaughter that have brought agony and terror and despair to the world ... if there is then nothing further for men to hope for but chains and hunger at the hands of our Empire -- my King will march forward to right this wrong! Not tomorrow, sire -- Your Majesty may not be so fortunate as to witness the establishment of His kingdom -- but it will come!"
The verdict is as predictable as the course of a waterfall.
Caligula, who wants to make Marcellus submit even more than he wants to kill him, offers to commute the death sentence for high treason if Marcellus will renew his oath of loyalty and recant his allegiance to "this dead Jew who dared call Himself a king."
Marcellus has no trouble doing the first, reiterating his oath of loyalty and pointing out that he had never broken it. Pressed by Caligula to denounce Jesus, Marcellus stands unwavering before the Emperor and refuses:
"I cannot renounce him, Sire, nor can you. He is my king, and yours as well. He is the Son of God."
In the film Marcellus and his would-be wife Diana go to martyrdom, as have countless believers across the centuries. But they did this as an expression of freedom: They knew that they had been bought by a price, and chose not to be the slaves of a man claiming to be a god.
To those who don't believe, this may seem the most perfect foolishness. But those of us who believe must understand that our individual freedom may ultimately demand such a price. If we're not ultimately willing to pay it, what were we really celebrating today?
A quick housekeeping note:
Several of you have informed me that the PayPal button at The Right Source isn't working, and thus you've not been able to buy Liberty in Eclipse. We're working on the problem, and hope to have it fixed soon.
Dum spiro, pugno!