Sunday, March 23, 2008

Reflections on Resurrection Sunday: We're Commanded To Be Free


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!


Anonymous said...

Pretty brief, but today is Easter after all. Not a day to be spent spearing leviathan I suppose.

It did bring to mind a conversation had recently with my youngest son around 'president's day' when he proclaimed 'Lincoln was the greatest president because he freed the slaves.' He didn't understand when I had to tell him that Lincoln was probably the worst president and enslaved us all . . .

Peace to you all today whether believer's or just plain old heathen's like myself.

William N. Grigg said...

Peace to you as well, Anon. As it happens, this was published by mistake -- I'm still composing today's entry! I decided to let the captioned photo serve as a placeholder until the essay is finished.

Thanks for your indulgence.

BTW, my youngest son, Jefferson Leonidas, recently shocked the grandparents by voicing the opinion that Lincoln was the worst president. We're raising a large brood of paleo-libertarian political heretics, it seems.

Anonymous said...

A nit-pick, Sir. Did not Rome take a half millennium to destroy her currency?

Anonymous said...

Amen, Mr. Grigg. Freedom does not spring from the barrel of a gun, nor is freedom voted into office. It comes about only by instructing minds. With 5 kids, you're way ahead of the average power-mongers who keep their eyes on an earthly prize. God bless you.

-Sans Authoritas

Anonymous said...

What a timely piece. I have been wrestling with this issue for the last five years. Often I feel my view towards the state make me a stranger even within the body of Christ. There seems to be, within the church, a very docile and compliant view towards the power and mandates placed on us by the State and I find it to be very frustrating. It can at times lead to doubts about one's convictions. However your insight on how Christ deliberatly did not answer the question - regarding what we are to render- instead leaving it up to each individual's conscience. This helps to lend clarity to the issue and to quell self doubts about ones convictions. Despite this I sure wish this issue could be expounded upon even further. This article would make for a great Bible study for any church.
God Bless,

Anonymous said...

Our covenant children are stamped with God's image, not Caesar's, and must be rendered to God, not Caesar, which means that our children must be given a Christian education, not rendered to Caesar for six hours a day.

P.S. Mr Grigg, we like accidental postings as well as the deliberate kind.

William N. Grigg said...

Anonymous @8:13 -- thanks so much! Your comments about government "education" are particularly welcome and timely in light of recent judicial abomination in California.

Stuart, I really appreciate your generous remarks as well. I've been grappling with the "Render unto Caesar" question since ... well, the first time I heard that passage, I suppose, and I'm still trying to understand it.

Sans Authoritas -- My five wonderful children thank you for reminding me to keep things in the right perspective. God bless you, as well!

Broken -- I appreciate you help in cleaning up some of my habitual untidiness.

Bryan said...

Concerning Christ's "Render unto Caesar..." quote, the coin's inscription attributing a divine nature to Caesar would also be troublesome to those who paid the temple tax in Denari, as that would mean defiling the temple with the graven image of an Idol.

Unknown said...

A very good article. I once was conversing with a younger cousin of mine, and made the comment that George Bush is the worst president since Abraham Lincoln. Got him all shook up! :) Keep up the good work. May our Lord bless you and yours!

James Niemela

Anonymous said...

The Robe is one of my favorite movies. The book, though, by Lloyd C. Douglas of the same name, is much better. I highly recommend reading it.

I'm currently reading Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. It's an interesting book, though I haven't gotten much further than the economic issues of the time period and the "Tariff of Abominations".

Anonymous said...

All the money in the world is not worth your soul.

Anonymous said...

Not to disparage your very well written piece, but I feel obliged to object to the inference that only Christians are capable of apprehending and living in liberty.

While not a Christian neither am I an atheist, but I suspect even atheists are capable of realizing that our rights are inherent to our humanity and not bestowed by the state in any of its incarnations.

As has been said, we must all hang together, or we will assuredly hang sperately.

Anonymous said...

When comparing ourselves to Biblical times, we might also consider releases of prisoners. Historical accounts say that incoming rulers often proclaimed mass commutations of sentences. After the trial of Jesus, Pontius Pilate released the obviously guilty Barabbas, in a gesture which apparently was common.

Today that's all changed. Yesterday Fox News (of all sources) featured the story of a non-violent drug prisoner in Nebraska whose child is dying, and who has completed most of his sentence. Despite provisions for furlough under extraordinary circumstances, his request has been denied.

In the rare cases when clemency is granted anymore, it is sometimes purchased with bribes, as in Bill Clinton's infamous last-day pardons. The extraordinary level of imprisonment in the U.S. indicates a system in which the quality of mercy is missing. Eliminating the discretion of judges with mandatory minimum sentences helped produce this result.

Newly-inaugurated Gov. Paterson of New York has confessed to using cocaine years ago. What distinguishes him from legions of Rockefeller Drug Law prisoners? Only that he didn't get caught.

I'm going to write to Governor Paterson, urging that he exercise his gubernatorial authority to grant pardons and commutations. By this means, he can do good, and clear his conscience of the burden of hypocrisy.

zach said...

One thing is clear- if the state commands we do evil, Christians disobey. I'm reminded of the story of the mid-wives, who, when Pharaoh commanded them to kill all the jewish male babies, disobeyed. The Bible says God blessed them for that. An argument that I find convincing in this case, is the argument from other kinds of governemnts: self,family,and church governments that are established by God. To me, it's morally intuitive that when the civil government comes to destroy the other governments, we should attempt to destroy that civil authority as it is no longer acting within its bounds. This led even the nearly pacific Luther, who was willing to be executed for the sake of the Gospel, to declare to the German people when the government came to kill them, that there was a distinction between rebellion and self-defense:"...when the murderers and bloodhounds wish to wage war and murder, it is in truth no insurrection to rise against them and defend oneself….Likewise, I do not want to leave the conscience of the people burdened by the concern and worry that their self-defense might be rebellious…. …self-defense against the blood-hounds cannot be rebellious."

Anonymous said...

Owing to the spirit of your blog essay with its spiritual and existential focus on Christian liberty, I believe the message of the NT book of Philemon would be apropos in this context as well; for Paul was not merely satisfied with Onesimus' spiritual freedom in Messiah Y'shua, but also displayed great concern with Onesimus' 'earthly' freedom in his appeal to Philemon, the slavemaster who "owned" Onesimus, for Onesimus' release from existential bondage as well.

The day of Sabbath, the seventh day, did not change, but something -rather Someone- greater than the Sabbath came. And this is why we Christians worship on the first day, Resurrection Sunday.

Happy Resurrection Day!

Anonymous said...

Jesus Christ is Lord! Gods sabbath has never been abolished nor commanded by Christ to be abolished! Simon the Sorceror started up the pagan Christian mystery harlot religion which splintered off from the dark Vatican into the smaller daughters of Babylon, Sunday worshippers. Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath, Saturday only!! When man did it his way it invited trouble(garden of Eden), just as man is inventing his own Sabbath day, very very wicked. Scripture states Satan deceives the WHOLE world, wow, and he does. He deceives us when we leave the Narrow Road. Isaiah 66:22 tells of the true Sabbath lasting forever. Also Jesus states that hopefully( in the end times) you dont have to flee on the Sabbath(Saturday!!). I know all this may be shocking to some, but remember it is harding to Unlearn a lie, then to receive it(strongholds). Next time you use the evil world Easter in regards to our Lords resurrection, check it out the meaning in Websters and you will cringe and also see that our pagan Christian culture is defiled and corrupted by the enemy!! God Bless and may the Elect be no more deceived, Sean N. of Washington.

Anonymous said...

Every day is Resurrection Day.
Colossians 2:16-17

Moreover, as you recount, "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." To be precise, it is Roman money not Roman "currency" and the American Empire can degenerate faster because the blazed path has been recorded on Roman paper, metal, and stone. It is the path of legal tender.

As can be seen in this photo, , in the time of Jesus the shekel had a graven image on it, just like the Roman coin. Shekel was originally, before the time of Kings, a unit of weight, like dollar in America, before the Legal Tender cases. Originally, shekel mints merely certified weight, like the USA mint. But now the money of the USA bears graven images of dead Presidents, after the style of the Roman and all other empire.

Money is, in a secular summary view, valuation on the command of the Emperor. And thus, by substitution, it can be expressed that the love of the command of the Emperor is the root of all evil.

A man cannot serve two Masters.