Render Unto Caesar

Let’s talk about paying seven dollars a gallon for gas. 

The topic is wearyingly ubiquitous these days, so one may as well succumb to pressure and lean in, hard.  And I don’t mean small-talk with the mailman or the dentist, either; I refer to the incessant chatter about the coming economic apocalypse, the sort of doomsday narrative currently popular among “right-wing” Christians and people who read too many dystopian novels. (Intertwined sociological categories into which I too would likely be pigeon-holed by any casual observer). The narrative fades along a broad spectrum from inevitable recession and stagflation, to purposeful destruction of the food supply chain and strategic starvation of target populations, to a diabolical Great Reset with Bill Gates or Klaus Schwab riding shotgun alongside Lucifer while a genetically modified mob hails them as god-emperors. 

Relax your irritable defensive posture for a moment, dear reader, because the truth or falsehood of these claims is not the topic under debate here. What I wish to draw attention to is the dichotomous and equally perplexing reactions to these claims by the church at large. The vast majority of Christians with whom I interact either dismiss  or fear these projected outcomes of economic bungling (or planned revolution)  in the present moment. Both reactions seem off-kilter. They both seem to “render unto Caesar” a lot more than he deserves. 

Let me explain. Let’s start with the more vulnerable target: the set of folks who are stockpiling survival rations and ammo, dismantling businesses, abandoning homes, and getting out of Dodge while running in circles with their hands in the air. I have personal acquaintances who assure me that the Holy Ghost Himself is commanding them to uproot all local ties – including those in their church fellowship, obviously – and to flee for the hills of a (marginally) less insane state. I have no academic interest in revoking California’s “Miss City of Destruction 2022” beauty-pageant title; what I want to know is why the gloomy prophets of the dark web are the authorities to whom Christians turn for guidance. Let’s apply logic: either these doomsday predictions are true, in which case running away will not actually work ( isn’t that a bit like fleeing for high ground when Noah foretells The Flood?), or they are false, in which case abrupt migration is like a ship running before a hysterical and very human wind. 

Didn’t somebody once say, “Acquit yourselves like MEN”? Oh yeah – that was the Apostle Paul. ( I Corinthians 16:13)  Let’s propose hypothetically that the Cassandras of the internet do not cry in vain. Caesar – in his guise as the fickle god of prosperity and security, Economics writ large  — is therefore coming to crush us all. To run is to admit that Caesar is the thing you most fear. In fact, he’s so fearful that his actions, or threatened actions, can blow away your vocation, your friendships, and your duty to others like so much dust. Run, Christians, run to Utah and Idaho and wherever else you think you can hide from the fearful lords of Mammon. That’s a pretty far cry from the virile tone of “were they to take our house/ Goods, honor, child, or spouse/ Though life is wrenched away, they cannot win the day.” (Good ol’ hymn 657) 

On the other hand, there are the folks who scoff at such bleak forecasts of economic ruin. The system will right itself, the chatter on the net is all panicked conspiracy theory, we will weather the storm and rebuild stronger, or something like that. Our grandparents survived one Depression, we can survive another.  This too seems to pay undue honor to Caesar: the Caesar who represents the status quo, the weight of habit and history, and above all the assurance we derive from our own craftily engineered retirement plans, bulwarks against our existential poverty. The scoffers and skeptics rely on this more conservative, stodgy Caesar to save them from the threat of social and economic ruin. This god to whom they have sacrificed so much – percents of their income into 401Ks, their children’s happiness into high-pressure secular schooling to yield competitive college degrees to yield six digit incomes and mortgages – this god simply cannot  fail them without breaking some hearts. And so the structures of security and prosperity must stand. The alternative is unthinkable. Hail, Caesar. Hail, Caesar. 

So what should we do? Probably exactly what the Lord told us to do: render unto Caesar the things that are his. So cough up that seven bucks at the pump. Tighten your belt, because food will probably be scarcer this winter.  Cast your ballot, in case that still means anything. Clean the toilet and pay the bills; we are still citizens of this arthritic worldly kingdom. But also render unto God the things that are His. Stand your ground, rather than fleeing for the hills. If the economy collapses, the elderly and weak in our churches will need love and help. The children will still need to be taught. Hope in God’s promises will still need to be preached. Above all, we should not burn the incense of fear and trust to Caesar. It is quite possible – in the sense of historically feasible –  that both American industry  and polity could die in one fell stroke. The Church has withstood the collapse of older and greater civilizations. What cannot happen, what must not happen, is that our hearts die the death alongside it, thinking that our salvation or doom depends upon it. After all, in the words of the hymn, “the Kingdom’s ours forever.”