I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:1-4

It feels like there is a mounting pressure these days to pick a side. The dynamic many have seen acted out in countries around the world was highlighted this past week for those of us who live in the United States. Angry citizens flooded the US Capitol building because they believed that the recent presidential election should be overturned. In many of their eyes this was one more obvious sign that the country is falling to dangerous forces. Those on the other side perhaps see it as the desperate throes of those who have only ever known caste superiority, but feel it slipping away and are willing to fight to keep their historic advantages. That battle has been set.

The pressure to pick a side and clearly show whether you are a good person or an evil person in the estimation of those judging can be intense. Even as I was asked to write this article, I felt the burden of the response of picking a side in this battle. Will it be the right side or the left side? Which should we as Christians support? Does it not seem obvious at this point? But if we take a side, what of those among our fellowship that are on the other side? Should it be a matter of “goodbye and good riddance?” If we don’t take a side, is that cowardice which will send a strong signal to many that enough is enough, and they no longer have a place in our midst?

What is clear is that sitting on the fence is just not going to do it. We can’t sit on the fence. Which is it going to be? Whatever the choice, we can no longer afford for anyone to simply withdraw and refuse to pick a side. Were the people who took over the Capitol (or those who sympathized with their concerns if not their methods) wrong, or were they right?

It comes down to matters of identity and reflection. In other words, as followers of Jesus, what is our purpose in the world? Is there any way to know what Jesus might have us do in this and similar situations?

Pick a Side, Jesus

Jesus was faced with a similar challenge to pick a side in Matthew 22:15-22. First century Israel was a hotbed of political dissidence and passion. For those living there, the most pressing political argument of the day was whether Rome was a blessing to be grateful for, or a curse to be thrown off. On one extreme were those who believed that Rome was good at some level, or at least that there was no point in trying to fight their power. They accepted or even celebrated that Rome was a force for peace, stability, and prosperity in the world. Rome had not invaded Israel; they had been invited decades before. And God was using the emperor, albeit an imperfect man, to bring such blessing and to further God’s agenda.

On the other extreme were the Zealots who believed that Rome was another example of the naked power of empire. They were God’s righteous people who were being oppressed and marginalized and they were not going to take it anymore. This evil must be done away with now. Anyone who supported Rome in any way, like the tax collectors, were a traitor to their people and pure evil.

So, imagine the challenge for Jesus to answer the loaded question, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” This question was designed to trap Jesus. It would force him out into the open. Pick a side, Jesus.

If he said “yes,” then he had endorsed the power of Rome. He would have turned his back on the oppressed in favor of economic prosperity, military protection, and comfortable stability. The might of empire would have won. Many would have seen that Jesus was no different than many other powerful people of the day and would have walked away disillusioned.

But if he said “no,” he would have stood up to the bully and called out their naked power. That would have shown him to be treasonous to Rome and subjected to all the risk that came with that. But he also would have been offering solutions that were no different than so many who were fed up and angry.

Presumably standing with Jesus at that moment were two of his disciples, Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. Can you imagine their responses to whatever Jesus might answer? Say “yes,” and you risk losing Simon. Say “no,” and you risk losing Matthew. But the time had come. Pick a side, Jesus.

A Shocking Response

It should not be that surprising that Jesus did not just say “yes.” It might be a little more surprising that he did not say “no” either.

Instead, he appealed to the ancient Jewish scriptural theme of God’s image ( Genesis 1:26-27 ). The ancient world believed that every divine being had image bearers. Divine beings were represented by these image bearers in the physical realm. That image reflected the nature, presence, and will of the god into the world so that people would know what the god was all about and could give them proper worship and honor. For most gods, this was a statue that would be placed in the temple or shrine of the area which they were believed to rule over. Genesis flips the script, though. The creator God does not need a shrine or temple, the whole cosmos is his temple. And his image bearers are human beings. We are to be the reflection of his nature, presence, will, and sacrificial love into the world.

So, what did Jesus mean when he requested a coin used to pay the tax and asked, “Whose image is this?” and said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”?

Before we get to that, I don’t believe that Jesus was worried at all that he would lose Simon or Matthew with whichever side he chose. I don’t believe that the gospel writers denote that Simon was a Zealot or Matthew was a tax collector to demonstrate their political leanings as disciples. They use those descriptors to show what these men used to believe before giving their allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom. And he had invested much time in teaching them that the kingdom had not arrived to show which side was right but to offer them a truly alternative way of living. He spent much time in his ministry exposing and critiquing the way of power and empire, even refusing to become emperor of the world when Satan tried to offer it to him ( Matthew 4:8-10 ) and when the people wanted to make him an earthly king ( John 6:15 ). The writers of the New Testament go to great lengths to depict Jesus as a rival to Caesar, and the kingdom as the true answer for the problems of the world (e.g. Luke 2:1-14).

But he also spent a great deal of time warning Israel against their prevailing desire to throw off the oppression of Rome (e.g. Luke 14:31-33). They wanted a Messiah who would lead them in a violent revolution against their oppressors. They had been subjugated and humiliated long enough and they knew that God takes the side of the marginalized, so surely, they would be in the right. But that path would end in national disaster and Jesus knew it. The rage and pain of the oppressed does not always make their responses effective or right.

If Caesar wanted that coin to be his image bearer into the world to reflect his nature; if he wanted to be reduced to power and purse, then let him. Give him the tax. This was not a matter of capitulation or reflecting Caesar as their lord. It was about submitting when possible and not usurping the role that governments play in God’s plan and not thinking that being kingdom people means to overthrow all other nations ( Romans 13:1-7 ). Above all, if they were going to be God’s kingdom people then they would not reflect, represent, or advocate for Caesar’s power or agenda in the world. That was not their role.

Give to God What is God’s

The real question was, “Whose image is imprinted on every human being?” The answer is so obvious that Jesus did not need to state it directly. We are made in God’s image. And God wants us to reflect his nature and purposes for the world in everything we do. Does oppression of others do that? Does violently throwing off that oppression do that? If he chose to side with the solutions of the world, how would anyone see the true kingdom of God?

Jesus refused to pick a side. Instead, he did something so much better. He gave the world what it needed: a true alternative. That is the power of the kingdom of God. It is neither empire nor zealot, neither left nor right. That does not mean that it is just a religion. The kingdom is not just a pious collection of doctrines that cause us to withdraw from the problems of the world and bury our heads in the sand until we get to heaven.

The kingdom is a true and very real alternative to the nations, empires, and solutions of the world. But we have been brainwashed into believing that only nations and only political power can make change and solve problems. I’m glad Jesus did not believe that. He knew that the kingdom of God, populated by image bearers, was what the world truly needed.

When we lose sight of that, we start to feel the pressure to take sides as though they are the only choices we have that will make a difference. Pick a side. But when we give in to that temptation, we lose the power of critique. The kingdom is designed to be an alternative, a prophetic community that speaks truth to all sides.

Jesus critiqued the power of Rome and empires that squashed some for the benefit of others. But he also critiqued the instinct of the oppressed to push power back in the face of the powerful. He showed them both a different way, a true alternative.

He wasn’t risking losing Simon or Matthew. They had given their full allegiance to his kingdom. They would continue to work out what it meant and looked like to embrace a kingdom that sacrifices for others; that stands up for justice for the marginalized but also loves the oppressor; that refuses to grasp for power and then wield it over others. They embraced a kingdom that would change the world through neither the means of empire nor zealot. And in so doing, they would unapologetically critique both sides while calling both to lay down their loyalties and join this radical new way.

I Am Confused

But I must admit, there is something here that confuses me greatly. Why are so many followers of Jesus today more willing to defend the ways of the world than critique them? A critique of the world does not mean we don’t love people, that we just want to be judgmental, or that we don’t care. It means we have a conviction that the kingdom of God is what the world needs. There cannot be a divided loyalty. Either God’s radical kingdom is the way people are supposed to live or it is not. Either we model that in everything we do, or we look like just like any of the options already available to the world.

Why do we not jump at opportunities to point out places where the systems of the world have failed? Why do we often seem more interested in defending our nation, our favored political party, or our preferred cause than we are in lovingly critiquing where they fall short of bearing God’s image, and seek to show them the kingdom? Why do we not leap at opportunities to show the failings or hypocrisies of both sides? What or who really is our Lord?

What we do not see in Matthew 22 is Matthew arguing about the Zealots’ foolishness and hypocrisy. He does not compare them with violent revolutions of the past while excusing Rome from such analysis. Nor do we see Simon denounce the power of empire as obviously opposed to God, but screaming about the Zealots’ righteousness. If they had pointed out critiques of one side or the other, they would have been justified. That can be a very legitimate role of the kingdom. But errors on one side does not automatically mean the other side is right, so we can then turn a blind eye and support that position. That seems to be the mistake so many of our brothers and sisters are making at the moment.

When we take sides and begin to reflect something other than kingdom solutions, we make it virtually impossible to show the reality of Jesus and his kingdom to those on the side we do not pick. Our concern must be to spread the message of the kingdom into as many hearts as possible rather than advance a political agenda. Have we forgotten that the gospel needs to be shared with all? Have we categorized some as an enemy and lost concern for them in the name of political policy?

Were those who stormed the US Capitol last week in the right? Absolutely not ( Romans 13:1-5). The movement is built on dangerous and unfounded conspiracies that many have become convinced are truth. I see nothing good, and certainly nothing godly, about it. But that doesn’t mean that by denouncing and critiquing that ideology I stand with the political left either. I remember well in 2011 when many on the political left didn’t like a budget-cutting policy from the Republican governor and stormed the state Capitol in Wisconsin, occupying it for weeks while being praised by leftists around the nation. There is plenty of hypocrisy going around and critique deserved for both political ideologies.

Brothers and sisters, your country is not the kingdom of God. Your political party is not the kingdom of God. If you fall into the mode of defending the rightness of a nation, political party, or ideology while lustily attacking the policies, failings, and hypocrisies of the other side, then you likely have failed to show the world a true alternative. Are those who stormed the Capitol building the great hope for the world? Are those who spent the summer protesting in the streets against racism the great hope for the world? Surely Jesus could have pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of the Zealots and the pro-empire folks. Instead, he believed that the kingdom was the answer and that he wanted both Zealots and tax collectors to be part of it. But throughout his ministry he also made clear where both of those sides fell far short of God’s glory.

This is Just a Start

I know that this does not answer every question. We still need to work out:

  • how the kingdom might address the danger of the myth of the innocence of our group while only seeing the evil of the other
  • how we can truly be an alternative to the world in practical ways
  • when and how to engage in the important issues of the world rather than just withdrawing
  • when and how to call out evil behavior and stand up for those in need
  • how to seek biblical justice in a world that is often bent on its own forms of justice
  • how to use the weapons of the kingdom rather than the weapons of the world
  • how we can destroy our witness as image bearers by giving our allegiance to other entities or people or believing that power is the only way to change things
  • how to avoid using power over others while still making a difference; or how to be a prophetic community of critique without becoming judgmental and just criticizing everyone else; and so much more.

I have tried to cast a vision for what all that might look like in my book, Escaping the Beast: Politics, Allegiance, and Kingdom, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

This is just a start. But figuring out the implications of giving to God what is God’s is a good place to start.