In modern parlance, Jesus lived in an occupied territory under the dictatorial rule of a foreign power the Roman Empire. He did not enjoy the rights of Roman citizenship and definitely had inferior status. Freedom of religious practice was circumscribed by the Roman authorities and often denied entirely.
Under the circumstances, its interesting to hear his thinking on what we would call church and state relationships. When questioned about the legitimacy of submitting to Roman taxation and this in a land seething with plans for revolt he said:
Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
St. Peter, who, like Jesus, was executed by the Roman authorities, taught:
Be subject to every human institution for the Lords sake, whether it be to the king as supreme or to governors as sent by him, for the punishment of evildoers and the approval of those who do good.
St. Paul, who also was executed by the Roman authorities even though he was a citizen, wrote to the Christians who lived in the shadow of Caesar:
Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.
In May, while in Iraq with Cardinal Silvestrini, these texts were dancing through my head. The cardinal challenged the Iraqi hierarchy with this word of the Lord, stressing the obligation not only to repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar but also to repay to God what belongs to God.
What a fine line must be trod by Christians in this and many other countries today: Too subservient the autonomy and the prophetic witness of the church is lost. Too disobedient to the state freedom of religion is gone, institutions confiscated and the faithful persecuted.
Standing outside a situation, it may seem easy to decide what course of action is best. But, ah, when yours is the responsibility, how hard it is.
If the head offends, the whole family may suffer. What does a patriarch, responsible for his church, do? If a member offends, the whole family may suffer. How prudent should be the fledgling prophet?
When Jesus stood before the authority of Rome, threatened with crucifixion, when the question became a matter of his life or death, he boldly asserted:
For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
The ultimate priority is to repay to God what belongs to God. May our oppressed brothers and sisters have this courage! May you and I as well!
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA