With my questions, of course I am referencing Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem prior to San Francisco 49ers’ football games. As the quarterback has explained to NFL Media,
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. . . . To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
As an ordained Baptist minister, I applaud Kaepernick’s decision not to look the other way when minority Americans are suffering from police killings which are going unpunished and from other types of systemic abuse. His decision has also raised these Jesus questions in my mind. The answer, at least in part, to the Jesus questions turns on my understanding of who Jesus was. It also turns on my understanding of what the Roman Empire was. My overall conclusion is that Jesus, in the tradition of the Prophets, was at odds with the Roman Empire. His religious commitment could not be separated from his political and economic commitments – drawing a distinction between the Caesar who dealt in death for minorities within the Empire and God who dealt in life for them.
The Jesus questions raised by Kaepernick are rhetorical and the answers hypothetical. They also are anachronistic making it impossible to draw true parallels. For example, Niners’ coach, Chip Kelly, noted Kaepernick’s rights as a citizen of the United States. Kelly told reporters afterwards that Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the national anthem was “his right as a citizen”.
Jesus, by contrast, had no such right. He was not a citizen of the Roman Empire. He was not a Roman. He was a Jew and as such part of a religio licita, a permitted religion.
Jews, as were members of other ancient religions within the Empire, were allowed to exist as a people as long as they agreed to the Empire’s terms.
The primary expectation of the Empire was that Jews not be subversive and that they not offend the Emperor, the Roman people, or the Roman gods. The Temple, by the same token, was expected to maintain order among the Jews and, to some extent, aid in protecting Rome’s national security state from them.
When I posed the question recently of whether Jesus would have saluted the flag or stood for the national anthem, a number of people referenced Jesus having said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”. Does that not indicate that Jesus acknowledged separate realms over which Caesar was due commitment while God was due commitment in another realm? Does that not indicate that he would have saluted and would have stood?
This is what I think. Jesus said what he did in response to a question posed to him by some Pharisees and followers of Herod: “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Asking them to bring him a denarius, Jesus responded by asking them, “whose face and whose title is on the coin?” The obvious answer is that they were Caesar’s. Then he remarked, in what I understand to have been a double entendre: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are Gods.” By which I think He meant, “Of course it is not lawful! Mosaic code prohibits it! We do not owe taxes to Caesar! To pay them is blasphemy!”
The interpretations of that saying hinge, I think, on whether we believe Jesus to have been apolitical or whether we can acknowledge that there was no apolitical Jesus, no apolitical Galilee, no apolitical Rome.
For him, as for others of his day, there was no separation of religion, economics, and politics. Jesus’s mission involved preaching the reality that the Kingdom of God was dramatically different from the Empire of Rome.
Two stories vividly illustrate the degree to which Jewish leaders and Roman leaders understood this. Some 15-20 years before Jesus’s birth, Herod the Great demanded that all Jews swear an oath of loyalty to Caesar and to Herod as Caesar’s stand-in among the Jews. The Pharisees “over 6,000 in number, refused to take the oath”, according to Josephus, the ancient historian. I think these Pharisees, Jesus’s forebears, may well have understood Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the national anthem.
Even more dramatic was a singular act of Jewish rebellion and bravery. Herod had a giant golden eagle, a symbol of Rome, erected at the great gate to the Temple. It was a humiliating reminder that Judea and God were subject to Rome and Rome’s gods. While Herod lay dying, two of the most learned and gifted Jewish scholars encouraged some of their students to cut down the eagle in order “to avenge God’s honor”, as Josephus wrote it. Herod ordered the teachers and their students be burned alive. These acts of Jewish resistance were only a few of both ad hoc and organized acts and rebellions which formed much of Jesus’s thoroughly political religious heritage.
Jesus was subversive. One of the few things about which the Gospels agree is that Jesus’s disruption in the Temple was what led to his arrest, trial, and execution by crucifixion, a punishment reserved for non-citizens and used to intimidate marginalized peoples.
In his book, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Richard A. Horsley, writes that crucifixion was a punishment used to intimidate “provincial rebels”, often thought of by Romans as “thieves and bandits”. The Bible tells us that Jesus’s executioners, acting for the Empire, understood him to have been a rebel leader, thus mocked him as “King of the Jews” in several languages.
Jesus, to my mind, saw Rome and Caesar for what they were: dealers of humiliation, poverty, and death especially for Jews and others at the the margins. They demanded complete obedience and the forfeiture of complete obedience to God.
Would Jesus have saluted the flag? Would he have stood for the national anthem? Hard to say as the context is significantly but not completely different. Rome was an empire which dealt in death. The United States is an empire which deals in death. The penalty for challenging Caesar’s empire was dramatically different from the penalty for challenging the American empire. But, I think Jesus would have wholeheartedly approved Colin Kaepernick’s decisions not to be cowed and not to turn away from the realities of what America is for far too many people.