Saturday, October 18, 2014

Me and Caesar

So, one day last week I went down to the Arlington County Courthouse, raised my right hand, and solemnly swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Never mind that, with respect to the one “authority” vested in me by the commonwealth, the two documents appear to be in subtle disagreement if not downright sharp conflict, I am now an agent of the state, part and parcel of the reign of Caesar.
“Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar; render unto God that which belongs to God.”
So much of life gets lived out in the tension captured in that deceptively simple-sounding phrase.
For example – a timely one, to be sure – take the whole question of marriage. As the late Will Campbell put it,
What is a marriage license but a legal contract? And what does any legal contract promise and offer except the right to sue one another at another time and place before another of Caesar’s agents? Perhaps such contracts are socially necessary but what does that have to do with us?[1]
What does that have to do with the church, with the community of faith, Campbell wants to know.
Back in 2005, when I renounced the authority to sign marriage licenses for any couple so long as same-gender couples were denied the opportunity to marry, the decision received an outsized amount of media attention. One reporter asked the local presbytery executive what he made of my decision, and he answered quite simply, “we’re in the Jesus business, not the wedding business.”
It was a pretty good summation, and I hope we stay in the same business even when doing a few weddings on the side, because if comes down to it, I’m more interested in the reign of God than I am in upholding constitutions.

[1] Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Continuum, 1986) 213.

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