Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bullet, Ballot, Cross: Would Jesus Vote?


Jesus once said, in response to a question concerning loyalties, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Or in another translation: “Render unto the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And perhaps we should consider: “Render unto the President the things that are the President’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Or, render unto George Bush the things that are George Bush’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Today we will consider the question of whether or not rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto George Bush, rendering unto the emperor and rendering unto the President, have similar meanings. And just what it is we should be rendering to ruler and to deity.

In order to consider this question I wish to put aside speculation concerning what Jesus knew and didn’t know; speculation concerning what Jesus could do and could not do—in other words put aside the question of the divinity of Jesus—and place Jesus instead in the context of his time, the politics and the economics, to consider if the actions of Jesus can help us reach some conclusions concerning ways moral people may act in their own time and place, embedded as we human beings always are in politics and economics.
We can’t know from historical research what Jesus THOUGHT, but we can know what people around him, listening to him, HEARD.

What belongs to the President?
What belongs to the deity?
What is of the material world?
What is of the spiritual world?
What are our obligations to each?

These are not simple questions. . . and they never have been. . .

One: Picture a world….

Picture a world in which all the important economic, political, and artistic work goes on in a language other than your own, a language other than the native tongue of the region. If you wished to participate in that world, you would have to learn a foreign language. That was the world of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic. The business of his world went on in Greek (not Latin, as is sometimes popularly thought).

Picture a world in which your religion is tolerated but denigrated by the politicians. The Roman occupiers of Palestine found Judaism a fascinating, but fanatical, religion. Unlike most of the conquered peoples on the Roman world, who accepted the Roman gods into their local pantheons, there were things that Jews would not do; things Jews would not say; even things Jews would not eat, and many Jews were willing to die rather than offend their religious sensibilities. Thus the Romans found Jews fascinating but fanatical. Interesting but dangerous.

One of the major sticking points for Jews was that Romans declared their emperors gods and required subject peoples to pay the emperors homage. Most Jews said no. In the years of the occupation, some Roman emperors overlooked or excused this behavior, some did not. And so the cycle of relative peace and open rebellion circled and circled during the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that, around the time of the birth of Jesus and just up the road from where Jesus grew up, the Romans crucified 2000 Jews in one day. . . Crucifixion was a horrendous and highly public form of capital punishment designed to keep the occupied population scared. It took days to die and the bodies were left hanging to decompose.

Picture a world in which the Roman occupiers and the Jewish elite were highly skeptical people; people for whom the news of an exorcist and healer in the backcountry villages would have raised alarm, not because they believed in miracles but because such reports indicated to them that the poor peasants were getting restive again.

Were Jesus alive today, and in the political position he was when he lived, Jesus would not be a US citizen or an Israeli citizen or a citizen of the European Union. He would be a poor kid in a small country occupied by a world power; he would be a person whose actions, should they come to the attention of local authorities, would likely get him killed. Perhaps the best analogy today would have Jesus living in a small village in Iraq. At least it’s something to think about . . .

Picture a world in which political options are few, but much resemble the political options we have today: acceptance of the political hierarchy; violent resistance to it; or spiritual resistance to it.

Picture a world in which people are divided into slaves, day laborers, small farmers, and artisans. Above those are merchants, tax collectors, and priests, all people cooperating with the occupiers. Then, there are the occupiers themselves. . .

Picture a village of two hundred people, no paved streets, no public buildings, no walls against marauding bandits; a village so small it is not often mentioned at all (Crossan). Everyone in the village is poor. There was NO upward social mobility in Palestine during time of Jesus. If you were born poor, you probably died poorer. There was no working hard and sending your kids to college to improve the family social standing.

Picture a world in which hunger was ever-present, the people malnourished. Skeletons from the time of Jesus indicate extreme vitamin deficiencies and, due to hard work and malnutrition, nearly everyone suffered from arthritis. Few people lived to the age of fifty. Most, like Jesus, died in their thirties.

The Greek word often translated “carpenter” is tekton, more correctly translated “woodworker” (Meier). Houses in that region and time had very little in the way of wood in their construction. Doors and roof beams, mostly. A woodworker of the time would most likely have been engaged in making furniture and making yokes for oxen. There is disagreement among scholars concerning just where on the social scale a woodworker fit. Some argue that Jesus would have made a meager living fixing things for local villagers and farmers; some argue that Jesus would have traveled to do skilled labor and would therefore have been better off than the average villager. The evidence appears to me to indicate that, were Jesus alive today, he would be a handyman, trying to keep worn out things working for a little longer.

Yet, even if Jesus was better off than the average peasant, according to the gospel record he gave up all financial security when he began preaching. . .

One of the oddities of the New Testament is that there is no mention of a major city, Sepphoris, which was only an hour’s walk from Nazareth, the place where Jesus grew up. Sepphoris was a large city under the influence of Greek culture. A city with education, wealth, and Greek arts. Jesus chose to ignore this city and preach instead in small agricultural villages.

And while we’re on the subject of preaching, we should look at the fact that Jesus was a layperson, not a priest. In the society in which Jesus lived, priests exercised both political and religious power. Jesus did not have that power.

Two: Would Jesus vote?

Fact is that Jesus was executed for political crimes. He was considered an insurgent. The act that got him executed was his attack on the Temple. We must remember a central, all-important fact: there was NO separation of church and state in the minds of human beings at the time Jesus lived. The temple in Jerusalem was the central religious AND political fact in the life of Jews in Roman Palestine. When Jesus says that we should “render unto Caesar,” he is not talking about a separation of church and state. The concept did not exist.

The Temple in Jerusalem was, besides the Roman army, the largest employer in Palestine. The temple complex covered thirty-three acres (Hendricks) and included a Roman garrison. Remember that at trial Jesus was accused of predicting the destruction of the temple—a bit like predicting the destruction of the Capital Building, White House, Supreme Court, Federal Reserve, and National Cathedral all rolled into one.

It is important to note, then, that Jesus DID take direct political action when he attacked the money changers in the Temple. What this means in the context of moral action, however, is a difficult question. The problem of the intentions of Jesus boils down to this: what did he mean when he talked about “the Kingdom of God”? This is no small question, and it has vexed Christian thinking from the beginning.

One of the things we have to remember is that when Jesus spoke of rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s, Caesar was in utter control of the material world. As a matter of fact, in the ancient way of thinking (and sometimes it’s not so ancient), Caesar’s god—Jupiter and the Roman pantheon—had soundly beaten the God of the Jews. As I mentioned earlier, the Caesars themselves had been declared gods and were to be worshiped. Thus the Kingdom of God, whatever Jesus meant by it, didn’t appear too likely.

HOWEVER, in only a bit more than three hundred years after the death of Jesus, Caesar had become a Christian and Christianity had become the law of the land. So “rendering unto Caesar” had taken on rather of a different meaning by that time, a meaning that still colors our thinking today, and that has been part of the confusion ever since. Fact is, Christianity has been the power behind the throne and ON the throne of a good many nations for two thousand years now, and continues to be today in places such as the United States. But, again, the question is: Was that sort of seizure of political power what Jesus had in mind by the coming of the “Kingdom of God”?

Evidence suggests that is wasn’t. The most obvious indication of that occurs in what is now known as “The Lord’s Prayer”: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Clearly the point of the prayer is that God’s will be done on earth. Which leaves us with two questions: What is God’s will for the earth? And How did Jesus think that will would come to the earth?

Let’s consider the second question first: How would God’s will come to the earth? There are, I think, three options here: either Jesus meant the coming of the Christian Roman Empire; or he was wrong about the coming of the Kingdom of God; or he envisioned a Kingdom which did indeed come.

Now, the Roman Empire has come and gone, so we have to assume the first option isn’t of much value to us. The second option, that Jesus was wrong, isn’t of much value either. So we’re left with the third option: Jesus considered that a Kingdom of God would not look like a Kingdom of Caesar. Which leads us back to the first question: given that the Kingdom of Caesar, or the Republic of George W. Bush, are neither one the Kingdom of God envisioned by Jesus, what WOULD such a thing look like?

What kind of candidate would Jesus vote for?

Though the vision of Jesus for the Kingdom of God is not precisely clear, we do have a vision of what a just life is like in the much-quoted Matthew chapter 25. In versus 31-46 the Jesus of Matthew speaks of the judgment to come and the rewards to come in the afterlife. Since this passage bridges the gap between human action on the earth and reward in the afterlife, it covers all the bases we are considering here:

"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'

And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'
Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?'
Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Though we hear a lot from many Christian churches that we must be saved, we seldom hear how it is we are supposed to go about doing that, beyond the “personal savior” mantra which is not biblical. Notice that, in this rendition, there is no discussion of an inner life nor of an outwardly pious moral life. This is salvation through social action: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; welcoming strangers; clothing the naked; visiting the sick and the imprisoned.

This is a vision we can sink our teeth into. This tells us how Jesus would be acting and how he would be voting. We have in our nation and in our world the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the naked and sick and imprisoned. These are things we can deal with; things we can vote on; things we can fix. And we have those other guidelines we heard earlier, commonly known as the “the Beatitudes.” These are things we can do.


Would Jesus vote, and, if so, for what? We do have some clues.

Jesus lived his life as most human beings through time have lived their lives: under the domination of a repressive government designed to enrich the rich and to tax and subjugate the poor. The choices Jesus had were to obey the system or fight the system. Jesus was executed for fighting the system. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know what he had in mind, but I choose to believe he wanted good rather than ill for humanity—here, on this earth.

Jesus never got the chance to vote. His attempts to bring the spiritual world into the material get the attention of powerful people. And his vision of a better world led to his execution. We, however, DO have the privilege of the vote; and we have the responsibility that goes with that privilege. We also have the examples of other women and men who have passed through this world, most of whom did not have our privileges, but who fought for justice anyway.

What should we render unto Caesar or George W Bush? What should we render unto the sacred and holy? Where is the line between the material and the spiritual worlds?

Good questions.

Whatever it was Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, we have the opportunity to nourish, to welcome, to clothe, to heal, and to free our fellow human beings.

These are not small tasks; they are, however, I believe, our call and our duty—in our lives, in our voting, in our churches. . . until it is on earth as it is in heaven.

So may it be.


John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001.

Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. New York: Doubleday, 2006.

John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. One. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Trolley Problems

“Trolley Problems: Where is my Neighbor?” (Sermon for Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Sunday)

A reading from Aesop, “The Lion and the Boar”

ON A SUMMER DAY, when the great heat induced a general thirst among the beasts, a Lion and a Boar came at the same moment to a small well to drink. They fiercely disputed which of them should drink first, and were soon engaged in the agonies of a mortal combat.

When they stopped suddenly to catch their breath for a more fierce renewal of the fight, they saw some Vultures waiting in the distance to feast on the one that should fall first.

They at once made up their quarrel, saying, "It is better for us to make friends, than to become the food of Crows or Vultures."


A trolley is out of control, running down a track. On the track ahead are five people, tied to the track by a mad psychologist. Thank goodness, you are standing by a switch. If you flip the switch, the trolley will change tracks, saving the five people. Unfortunately, the mad psychologist has tied a single person to that track. Should you flip the switch?

Those of you who keep up with developments in psychology or ethics know that this scenario is called “The Trolley Problem.” The Trolley Problem presents us with a simple ethical dilemma: Are we willing to become personally involved in the deliberate killing of another human being in order to save five human beings, or are we more likely to choose inaction, choosing to blame the mad psychologist for tying people to the trolley tracks to begin with? The problems go on: Would you be willing to PUSH a person onto the tracks to stop the trolley? And imagine this: you are walking down the hall of a hospital. You know of five people who need organ transplants to survive. And there, walking toward you, is a perfectly healthy person with fine organs. Do you kill that person in order to harvest the organs?

Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser has been working with variations of the trolley problem with various human populations around the globe and in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Hauser proposes that human beings have a genetic, hard-wired sense of moral decency. A sense of moral decency developed not by culture or religion but by evolution itself. Hauser’s thesis greatly upsets the conventionally religious; but I believe it argues for hope, not despair, at the future for humanity. Human beings have innate, hardwired, ethical understand. And I my humble opinion it takes bad religion to mess that up.

It takes bad religion to convince innately moral young people to blow themselves and others up. It takes bad religion to convince innately moral herders that it’s OK to exterminate farmers in Darfur.

It took bad religion to makes us during the Cold War hate “godless Communists” so much that we built a nuclear arsenal that could destroy the planet. . .over a disagreement concerning economics!

It takes a hateful, tribal god to circumvent the innate moral sense of humanity.

Human beings have posed the sorts of morality scenarios presented by the Trolley Problem for a long time. Probably the most famous moral scenario occurs in Christian scripture, the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 verses 25-37, to be specific. For those who don’t know your Christian all that well, this is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the set-up to this parable Jesus has been talking with an expert on Jewish law who has just agreed with him that central to the law is the command “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The law expert responds by asking who his neighbor is. Jesus responds with this parable:

A man is robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road half dead. Two members of the priestly class pass him by, not helping because of ritual purity concerns (another case of bad religion!). A Samaritan, who practiced a form of Judaism not acceptable to the legal expert, helped the man. Jesus asks the expert a simple question: "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replies, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus responds by saying, "Go and do likewise."

The reading this morning, Aesop fable of the lion and the boar, is an example of enlightened self interest—agreement will avoid the vultures. The parable of the Good Samaritan and the Trolley Problem pose to us larger questions of empathy and altruism and community:

Who is my neighbor?
Where is my community?
What are we to do in the face of human suffering?
Who am I willing to throw under the trolley. . . or the bus. . .and for what purpose?

Today we celebrate the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a group that offers a radical vision of just who our neighbors are...


Allow me three examples:

The genocide in Darfur is the first of what will become a pattern in the face of global climate change. Traditionally nomadic tribes have been forced, by drought and desertification, into lands owned by people different from themselves in culture and tradition. Since the genocide began in 2003, 400,000 human beings have died and 2.5 million have been displaced.

The government of Sudan is complicit in these killings. Sudan has oil reserves, but seventy percent of the oil revenues go to fund the military. Roughly one million people remain on the land, but those numbers drop by approximately 100,000 every month. The main source of sustenance for the refugees in Sudan and neighboring Chad are non-governmental organizations such as the UUSC, which are increasingly coming under attack (

Are the people of Darfur our neighbors?

The UUSC has also been involved in New Orleans, USA. The UUSC reports that,

Forty percent of the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina are tenants. Since the storm, rents have doubled and apartment buildings, even those undamaged by the storm, remain off limits. Ninety-six percent of funds for government housing aid go to homeowners (

Undocumented workers are cleaning and rebuilding New Orleans. Yet, often, when it comes time to pay them, rumors of immigration sweeps send them into hiding. And so they don’t get paid ( .

After all these months and years, only thirteen of twenty six hospitals are open in New Orleans. Only eighty three of two hundred seventy six public schools are open. Public transportation is at fifty percent of pre-Katrina capacity. (

Last year there were three full-time therapists in New Orleans. Now there are twenty two. For a traumatized population of 600,000 people.

Are the people of New Orleans our neighbors?


Here’s one closer to home, one the UUSC is not involved in but that we here should be.

If you own an older home, have you read your property deed lately? Allow me to read some samples:

"The parties… agree each with the others that no part of the lands owned by them shall ever be used or occupied by or sold, conveyed, leased, rented or given to Negroes or any person of Negro blood."

"No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic race…"

"No property or building shall be owned or occupied by the colored race, except such buildings as may be constructed by the owners and residents of the property, for the use of their servants."

"No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property, or any building thereon, except domestic servant or servants may be actually and in good faith employed by white occupants of said premises."

"No person of other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or lot except as servants domesticated with any owner or tenant."

"A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood."

Fortunately, sisters and brothers, thanks to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, all the words I just read are now illegal. Unfortunately, we still live in the shadow of those words. Yes, those were the bad old days, but. . .

Barak Obama, in his recent speech on race, wisely quoted William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

Who are our neighbors? Who are NOT our neighbors? And why?

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

"Rabbi, the one who had mercy on him."

"Go and do likewise."

The Talmud tells of a gentile who approached the rabbi Hillel, who lived a generation before Jesus, and said: "Convert me but teach me the entire Torah as I stand on one foot." Hillel said, "That which you hate, don't do to others. That is the entire Torah. The rest is only commentary. Go and learn it!”

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee helps us learn that lesson.

Martha Sharp and her husband the Reverend Waitstill Sharp helped found the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War. On their first trip to Europe they beat the Nazis to Prague, Czechoslovakia by one month, where they helped Europe’s growing refugee population. For that, they got on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List.

Undeterred by that distinction, they went to occupied France, where they helped hundreds of people escape. Martha Sharp was particularly adept at distracting Nazi attention as people crossed borders with falsified documents. Reverend and Mrs. Sharp are two of only three US citizens to be designated “Righteous Among Nations” for saving human beings from the Nazi Holocaust.

Who were the neighbors of Reverend and Mrs. Sharp?
Apparently they had to go to Nazi-occupied Europe to find their neighbors.
It is a proud tradition.

Who are our neighbors?

Service and community. As many of you know the flaming chalice, symbol of Unitarian Universalism, originated as a symbol used by the Unitarian Service Committee. The original chalice was drawn by an Austrian refugee, Hans Deutsch, a man in mortal danger for drawing un-flattering cartoons of Adolf Hitler.

It is a noble tradition. On this Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Sunday, we honor that tradition. And we dedicate ourselves to that tradition.

Sisters and Brothers, we live in a world in which the population of Darfur is being exterminated.

We live in a nation in which the city of New Orleans has lost eighty percent of its African-American population (

We live in a community which is ninety percent Euro-American (

We live in a nation in which one in ten people live in poverty. We live in a nation in which one in seven people have no health insurance.

We live in a world in which seventy-one per cent of women live in poverty, half of those on less than two dollars a day.

Who are our neighbors?
Who are our sisters and brothers?

One last trolley problem. Say you’re driving down the road. You’ve just bought a new car with white leather seats. And there, by the side of the road, is a girl who has wrecked her bicycle. She will bleed on your brand new seats. Will you spend the money to have them cleaned in order to take the girl to the hospital and save her life?

Let’s say a girl is dying in Darfur. Or New Orleans. You will never see her but you know that a check to UUSC will save her life. Do you write the check?

What would we have done to us?
How do we wish to be treated?
With privilege comes responsibility.

Join UUSC.
Roll up your sleeves.
Help your neighbor.
Expand your neighborhood until it includes everyone.

So may it be.

Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.

Saturday, April 5, 2008