"Religious Freedom" and Serving Two Masters

John, when asked by the tax collectors who were repentant, "what should we do?", did not demand that they stop doing their job, which was understood to be unjust in its application. The prophet of justice who comes to prepare the way for Jesus told them instead to do what was demanded of them in their state jobs, as it was demanded of them, without adding their own injustices and injuries to it. To perform a duty to which they had religious cause to be personally morally opposed, with justice.

And Jesus, when faced with the question of resistance to these same imperially-levied taxes, did not agree with his questioners that the state had no right to its demands, nor did he allow that those demands should be obstructed by the people of God who were offended by them. Whose image, and whose inscription, are on the coin used to pay the tax? To whom are your debts payable?

Giving to God what God is due does not prevent you from giving to others what they are due—even if you should then be wary of taking on certain obligations. Count the costs—but pay what you owe! Recompense for a justly acquired debt may justly be demanded of you. The legal codes of scripture rightly believe that God is not a servant of injustice. They are more than willing to demand that you recompense others when you force them into unjust debts, and that you be compensated for unjust debt forced upon you—but a fair deal should be fairly kept.

Of course, we live in a democracy, however twisted at the hands of the powerful, and so it must be added to this that citizens of the state are themselves the state, just as members of the church are the church. The justice that could not be plausibly demanded of the Roman Empire—but which God has always demanded of God's people—can be encouraged upon the state as justice toward its members. The state can be encouraged to deal fairly—even as we more often encourage it to deal unfairly, to benefit us over against "them," on the notion that we deserve a "justice" others do not. We citizens are responsible for our state and its injustices, even if we shouldn't be so certain which they are.

We may opt out of duties and work about which we feel morally uncertain, or even absolutely morally certain. But the case for sabotaging the performance of those duties is not one I see as having any scriptural authority. Only if you are forced labor for your enemy (the master of a slave is not her friend in the best of circumstances, but it is presumed at the time that there can be more and less just approaches to enslavement) does scripture give you something to work with ... and even there, the Bible isn't your best resource, as history has shown. However, in the case of voluntary work for hire, the Bible has nothing good to say about being a disobedient employee. Your employer won't get off for being unjust, but neither will you; be just instead.

At best we are to be shrewd in our performance of even morally questionable duties, to the end of doing positive good to those with whom we deal. We are to be just toward others, in positively beneficial ways. (And if we do so, our unjust employers may even benefit from appearing to be beneficent as we are beneficent, and change their own ways towards ours.) We are not to judge, and certainly not to punish, for difference from our moral standards—as though God demands of all a single way of life to which there can be no legitimate dissent. That would be the message of Paul's opponents, and yet some among us speak it with an audacity even the ethinc Zealots did not share! For them, there was always going to be a world of difference; it could stay outside. But we are and will to remain the Empire.

As a citizen of the United States, when you work for the government—which does not and legally cannot share or promote your religion—you are obliged to serve a master that thinks otherwise than God does. (This is, for that matter, true even if you work for a religious employer who shares your opinions!) You are obliged, in your service to the state, to obediently carry out what it decided is just and not what you believe personally to be just or unjust. And this is voluntary service! You need not work for the state. Of course, as a private citizen you will also be held to the standards of the state as regards just conduct, and if you serve the general public in business you will be held to a standard of public service the state deems just and necessary.

That and oppression by the state are clearly different realities, however much privileged citizens might like to suggest otherwise in their desire to inflict personal opinions as binding public morality. An employee of the state who usurps the prerogatives of her employer to oppress others with whom she privately disagrees needs to look at whose image and inscription are on the money. A private business or non-profit corporation is faced with the same basic obligation. You work for the state. You work for one another. You do not work for yourselves alone. God isn't going to get you out of your fairly-entered responsibilities. And if you work for God, the problem doesn't get easier! God is a far less forgiving master when it comes to employees who usurp divine prerogatives. You are to be gracious as God is gracious, which is what it means to be just as God is just.


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