Render to Caesar

Bishop Philip North, who was our guest preacher here on All Saints Day three years ago, recently addressed the New Wine conference for charismatic christians, in which he made reference to the Grenfell Tower which he said ‘stands as a charred and ruined symbol of the desperate inequality that blights so many lives. It was destroyed by a façade constructed so that the wealthy residents of north Kensington would not have to face the reality that they were living adjacent to the social housing of their cleaners and carers and waiters and tax-drivers.'  Those who died were ‘victims of rapacious under-investment, of corporate greed, of inept and corrupt local government, of a materialist culture that values human life only in so far that it is economically expedient to do so.

Bishop Philip does not hold back.  Some might say that a bishop should not make such political statements. ‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ is often quoted by politicians if ever church leaders say something they do not like. The quotation has been used to try to silence the church. Politics and religion should not mix, they would say. This famously came to a head with the Faith in the City report, when the Thatcher government reacted angrily to criticism, by the church of government policies which made life worse for  poorer members of society.

The command of Jesus to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s directly addresses the question posed by the Pharisees, of whether the Jewish people should pay taxes to Rome (Matthew 22.15-22). They are not interested in a debate on the interplay of religion and government, they are seeking to ensnare Jesus with this tricky question. They think they have him: if he says they shouldn’t pay the taxes they will denounce him to Rome as a rebel. If he says they should they will condemn him as a collaborator and lose the support of the zealots fighting against the occupying power. So Jesus answers their question with a question himself, whose portrait is on the coin? he calls them hypocrites because they already have the coin with the human image of Casar forbidden by the Jewish rleigion. 

Politics and religion are inevitably tied up together and the church must speak the truth to power. The prophetic voice of the church does not resound like it used to, which makes Bishop Philip speaking out for the poor all the more newsworthy. This week we have heard of the problems with Universal Credit, and how people are expected to wait 6 weeks for a payment. How would we manage for 6 weeks without income or savings? It is most likely that this one benefit change will damage people’s mental health, when such services have been cut back, lead to a rise in thefts when our police services have been cut back, and a rise in evictions when housing support has also been cut back by local authorities.

Should church leaders express an opinion on such political matters? When it comes to matters of welfare, I think they should. There is a tension between maintaining relationships and speaking out for any Christian. We might be frightened of rocking the boat, of upsetting people. But the Jesus we follow didn’t just grumble with indignation, he didn’t pass by the money-changers and tut. He turned them out of the temple, for turning his father’s house into a den of thieves. He also said 'Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world, he said, but a sword.'

There are so many problems that we need to sort out but which are going to get worse, because they will not receive the attention they require given the time-consuming nature of Brexit-negotiations. Given the demise of local journalism, local bodies in our increasingly faceless society are less and less accountable, and we may well end up with more tragedies like Grenfell Tower before we realise how bad things have got.

In some ways we are entering into a pre-Victorian period. For years the church has been nudged out of social welfare provision as the state has done more. But if you look at this town, it is Churches Together who created  the Food Bank, the Debt Centre, and is now behind the Night Shelter project. That the church’s work is now welcomed, shows how bad things have got. We have to be involved, the church has to be a service-provider, and stir the consciences of those with influence and power.  

Bishop Philip stresses the need to serve generously and proclaim boldly. 'If all we do is proclaim and ignore the hard realities of people’s lives, if all we offer is Jesus the living bread when people need real bread to put in their stomachs, no one will listen. We are hypocrites and the Gospel we speak is empty.'

When Jesus began his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, he said, 'the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor'. Yes, we must render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but when Caesar can’t cope, the church needs to act.