How Politicians and Messiahs Avoid Giving Straight Answers

The Columbia Journalism Review includes an article about the techniques politicians, spin doctors, corporate spokespeople and the like learn to use in order to avoid answering questions posed to them by the press and the public.

This got me to thinking about one of the most famous spin lessons of history:

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle [Jesus] in talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not?”

But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why tempt ye me, hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money.” And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?”

They say unto him, “Cæsar’s.” Then saith he unto them, “Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Matthew 22:15–22

Pretty slick. Close your eyes and imagine Donald Rumsfeld playing Jesus (“If you’re asking whether we ought to give things up to their proper owners, give Cæsar his property, and of course relinquish to God all that which belongs to God, and so forth, well I’d have to say of course we should. Next question.”).

For the Pharisees and Herodians, taxes were a wedge issue. If he says “yeah, go ahead and pay your taxes” he’s a collaborator with the Roman occupation, like the Herodians, and this will blunt his rising popularity. If he says “don’t give ’em one thin dime,” he’s a threat to the empire and can be turned over to Rome to be eliminated. (In fact, when he was delivered to Pilate before his execution, one of the charges against him was encouraging tax resistance: “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar, saying that he himself is Christ a King” — Luke 23:2)

So his dodge is pretty slick. He manages to say “yes” and “no” at the same time. He explicitly says give to Cæsar the things that belong to him, which pleases the collaborators who believe that the tax money does belong to Cæsar. But then he adds that we should give to God that which belongs to God — which to the pious Pharisees is a clear vote against taxpaying, since there’s no question that nothing really belongs to Cæsar that doesn’t in a larger sense belong to God. Both groups can walk away feeling like Jesus has endorsed their viewpoint — which is clever, if not particularly bold, on Jesus’s part. Classic political spin, really.

And the counterpoint to public figures trying not to say anything too controversial is their opponents trying to twist their quotes and take them out of context. So I shouldn’t be surprised when I hear Christians justifying tax-paying by saying “after all, the Lord said ‘Render unto Cæsar…’ ” (Which is a little like justifying the bombing of Baghdad by saying “after all, the Lord said ‘Do unto others…’ ”)

The War Tax Resistance movement in the United States is packed with Christians (and it could be argued that the movement owes its origins and its survival to people who were motivated by their Christian faith) — so don’t take my criticism the wrong way. But you don’t have to look too hard to find Matthew 22 being explained as though Jesus weren’t being clever at all, but was merely siding with the Herodians and explaining that good Christians should cough up their taxes to Cæsar without complaint.

I think I would be making a mistake of the same sort if I said that Jesus was instead advocating tax resistance. It sounds to me like he was saying something yet more radical, along the lines of “see this coin, with its graven image of the ‘divine’ emperor? If you’re carrying these around in your pocket, you should decide for yourself if they’re things of God or things of Cæsar, and be prepared to give them away to one or the other.” Which seems to be more in line with the rest of the messages he’s preaching in Matthew — many of which encourage his followers to renounce worldly treasures in pursuit of heavenly rewards.