Christopher Columbus, Jesus & Solentiname
By Marie Campbell
“The emperor no longer exists. But there’s imperialism. Imperialism, then as now, has always been united with the money god. To give what belongs to God is to bring about revolution.”
Every Tuesday at Scarritt Bennett, we join together in Wightman Chapel for a short chapel service called Tuesdays in the Chapel, also known as “sabbath break.” The day after the national celebration of Columbus Day, October 14, I delivered a sermon. I chose Matthew 22:15-22 as my text. I hope you’ll see why.
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” Matthew 22:15-22
In the wake of yesterday’s federal holiday – Columbus Day – a day where occupiers of the United States light-heartedly celebrate the invasion, genocide, and subsequent occupation of the Americas and indigenous peoples by European colonizers, I want to take a bit of a journey into what life was like for another occupied space: first-century Palestine, where Jesus’ people suffered under direct foreign domination for most of the eight centuries prior to the his birth and throughout his life, a reality that weighs heavily on the meaning of the text at hand. Without this context, we will be unable to make easy sense of Jesus’ strange words.
Throughout its history, the Promised Land was successively overrun by many empires in brutal military invasions: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Syrians, and eventually the Romans. About 150 years before the birth of Jesus, the Maccabean revolt led to the establishment of Israel as a sovereign nation on its own land. It began as a small guerrilla skirmish; soon much of the country was in armed rebellion against its Syrian overlords. In less than 25 years, the Maccabeans had successfully driven the Syrian army out of the land and assumed full and total control of its governance, the first sovereign Jewish state in over four centuries. This lasted only until the Romans conquered the land, under General Pompey, about 50 years before the birth of Jesus. In this period, the classical period, the Roman Empire was the most extensive Western empire – until the early modern period.
In Jesus’ day, the emperor of Rome was Tiberius, who succeeded the first Roman emperor – Caesar Augustus with whom the Roman Empire begins. The Roman emperor was often paid homage as a divine being, the “savior” of the human race. These divine men were thought to bring deliverance from the evils that threatened the well-being of the state. As emperor, Tiberius was the ultimate ruler who wielded virtually supreme, unilateral power.
As a conquered people, Jews in Palestine were required to pay taxes to the empire. Since the Roman economy was agrarian, taxation involved payment of crops and of monies to fund the armies and infrastructure provided by Rome. Providing financial support for a foreign oppressor sometimes meant that a Jewish farmer might pay up to a third of his overall income in taxes. For many of the Jewish peasantry, this did not go over well. From what we can tell, resistance to Roman power appears to have been widespread, but it wasn’t always active or violent. They sometimes protested in silence. One of my favorite examples of silent protest is the week long Passover festival in Jerusalem. Jews celebrating the Passover were not simply remembering their past, when God acted on their behalf to save them from their subjugation to the Egyptians; they were also looking to the future, when God would save them again, this time from their present overlords – the Romans. Roman officials appear to have understood full well the potentially subversive nature of the celebration. The Roman governor typically brought armed troops in just for the occasion. So – the Passover feast represented a silent protest against Roman presence in the Promised Land. On occasion the event led to violent resistance and death. As a rule, Romans worked hard at keeping the situation under control before they led to massive uprisings or public riots. Remember that Jesus was arrested and removed from the public eye during Passover
Along with silent protests, they sometimes engaged, when necessary, in acts of nonviolent resistance; and sometimes they became caught up in spontaneous rioting, provoked by the insensitive treatment from Roman rulers and soldiers. In all the cases that we know of, the Romans effectively and ruthlessly destroyed those who preached or practiced violence against them. One violent insurrection, some 40 years after the death of Jesus, resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple (Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament, 2008).
This history – understanding the oppression of Palestinian Jews under Roman imperial rule – helps us read the meaning of Jesus’ words. So, to the text:Jesus is approached by the Pharisees and the Herodians, Jesus’ opponents and collaborators with the Romans. They ask him: IS IT LAWFUL TO PAY TAXES TO THE EMPEROR?
It was a trick! A set up. Since census taxes were demanded by the Romans and despised by the Israelites, the trap was to force Jesus to make a statement that was either treasonous to Rome or offensive to Israelites.
Jesus says: SHOW ME THE COIN USED FOR THE TAX.
AND THEY BROUGHT HIM A DENARIUS.
He says: WHOSE HEAD IS THIS, AND WHOSE TITLE?
THE EMPEROR’S, THEY SAID.
Jesus says: THEN GIVE TO THE EMPEROR THE THINGS THAT ARE THE EMPEROR’S, AND TO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S.
By asking for the coin, Jesus lets the coin answer the question. Because the coin makes a claim, you see. A denarius represented a laborer’s daily wage. On it is an image of the emperor’s head and it reads, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.” It asserts the emperor’s divinity and proclaims Tiberius as the mediator of the emerging Roman state religion. In effect, Caesar was God and all things belonged to him. The coin utters blasphemy, from the perspective of Jewish monotheism.
And so Jesus, sly as a fox, amazed them with his answer – an answer seemingly ambiguous and loyal enough to satisfy the lovers of Empire. But those who were listening, the Jesus-followers, knew better.
One way that we can think about what Jesus is doing here is to think of it as code-switching. Code switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation. When most people refer to code-switching, they refer to situations where bilingual folks use both languages in a single sentence – the alternating use of both languages. In many ways, code-switching is a way of expressing bi-cultural identity: that one belongs to at least two different worlds, speaking two different languages. I think Jesus is code-switching here, but in a slightly different way. In a single sentence, he switches between the language of EMPIRE and the language of REVOLUTION. Only those who are bi-lingual could hear what Jesus was actually saying. For the lovers of Empire, those who do not know the language of revolution, Jesus’ answer supported the state – yes, pay your taxes – a simple enough sounding nod to the power, legitimacy, and authority of the State.But the political implications of the next phrase are profound: And to God, give the things that are God’s.
Jesus is taking a huge jab at the emperor here. He’s saying that not all things belong to the Emperor, which I’m sure would come as a big surprise to him. And, he’s saying that the Emperor and God are not one in the same. At that time the emperor was God and the emperor was all-powerful. But Jesus says: there is another power, a power not subject to the rule of Empire. Jesus is offering two understandings of power: the corrupt, exploitative power of Empire and the liberating power of love, which is God.
Under the guise of submission, then, Jesus retains his dignity in the face of a corrupt State and speaks a revolutionary word. Throughout the gospels, we here the decree: SHE WHO HAS EARS TO HEAR (the deeper meaning), LET HER HEAR.For those with bi-lingual capacities – the oppressed with hearts of subversion – those who could speak both the language of EMPIRE and the language of REVOLUTION, they could truly hear. They heard: The Emperor is not God, give the Emperor whatever will subdue him, but give to God your loyalty, give your life to the one whose power is not corrupt and does not exploit… whose power is love and is greater than the power of the emperor whose only love is the love of money.
Code-switching, Jesus… a subtle subversive. Calculating and cunning, he speaks a prophetic word and betrays the Empire, revealing it for the fraudulant power that it is, and proclaims hope, the possibility of another world, without the lovers of Empire being any the wiser.
RESISTING EMPIRE & MILITARISM, TODAY
In the early modern period, we’ve seen the rise of colonial empires: European landings in the so-called New World, the colonization of the Americas.And both empire and militarism continue as the spread of exploitive markets and military occupation under the guise of the expansion of democracy and freedom. So, what can our resistance look like today?
For insights on this, I turn to Nicaragua, to a book called The Gospel of Solentiname, compiled by Reverend Father Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan Catholic priest, poet and politician. After being ordained as a Catholic priest in 1965, Cardenal went to the Solentiname Islands where he founded a Christian, almost monastic, mainly peasant community, which eventually led to the founding of the artists’ colony. It was there that the famous book The Gospel of Solentiname was written. The book is a collection of commentary on the Gospels given by the people of the Solentiname community. Each Sunday, they gathered to reflect together on the gospel reading – from the perspective of the oppressed and poor – and their reading of the gospels became well-known in liberation theology as radical.
Another piece of history informs their reading of the gospels: like Jesus’ people, Nicaraguan peasants knew about military occupation and corrupt regimes. Like the history of Palestinian occupation that Jesus’ people experienced, indigenous peoples of Nicaragua knew about colonization. In 1502, Christopher Columbus was the first European known to have reached what is now Nicaragua. The first Spanish permanent settlements were founded in 1524. Nicaragua finally became an independent republic in 1838 only to experience several military dictatorships, many of which were backed by the United States government and military. The military of one such dictatorship, Somoza’s National Guard, was trained at US Army School of the Americas in the 1970s (a U.S. Department of Defense Institute in Georgia that provides military training to government personnel of Latin American counties).
During the Nicaraguan Revolution, Cardenal collaborated closely with the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, in working to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. Many members of the Solentiname community engaged the process of the Revolution, in the guerrilla warfare that the FSLN had developed to strike at the regime. 1977 was a crucial year to Cardenal’s community since Somoza’s National Guard, as a result from an attack to the headquarters stationed in the city of San Carlos, a few miles from the community, raided Solentiname and burned it to the ground.The Gospel of Solentiname was banned by the Somoza dictatorship.
With this context in mind, here’s what the Solentiname community had to say about the Matthew passage we are focused on today:
“It seems to me that he adds the business about God, counterpositioning it to the first, and in opposition to it. The business about the duty is a question of detail; they had to admit that they were a colony of the empire, but they had to attack the imperialist system when they gave to God what is God’s, because God means liberation.”
“The emperor no longer exists… But there’s imperialism. Imperialism, then as now, has always been united with the money god. To give what belongs to God is to bring about revolution.”
To resist colonizing power: Give to Caesar what is Caesars… but to the one whose power is love… give everything.
If, in the context of imperial power, Jesus, a Palestinian peasant, identifies with Nicaraguan peasants, the occupied, the oppressed – in the shadow of yesterday’s celebration of Christopher Columbus—whose people are we? Who or what is our Caesar?
SHE WHO HAS EARS TO HEAR (the deeper meaning), LET HER HEAR.
If Jesus spoke in our midst – who among us could hear him? Who among us could speak the language of REVOLUTION beholden as we are to the language of empire?
Marie Campbell is currently Assistant Director of Education, Programs, & Connections at Scarritt-Bennett Center. In her current position, Marie coordinates the Belle H. Bennett House, a 10-month fellowship program for young women discerning vocation at the intersection of radical social justice and spirituality. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a B.A. in Sociology from Belmont University. Marie is passionate about environmental justice, liberatory education, and bold, intersectional feminism.