“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:15-22).
I had written about the parable of the Good Shepherd, and focusing on final preparations for my trip to Canada, when I saw the news here [in South Africa]. According to the report, President Zuma told Archbishop Desmond Tutu to keep out of politics. Church leaders, said the president, should pray for politicians, not criticize them or tell the public they would not vote for them! We could go back in history to many other times and places where presidents and emperors told priests to mind their own business, but welcomed with open arms those religious leaders, as Zuma and most world leaders do, who give them uncritical support.
My meditation on sheep and the Good Shepherd now seemed rather tame, and with the elections on the front page and in our minds, was immediately ditched. But I wondered nonetheless whether I could change direction and focus on the spat between the archbishop and the president when some if not all of us are sick and tired of all the electioneering rhetoric we have been subjected to in recent weeks. Would you not all like sheep, get up and leave the sheepfold for an early coffee break? Such thoughts went through my mind. But I could not resist changing tack when a biblical text often quoted but equally often misunderstood, came to mind. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
What rightly belongs to the emperor, or we could also say the president, and what belongs to God? It is a trick question and Jesus knows it, but many who quote his reply often miss the point and assume that he was telling his followers not to criticize the government. But he was actually saying that while we should pay our taxes to the government, everything belongs to God, even the president and the money we use to pay our taxes. We pay taxes not because we like or dislike the president, but because this is our God-given civic duty. So the president and government, as servants of God and the people, must use our taxes for the common good, and it is our God-given responsibility to hold them accountable.
Yes, of course we should not confuse the church and the state. There is the need to keep them separate especially in a democracy such as ours. But this does not mean you can separate Christianity and politics into two disconnected compartments as if they had nothing to do with each other. After all, politics is about our life together in society, the way we take care of our resources, pursue justice, look after the weak, the sick and the poor, engage in industry and labor, educate the young, relate to other nations. Politics is about people and the common good, about reconciliation and the restoration of justice. And all this is equally the concern of Christians and the church. Our responsibility to God as Christians is to be socially responsible. Neither we nor the archbishop can separate our faith from the way we vote or behave as citizens. For the archbishop not to speak truth to power about how what belongs to God should be used, would be a dereliction of his duty.
We didn’t have to be a prophets to forecast the results of this election. Even though the leaders of all parties claimed that they would be crowned king or queen, none of us believed them. Nor did they believe themselves, unless they are living in cloud cuckoo land. We could all safely forecast that Jacob Zuma would be elected president and that the ANC would form the government for the next five years even if not until Jesus comes again. In fact, after 1948 we could always predict that the National Party would win. So we are old hands at predicting with certainty. But the fact is, the NP did not rule until Jesus came and neither will the ANC or any other party. That is why the Psalmist says that God has a good laugh when he hears them making such claims. Let’s never forget that — even if rulers too often make them.
Let’s not forget that once upon a time Prime Ministers Verwoerd, Vorster and P.W. Botha wagged their fingers at church leaders, banned opponents, and incarcerated Nelson Mandela and at least one future archbishop on Robben Island. En kyk hoe lyk hulle nou! But let us also not forget to give thanks to God today that South Africa has come a long way since we were the pariah of the world and the vast majority of the population were oppressed in their own country. We can also give thanks that during the run up to the elections there was so much vigorous debate, that representatives of the parties could engage one another in frank discussion on TV, the radio, and in public gatherings, that we all have the right to have our say whether we speak sense or nonsense, and to place our cross where we choose whether we think it will make any difference or not. So we can be thankful that Tutu and others can speak their minds without fear of being arrested and sent to goal. And even when there was strong disagreement and sharp words spoken these past weeks, we can be thankful that there is such widespread and genuine concern across much of the political spectrum to find a way forward into a better future. And, now, we can also thank God that the election was remarkably peaceful, despite a few very isolated acts of violence and glitches. Not many new democracies can boast of five consecutive elections that have gone so smoothly. Yes, we have come a long way since 1994 and a very, very long way since 1910 and 1948.
But there is a longer way yet to go before we have full justice, reconciliation and peace in our land. And that is why we are not only called to pray for those in authority, or vote once every five years, but to be concerned and responsible citizens as Christians concerned about the common good. Our circumstances may be such that we cannot do too much to make a great difference, but none of us is beyond making some difference where we live and work. If we are going to give to God what belongs to God, then we have to do what we can to promote justice and reconciliation, resist corruption, show compassion and support those in our communities elected to govern, to do so well and make good use of our taxes. That is giving to God what God requires and therefore living in hope for a better future — and at least for the next five years, if Jesus hasn’t come by then.
John W. de Gruchy is emeritus professor of Christian studies at University of Cape Town and extraordinary professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus. He writes at anisa.org.za where this originally appeared.