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Hello, Caesar

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Give the king Your judgments, O God.
For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help. The afflicted also, and him who has no helper. He will have compassion on the poor and needy, And the lives of the needy he will save. He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, And their blood will be precious in his sight.
Psalm 72:1, 12-14, a psalm of David (NASB)

One sister in Christ asked recently, “How do I (a white person) repent of shooting someone when I didn’t do the shooting?” We were having a fresh discussion about racial injustice, stemming from the murder of George Floyd. I confess that I, too, recoil from taking on myself guilt for crimes of white authorities, simply because I am white, when I wasn’t involved.

But I also find myself nodding in assent to a statement by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his 2015 book Between the World And Me, reflecting on the death of a classmate, Prince Carmen Jones:

Prince was not killed by a single officer as much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth. I’m grappling with a shift in mindset, from the radical affiliation of “me and Jesus” to the recognition that I’ve never been an island, and even if I turn my back on the workings of the political system, popping in briefly to mail an absentee ballot after an hour of cursory examination of what might be the “issues” involved, the world is going on with my implicit concurrence and approval. I can’t evade my responsibility for what is the shape of the criminal justice system.

Mr. Coates is having what I’m calling a “Hello Caesar” moment.

By “Hello, Caesar,” I’m thinking of biblical times, and the impact that Roman emperors, Caesars, had on Roman society. I’m also thinking of Jesus’ statement, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NASB). The proximate issue for Jesus was whether Jews should pay taxes. Jesus seemed to say, pay taxes, but make sure you’re concerning yourself most with God. That seemed largely to free me from concern for Caesar’s work of governance, since I’m just a little person anyway, as long as I’m focused on God’s stuff, whatever I and the church define that to be.

Since George Floyd’s death, I’m questioning the way I’ve distanced myself from governance in the U.S. I’ve found myself looking in the mirror and saying, “Hello, Caesar.” I am a citizen of the United States of America. I have the right to vote. I’m unobstructed in exercising my right to vote (not true for all). I can even run for president! This is not first-century Rome, with one absolute ruler. This is a democracy. We are collectively, if not individually, Caesar.

Maybe distancing myself from governance was exactly the wrong thing to be doing. I choose presidents, governors, judges, school boards, mayors, legislators, and prosecutors. Those people enact laws and administer policies. Those laws and policies have effects on people who matter just as I do. Police actions, charges, plea bargains, prison sentences, and solitary confinement are all effects of policies and laws, and the responsibility for all that comes back to Caesar. That is, to me.

This was in my mind when Pastor Mark asked us to ponder our rights and consider what it means to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Beyond compassion, or loving my neighbor, suppose I have a responsibility to right wrongs I have a share in perpetuating. I might have to give up my right to mind my own business and give serious attention to the responsibility of governance.

Hello, Caesar. Today is a new day, and the Lord’s mercies are new. How will you spend the day?

I’ll keep reading the book One Blood by John Perkins (founder of Voice of Calvary), his manifesto on reconciliation. I’ll pray for God’s kingdom to come, and that He’ll give me strength to “rule” as in Psalm 72—rescuing lives from oppression and violence. I’ll write that check in support of a candidate. I’ll take the hamburger out of the freezer and choose a recipe that uses cornmeal, carrots, squash and cauliflower. I’ll write to my state Senator, thanking her for championing voting rights for prisoners and urging her to again take up the matter of parole in the next session. It’s all in a day’s work.

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