Render Unto Caesar …
Curiously, one of the most frequently cited secular proverbs comes to us from the Gospel, and from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth himself: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s. Jesus believed in the right of a government to tax its people, in the rule of law, and in the separation of religion and state.
But what’s more: Jesus’ manner of death can be read as a narrative that indicts the adulterous relationship between religion and state that existed in ancient Judea … and one in which it’s the religious mobs who corrupt the state, and not the other way around. When the mobs were gathered insisting that the governor have Jesus executed for religious reasons, this is what the Bible says happened:
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” – Matthew 27:24
If Judea had enjoyed a strictly secular system of laws, and if the religious mobs had honored that secularism, Jesus–who was innocent of sedition–would not have had to die. There is absolutely no need whatsoever to attempt any further theological speculation beyond this.
Jesus Creates a(n Alternative) Family
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. – John 19:26-27
The anti-LGBT narrative that permeates much of conservative Christianity ignores key facts about Jesus of Nazareth–whether he was a real historical figure or a fictional character is besides the point. Jesus never married, and in fact advised his followers not to marry if possible, so it is absurd that anyone would insist that he is some kind of nuclear-family-values role model.
That he made of Mary and John an alternative family while hanging from the cross is, on the one hand, a symptom of how high a priority it was for Jesus to make sure that they would not be alone after he was gone. On the other hand, it was a flat denial of the doctrine that a family must be headed, or defined, by a heterosexual couple. It’s controversial to speculate whether Jesus and John were a couple, but we do know with certainty that John and Mary were not a sexual couple, and do not conform therefore to the expectations of a family that we find in heteronormative discourse.
What Jesus created from the cross was an alternative family by any and all definitions–and the purpose for which he created the only family that he ever created was to avoid their destitution and aloneness, not for procreation. The LGBT community’s struggles have produced an update to what we think of as family which, in light of this, is more in line with Jesus of Nazareth than the proposed family values of heteronormative orthodoxy.
It’s important that we read the Gospels critically, not with the credulity of the opiated mobs, much less with the agenda of Muslim apologists like Reza Aslan or the worship of agony and pain we see in Mel Gibson, Mother Theresa and their ilk. Some Atheists for Jesus find the naiveté of the JC Superstar hippies somewhat tempting, but that is also not the same as reading a text critically. Jefferson teaches us that there are, indeed, pearls of wisdom to be found amid the nonsense, and that it’s important to name both the wisdom and the nonsense. The wisdom tradition in the Gospels–like many others–is part of the legacy of all humanity.
While it is clear that the Gospels should not be the ultimate moral authority and source for morals for contemporary people, it’s also undeniable that the Gospels have had an important influence in Western civilization throughout the last fifteen centuries, at least. Many people who have abandoned traditional religion still feel that they have to, in some way, come to terms with their Christian legacy. Others fail to see any value in the Gospels. I’m hoping that this blog series, written through the lens of both Thomas Jefferson and of a modern Epicurean, has helped in some way in that regard, particularly in terms of bringing into relief the useful humanist teachings that can be found in the Gospels.