Project Canterbury

Religion and Politics

By Algernon Sidney Crapsey

New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905.

Chapter II. The Attitude of Jesus to the State

Seventy-three years after the death of Julius Caesar, fifteen years after the death of Octavianus Caesar, called Augustus, in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph; [S. John 1-46.] a carpenter of upper Galilee, laid aside the tools of His trade and went down to the crossings of the Jordan near Jericho; attracted by the preaching of a new and strange preacher, who was stirring up the people by his vigorous denunciations of the evils of his day, calling the people to repentance, and proclaiming the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God. [St. Matthew, chap. III.]

The departure of Jesus from Nazareth in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the world. With this departure Jesus began a public career, which, while it lasted only for about thirty-six months, was fraught with eternal consequences to the life of man on the earth. Jesus, as He turned His back on Nazareth and joined the crowd that was hurrying to hear John the Baptist, carried within Himself forces [31/32] that were to profoundly modify the social, the political, and the religious life of mankind. The acts and words of Jesus, which followed His departure from Nazareth, gave rise to a new and strange people, who, entering into the Roman Empire, gradually assimilated its better elements, and became in time the Roman Empire itself. Resting on the authority of Jesus, a new race of rulers rose up in the world, who, after centuries of conflict with the power of the Caesars, supplanted that power, seated themselves in the chair of the Caesars in the city of Rome, and from their seat in that city ruled a wider world with a more enduring dominion.

This effect of the life of Jesus upon the life of the world is the great mystery of history, and its mystery lies in its very simplicity. It is mysterious just as all beginnings of life are mysterious. The Christian world has been engaged for eighteen hundred years in trying to fully explain the mystery of Jesus, and is as far to day from any perfectly satisfactory explanation as it was at the beginning of the Christian era.

But the fact itself, like the birth of a child, is, if not the simplest, yet the commonest, thing in the world. The history of Jesus is the product of [32/33] historic causes. He was born in due time to meet a great opportunity. When Jesus left Nazareth to enter public life human society was ready for the greatest revolution in its history, and Jesus was the Man created for the purpose of inaugurating the movement that was to change the base of human life, making love instead of fear the motive of human action; resting all government upon persuasion and consent, rather than upon force, and so creating a new ideal for human endeavor. Human society was ready for this new civilization because the ancient civilization had done its work and was at the point of death. The reorganization of the Roman world by Julius Caesar had only arrested the progress; it had not cured the evils that were sapping the life of the Roman people. Augustus Caesar struggled in vain against the tendencies of the times. The lord of the world, who commanded all the armies of the Empire; who could waste a province or destroy a city; at whose word the greatest of the Romans had been put to death,--was not able to rule his own household, nor to regulate the passions of his own daughter. The failure of the imperial system and the corruption of Roman life manifested themselves most terribly in the imperial [33/34] family itself. A glance at the history of that family will reveal to us the moral condition of the Roman world better than a more general survey of the social life of the Empire. Julius Caesar was murdered by the leaders of the Republican or Oligarchical party in Rome in the fifty-third year of his age. Though three times married, he left no children. His appointed heir was his grandnephew Octavi-anus, who with consummate skill reestablished the Empire of his uncle in his own person, and reigned over the Roman world for more than fifty years. At the beginning of his career, when he was twenty-three years old, Octavianus married for purely political reasons a woman much older than himself. This woman was Scribonia, who had powerful connections in the Republican or Oligarchical party and who was chosen as his wife by the Caesar for the purpose of attaching that party to his own person, and so healing the divisions in the Roman state. Scribonia had been twice a widow, and had no hold upon the affections of her young husband. Within a year of his marriage Caesar Augustus fell violently in love with Livia, the beautiful young [34/35] wife of Claudius Nero. Caesar divorced his own wife, Scribonia, just as she gave birth to his daughter and only child, Julia. At his command, Claudius Nero divorced Livia, and then Augustus and Livia were married. At the time of her marriage Livia was the mother of one son, Tiberius Nero, who was afterwards adopted by Augustus, and succeeded to the Empire. This succession of divorces and marriages caused great scandal, even in the dissolute society of Rome. [After her marriage to Augustus, Livia gave birth to a son by her former husband. Augustus sent the child to his father, Claudius Nero.] But after this Augustus gave no further offense; his love for Livia ended only with his life, and she was his faithful wife for more than fifty years. But this marriage, if it brought happiness to Augustus, was the cause of far-reaching misery to his family. Scribonia, as the mother of Julia, could not be ignored. She was the head of a faction in the palace. Her daughter was married first to her cousin Marcellus, and, when he died, was given to the great friend and general of the Emperor, Vipsanius Agrippa, by whom Julia had three sons, Caius Julius Caesar, Lucius Julius Caesar, and [35/36] Agrippa Posthumus, the last so called because he was born after his father's death. Caius Julius Caesar and his brother Lucius were adopted by their grandfather, Augustus, and grew up under his eye. In them the Julian family seemed firmly established and the succession of the Empire secured for generations to come. But alas for the vanity of human hopes! These young princes died within eighteen months of each other, poisoned according to Roman gossip, by Livia, Caesar's wife, to make room for her own son. These deaths left, as the only descendant of Augustus, Agrippa Posthumus, who was an idiotic maniac, and was afterward murdered, it is supposed, at the command of his grandfather, at the time of the Emperor's death.

The last years of the Emperor Augustus were blighted by a sorrow even more terrible than the death of his grandsons. After the death of her husband, Agrippa, Julia, the daughter of Augustus, then in her twenty-eighth year, was given in marriage to the son of Livia. This son, Tiberius Nero, was a man of sullen disposition, whose life had been soured by his treatment by the Julian faction in the palace. As the son of Livia, he was hated by [36/37] Scribonia, the mother of Julia. During the lifetime of the young princes, Caius and Lucius, the heart of the Emperor was cold toward Tiberius, and the son of Livia passed a number of wretched years in voluntary exile. After the death of Agrippa he was called back to Rome to marry Julia. Tiberius hated this woman, who had been the cause of his lifelong unhappiness, and he hated her yet the more because of her glaring infidelities. Julia had long been known to everybody, except her father, as the most dissolute woman in Rome. She abandoned herself freely to every passing fancy, and there was hardly a young man of note in Rome who had not at some time been her lover. Her husband, disgusted at her levity, returned into voluntary exile at Rhodes. Her father, still thinking her a paragon of chastity, held her up to laughing Rome as a modern Lucretia. When her iniquities could no longer be concealed, the revelation of her evil life came upon Augustus as a stroke of lightning. He shut himself up in his house, bowed his gray head in agony, and would not speak a word. He did not, however, shield his guilty daughter. She was tried and condemned by the senate, and sent into exile, and spent the rest of her life in prison on a barren island in the sea.

[38] On the death of Augustus, Tiberius Nero, the son of his wife, Livia, ascended the throne. Tiberius at the time of his accession was a sour, disappointed man, despising the world over which he was called to rule. He left the government mostly in the hands of favorites, and lived for the greater part of his reign in seclusion, indulging, according to some, in the most shameless debaucheries, and, according to others, mourning austerely over the corruption of Rome. Suspicious of everyone, he caused many of the senators to be put to death, and his last years were the most wretched of his miserable existence. His death was hailed as a happy deliverance, and was hastened, it is said, by the act of his successor.

Now it was in the fifteenth year of this Tiberius Caesar that Jesus of Nazareth entered upon his mission as the Saviour of the world. He was perfectly acquainted with the state of the world. Nowhere was the Roman power more odious than in upper Gallilee. The representative of the imperial government in that region was Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist. The attitude of Jesus toward the Roman state was that of horror, [38/39] of undying hatred and contempt. It is true that the allusions to the Roman Empire are few and obscure in the written lives of Jesus. His conflict was not so much with the Roman state as it was with the Jewish religion of his day. But that Jesus was fully aware of the terrific evils of His time, both in church and state, is evident from the whole trend of His thought and action.

When Jesus became conscious of the fact that it was His mission to set up the Kingdom of God in the world He had to consider the relation of His Kingdom to the Empire of Rome, which was already in possession of the earth. It is impossible that Jesus should not have taken the Roman Empire into account. It was the one great fact of His day. He met its soldiers, its taxgatherers, its officials, at every turn. He saw crosses on every highway to which the power of Rome had nailed the children of his people. He saw men everywhere living in perpetual fear of that wretched, miserable, lonely man in Italy. Through Nazareth passed one of the highways from Rome to the east, and Jesus must have listened at the khan to many a dark story of lust and murder brought by the traveler from the imperial city. His whole soul rose in revolt against [39/40] this system of government founded upon force, protecting sensuality, rewarding the guilty, and destroying the innocent.

The state as it existed in the time of Jesus was not divine, but satanic. When the temptation came to Him to become another Caesar, and by the same method to take for His own the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, then He saw in that temptation to rule as Rome ruled by force and fear a rejection of God and the worship of Satan. And when, in the awful struggle in the wilderness, He put that temptation behind Him, He determined the nature of His own Kingdom; He prescribed His own attitude and the attitude of His followers toward the state then existing, and toward the state of all time. In this determination, made in the wilderness, to declare Himself the King of the Kingdom of God, the Master and Saviour of the world, and yet to do all this without shedding a drop of blood or destroying a blade of grass, Jesus entered upon a career which was sure to result, as it did, in His rejection by the Jews and in His crucifixion by the Romans. By the Jews the actual Jesus was looked upon as a traitor; by the Romans He was held to be a dangerous fanatic and madman; [40/41] and from the point of view of the contemporary Jew and Roman this estimation of Jesus was correct. The contemporary Jew shared with Jesus His undying hatred to the Roman power, but he did not hate it because it was power, but because it was Roman. What the Jew wanted was to seize that power for himself, to become himself the ruling nation, and to avenge upon the Roman the wrongs of the Jewish people. He wanted to break in pieces the nations like a potter's vessel, and to wash his footsteps in the blood of the ungodly. The Jewish conception of the Kingdom of God was the lordship of the Jew over the world, ruling with a rod of iron, leading the people captive, binding their Kings in chains, and their nobles with links of iron. Now to all this hope and expectation of the Jews Jesus was a traitor. He hated the Roman power, not because it was Roman, but because it was power. The whole system of the state as it existed in His day was, in the eyes of Jesus, evil and satanic. He had as His mission, not the curing of evils within the state, much less the mere transfer of the power of the state from the hand of the Roman to the hand of the Jew. The mission of Jesus, as He conceived it, was far more radical than this; it was not to [41/42] alleviate or to change, it was to destroy the state; to take man wholly out of its power, and so render it useless and unnecessary.

The teaching of Jesus undermined the very foundation of the state as it existed in the ancient world. The ancient doctrine taught that the state was divine; a holy Thing to be worshipped, sacred from the touch of man. Man existed for the state, not the state for man. Now Jesus asserted the sovereignty of man. He, the Son of Man, was greater than the Roman state or the Jewish synagogue. They could not judge Him, but He could judge them. In the estimation of Jesus, man, not the state, was the thing divine. Institutions are for man, not man for institutions. The state does not make man, but man makes the state. The state, instead of being a holy Thing, a divine creation, is a mere contrivance of man for temporary uses. Man was before the state, and will be after the state has perished. The state can be no better nor wiser than the men who make it and use it. At its best, it reflects human imperfection; at its worst, human depravity. In all ages the state has manifested, not the highest, but the lowest, aspects of human life. The student of history stands aghast [42/43] at the folly and wickedness of human government. The great criminals of the world have been too often the rulers of the people. The state is not from above, it is from beneath. It had its origin in fear. Men gathered together on the hills of Rome and built walls about them because they were afraid. If man had not been a savage he would have needed no walls. To-day the state has vast military armaments and costly war vessels because it is afraid. If man were not a barbarian, he would need no soldiers. Savage is afraid of savage, barbarian of barbarian, and so fear rules the world. But fear is a debasing passion. Fear engenders hate, and hate engenders fear; and these twin monsters, hate and fear, have been seated at the council board of the nations since ever the nations began to be.

It was the mission of Jesus to cast out the devils of fear and hate from the world. Men fear one another and hate one another, so they make war on one another. Jesus taught men to love one another and hope the best from one another. Man, in his childishness, dreads the unusual, and hates the stranger. In the ancient world every strange man was an enemy. The very words "stranger" and "enemy" were synonymous. The Jew called the [43/44] rest of the world Gentile by way of reproach, the Greek and the Roman feared and despised the outlying barbarian world; just as to-day the Chinaman cries foreign devil after every stranger, and the Anglo Saxon despises all other races,--especially if their skin is a little darker than his own. Now Jesus saw the folly of all this. He saw that man is not the natural enemy, but the natural friend, of man. He said: Ye have heard of old time, ye shall love your neighbors and hate the stranger. But I say unto you, love the stranger, and pray for them that make war on you that ye may be the sons of your Father which is in heaven. A military establishment was, in the eyes of Jesus, a most damnable expression of atheism. It was a denial of the Father, Whose love is over all His children. For fear Jesus substituted hope; for hate, love; for violence, gentleness; for force, persuasion. He carried the world from the physical to the moral basis. The weapons of his warfare were spiritual, not carnal, but were mighty to the breaking down of strongholds. The great distinctive doctrine of Jesus was,--resist not evil. There is no place for an army or a navy in human life as that life is manifested in the life and the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

[45] If Jesus had no use for an army or a navy, he had even less use for courts of law. The administration of so-called human justice, which is a principal function of the state, was, in the eyes of Jesus, little better than a travesty of divine justice and a woeful waste of time and strength. The only persons who really profit by the vast system which goes under the name of law are the lawyers; the men who make law a profession. The lawyers make the laws, and afterward the lawyers dispute as to the meaning of the laws, and then lawyers interpret the laws; and so the vicious circle goes round and round.

For the courts and the lawyers of His day Jesus had unconcealed hatred and contempt. He said to His followers: "Agree with thine adversary quickly whilst thou art in the way with him, lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee thou shalt by no means come out thence till thou have paid the last farthing,"--not the last farthing you owe, but the last farthing you have. [St. Matthew, v., 25, 26.] In olden times, as in modern, the law was an expensive luxury, with which [45/46] it was the part of wisdom for the ordinary man to have nothing to do. Not only did Jesus condemn the Roman system of jurisprudence, but his anger was kindled to the white heat by the whole legal system of the Jews. This system of robbery was the more hateful to Him because it was sanctimonius. "Woe unto you lawyers," he cried, "for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves will not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe unto you who devour widows' houses, and for pretence make long prayers."

The attitude of Jesus toward the law was the natural corollary of His attitude to that other institution created by the law,--private property. The state exists in a great degree to protect property rights, and for property rights Jesus had very little respect, because property itself was of little value in His eyes. He looked with pity on that eagerness with which men accumulate things. "A man's life," He said, "does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses." He said of the man whose barns were bursting, and who was planning to build new ones: "Thou fool! this night shall thy [46/47] soul be required of thee." Covetousness was, in His estimation, a crime against the soul. The Kingdom of heaven was a Kingdom of love, and joy, and peace, not gold and silver and precious stones. To prefer a piece of land or a piece of cloth to peace of mind was, in the opinion of Jesus, the extreme of foolishness. Does a man sue you at law for your cloak, let him have your coat also. You will be the gainer by doing this. You will retain that most necessary condition of human happiness,--serenity of soul. You can be happy without a cloak; you can be happy without a coat; but you cannot be happy without a quiet mind. In so far as men follow the teachings of Jesus, just so far do they render useless that vast machinery by which men attempt to administer what they call justice in the world.

Another feature of the state that roused the wrath of Jesus was the insolence and venality of the office-holding class. The young Nazarene was amazed as he saw men running after and bowing down to their rulers in church and state. These officeholders were using the people for their own advantage, gaining glory for themselves by killing [47/48] the people; growing rich by robbing the people, glutting their pride by lording it over the people, and for all this the people gave them adulation and worship. Men desired high place in the state, not that they might serve the people, but that the people might serve them. Jesus looked upon the whole office-holding class from the Emperor down as a parasite on the body politic, and He said to His followers: It shall not be so among you, but whosoever will be great among you let him be your servant; and whosoever will be first among you, let him be your slave. Servants are useful and slaves are profitable; but as for these Emperors, judges, high priests, and what not, whom foolish men worship and call benefactors, they lord it over the people and exercise authority upon them, not for the good of the people, but for their own gain and glory, and, instead of being useful members of society, do nothing but waste and destroy, and are no better than murderers, robbers, thieves, and parasites.

This critical, and even hostile, attitude of Jesus toward the state we learn, not so much from any direct allusion to the Roman power in the gospel [48/49] history, as from the whole trend of His life and teaching. It was not a part of the plan of the Master to come into direct collision with the Roman government until He was ready. He was perfectly willing to throw to Caesar, Caesar's penny for the purpose of keeping Caesar quiet while he went on with His work for God. But He would not for one single moment yield to Caesar, or to Caesar's minions, in any thing that had to do with His mission in the world. When they came and told Him to get out of Galilee because Herod sought to kill Him, He said with fine scorn: "Go ye and tell that fox, behold I cast out demons to-day and to-morrow, and the third day I am perfected;" or as a better rendering: "I end my course."

It may be difficult for us to think of Jesus as in this critical and hostile attitude toward the state. We have thought of Him so long as a mythological being; we have talked of Him so long as metaphysical abstraction, and have placed Him for centuries out of the reach of human vicissitudes, at the right hand of the Majesty on high, that we cannot view Him in His historical relations without a shock to our reverence. Yet this historical Jesus is [49/50] the real Jesus; the Man of God, who founded the religion called Christian, and from whose life and teaching the institution called the church had its origin. Living at the time in which He did live, Jesus could not help seeing the Roman state in all its hideousness, and seeing, He could not help condemning. He saw Roman soldiers bringing in women and girls and boys whom they had torn from their homes in Armenia and Parthia, and were taking to sell into debasing slavery in Rome. He saw men chained in gangs being driven to the imperial city, there to kill one another in the circus for the amusement of the Roman populace. As He walked along the highways, He stood again and again beneath a cross and watched the death agony of some wretched Galilean, who had offended the majesty of Rome, and, after a mock trial, had been nailed to the cross and left there to die. Jesus, as He watched that writhing and cursing man, saw in this shameful death His own approaching doom.

If Jesus was a man, such as His history shows Him to be, and lived at the time when history says He did, then He must have seen all of these iniquities, and, having seen, He could not help condemning; and this condemnation led Him to conceive of a [50/51] society in which none of these evils should have a place; a society in which rulers should not lord it over the people. Where there should be no military establishments to consume the substance of the people, and be the instrument of their oppression; where men should not undertake to judge men, but should leave all judgment to the One Judge and Lawgiver. A society such as Jesus had in mind would not fear the thief or robber because it would value nothing that the robber could take away or the thief could steal; it would not fear the murderer, for the murderer could only kill the body, and could not reach the true seat of life, which is in the soul. We cannot understand Christianity until we come to see it as a reactionary movement against existing conditions. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus lived and died to establish, was to be all that the Roman Empire was not: a kingdom of peace instead of war, a kingdom of righteousness instead of injustice, of mercy instead of cruelty. It was the ideal of the great Idealist, the dream of the great Dreamer.

The attitude of Jesus toward the Roman state is seen most clearly when He Himself comes into direct relation to the state. On the last day of His [51/52] life Jesus stood accused of crime at the bar of Roman justice. The charges against Jesus were the crimes of treason and sedition,--of treason against Caesar because He said that He Himself was a King; of sedition because he stirred up the people beginning from Galilee even to this place. Now the accounts of the trial of Jesus are most significant of his attitude to the Roman state. The gospel history tells us that, when Pilate asked Jesus whether or not He was guilty of the charges brought against Him, Jesus answered him never a word; and nothing that the Roman judge could say or do could break the silence of the prisoner. It is true that the Gospel of John represents Jesus as entering into conversation with Pilate; but it is the opinion of scholars that the conversations and speeches of Jesus, found in the fourth Gospel, are not historical,--not the words of Jesus, but words ascribed to Him by the writer of the Gospel. The earlier and more historical accounts of the trial represent Jesus as maintaining perfect silence in the presence of Pilate. When Pilate asked if He were King of the Jews, He answered simply, "So you say;" to the other charges He made no answer at [52/53] all. By His silence Jesus denied the jurisdiction of the Roman court, and refused to plead at the bar of that court. The instant a man refuses to plead at the bar of a court he renders that court powerless to try him. The court can punish the accused; it can send him to prison or to death; but it cannot try him. The whole onus of the punishment rests upon the court; the prisoner is guiltless of his own condemnation. Such action on the part of a prisoner is a condemnation of the court; it is a declaration on the part of the prisoner that the court has no jurisdiction; it puts the court on its defense. This is what Charles I. did when he was brought to trial; what the counsel of Louis XVI. did when the King was accused before the convention. In each of these cases the court was compelled to face the question of its right to try the prisoner, and it was that question, and not the guilt or innocence of the prisoner, that was the great question at issue. And is was this question that Jesus, by His silence forced upon the Roman governor. That silence said to Pilate: I refuse to answer; you have no right to try me. That Pilate felt the embarrassment of his position is evident from the gospel story. If Jesus would only plead, answer, and explain Pilate might [53/54] condemn Him with some show of justice or else have a reason to discharge Him from custody. The refusal of Jesus to plead made the question to be answered, not a question of His guilt or innocence, but a question of the right of Pilate to sit in judgment on Him. Under the circumstances, Pilate could do nothing else but send Jesus to His death.

This action of Jesus was not the action of a mad fanatic; it was the action of the greatest moral intelligence ever born into the world; it was the assertion of a fundamental principle of the Kingdom of God, in which judgment of man by man has no place. Judge not and ye shall not be judged; condemn not and ye shall not be condemned,--is the rule of the Kingdom of God. In obedience to this rule, Jesus would not suffer the judgment of man. He went out to die as a protest against the method by which He and countless thousands had been brought to their death by the injustice of the Roman power.

I have nothing to do in this lecture with the theological aspects of the death of Jesus. We are considering it simply in relation to the state which condemned and executed Jesus. And the death of Jesus is a condemnation of the state. It brought out as in a lime-light the full hideousness of what in [54/55] those days men called justice. It brings out as in a lime-light the horror of much that in these days is called justice.

As we look out on the world to-day with its vast and expensive military armaments, with its intricate and costly system of so-called justice; as we see its forbidding prisons and its degrading stripes; as we think of its gallows and its electric chairs; as we see the worship of earthly riches and worldly power; man lording it over man,--the question arises, Was not Jesus mistaken after all? Is not His judgment of the world the judgment of a feeble intellect and an unmanly heart? In making the cross, and not the flag, the symbol of human life did not Jesus strike at the very foundations of society? Is he not a dangerous man whose death is called for by the highest interests of the state? So thought the men of His clay, and they crucified Him; so think the vast majority of men in our day, and they despise Him. Our only answer is that for ages the very best of mankind have seen in Jesus the manifestation of God, have found in His teaching salvation, and in His death redemption, and believe Him to be the Judge of the world. And further, we answer to all cavils against Jesus that we are at the beginning, not at the end, of the Christian era.

Project Canterbury