Theologians and cultural historians sometimes argue that Jesus’ admonition, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, render unto God the things that are God’s” constitutes an early division between the sacred and the secular, between one’s religious, and one’s civic duties. The problem with such an assertion is that, while we are meticulous and fastidious in our desire to not have any officially established state religion, the ancients made no such distinction. Caesar had his due, God had his, but the two were not independent of one another. I know of no ancient society that made a distinction between priestly and secular officials – none. Caesar was the princeps, but he was also the Pontifex Maximus, the highest priest who oversaw all the religious and priestly collegia in Rome. In addition, a further argument goes that the interrogation was intended as a test for Jesus. Did he believe in worldly government or no? The response is understood to indicate Jesus’ affirmation that worldly governance is necessary, and can co-exist with God’s.
Does that mean that I believe in establishing an official state religion? That would be a betrayal of everything for which this country has, up until this point, stood, the indissoluble bonds of religion and the state in the pre-modern period notwithstanding. But are we precluded from consulting our faith when it comes to making policy decisions? Unless you can divorce conscience from policy, I would argue no. So to cite but one aspect of US policy and controversy in our current fraught republic: what might faith teach us about, say, our brothers and sisters from the south, and how we should treat them? From a purely Biblical standpoint the Jewish ethics on this question are clear. Let’s review what the Torah instructs (I am leaving out, for the moment, the various references scattered throughout the remainder of the Bible):
Exodus 22:21: Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 23:9 Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Leviticus 20:10 And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger; I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 20: 33-4 And if a stranger soujourn with thee in your land ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
Of course, all of this predates the modern nation-state, with its notion of sovereign borders and citizenship. We may argue about the status of immigrants or refugees, and what their place is in the world. But is it possible to be a Christian or Jew worthy of the name and reject, wholesale, these admonitions repeated, so the ancient text tells us, by God to Moses, and handed down among those laws worthy to enshrine among some of the key aspects of the Jewish ethical tradition? And yet, why shouldn’t the Jews have embraced them? For they, too, have been strangers, at one time, virtually everywhere. Exodus can be read, in no small part, as an extended metaphor about the oppressed, the stateless, the dispossessed experience of the Jews in Egypt. Their mistreatment and their subsequent redemption from Egypt were intended, in a very real sense, as an object lesson in empathy: receive those who are strangers. Welcome them, wherever they land.
All of this is expressive of a part of a deep tradition of compassion for strangers that, as nearly as we can tell, began with and extended through the ancient Near East. It was what the Greeks called xenia, hospitality. In early Greek culture, as expressed in Homer, the welcoming of the stranger into one’s house, feeding and clothing him, is a fundamental expression of one’s humanity and civility. Its violation leads, directly, to the shedding of blood. When Paris violates the laws of hospitality it leads directly to the Greek expedition against Troy. Atreus murdered and served his brother’s, Thyestes’, sons to him at his table. It resulted in a curse that led to the destruction of the House of Atreus after much bloodshed, and itself led, indirectly, to the Trojan War. The Cyclops, Polyphemus, is perhaps the best example of xenia gone bad: trapping Odysseus and his men in his cave, rather than entertaining them in the proper manner, he eats them alive, one by one, taunting Odysseus that he will give him a gift due from host to guest – he will eat him last. We need not enumerate every instance; one gets the picture.
In fact, the Greek tradition is rich in stories of men and women of good will who welcomed and entertained divinities, in human form, into their home, for which they are rewarded. My personally favorite instance of hospitality is in the later books of the Odyssey, in which Eumaios, Odysseus’ swineherd, takes pains, despite his meager means, to entertain his master who has come to him disguised as a beggar. Taking pity on Odysseus qua beggar, he entertains him with wine, bread, and meat. It stands in stark contrast to the belligerent suitors who have taken over Odysseus’ house as they woo his wife Penelope in his absence; in the process they literally eat Odysseus out of house and home, a gross violation, too, of xenia.
But I digress: simply put, the deep and numerous passages in Jewish and Christian teaching about protecting the most vulnerable among us – the stateless, the dispossessed, the stranger, leave this country no wiggle room to spout pieties to assuage the decrepit consciences of so many millions of pseudo-evangelicals, many of whom, one suspects, have either simply never read scripture or simply are incapable of comprehending it. In future posts, I will continue to uncover their outrageous frauds by periodically doing one thing and one thing only. Reading scripture. And yet I should not need to do this: even pagan society, for all of its astounding savagery, had a sufficiently robust ethical standard to recognize cruel and degrading treatment when it saw it. Just ask Homer.