The Messiah is not Caesar and Caesar is not God

"Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's." This is the answer by which Jesus evaded the trap set by those who hoped to get him to say something unseemly to the people of Israel or to the political authorities of the Roman Empire (or maybe both). With this famous evangelical command, the Pope began his article published last December 19 in the Financial Times.

By way of introduction, we should clarify that the intervention of the Pontiff has a theological and pastoral character, and, proper to that, he proposes to show the relevance to civil life-politcal, economic, and cultural-of the anthropological perspective expressed by the mystery of the Incarnation.  In this setting, we will not dwell so much on the particularly theological aspects, for no other reason than that the writer is not a theologian. We will consider the importance that a similar anthropological perspective had on the genesis and development of those institutions that today we consider indispensible for living together.  In particular, we will consider that particular and historical political dimension that Benedict XVI has defined as "free state of law," on the occasion of his speech to the Bundestag in Berlin on September 22, 2011.

In this sense, we will consider briefly and perforce superficially one decisively political aspect of the life in and of Christians in the "public square" and on one particularly economic aspect, with the awareness of the time in which we are living, a time of reflection on the central event of our faith and of waiting for the coming of our Savior. This expectation is for the Christian nothing other than a daily existence completely indifferent to the bright lights and decisively hostile to anyone who presumes to convince us that the economic motor of the market should be consumption for consumption's sake. In this regard, it is impossible to ignore how there follows from this an indispensible clarification of the anthropological perspective introduced by Christianity and the vital nourishment provided to the birth of civil institutions conforming to it. Benedict XVI writes: "At the end of a year that has meant economic hardship for many, what can we learn from the humility, the poverty, the simplicity of the crib scene? Christmas can be the time in which we learn to read the Gospel, to get to know Jesus not only as the Child in the manger, but as the one in whom we recognize God made Man."

With regard to the more distinctly economic dimension, Benedict XVI reminds us that "Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life." This is the theme treated by Benedict XVI in the third chapter of the encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009), on the complementarity of the market with respect to other dimensions of social life.

The market is presented here as the highest form of collaboration between people who do not necessarily share the same goals. The market is based on the contractual principle of "reciprocity." The condition of the market, the very element that brings it into existence, is voluntary exchange. Two people meet and, exchanging information on their mutual expectations, realize that they can be of help to one another.

In this sense, as the German economist Wilhelm Röpke has taught us, the processes of the market, as far as they are virtuous, should not be confused with "giving," and, as far as they are vicious, should not be confused with theft.  This is the reason that the category of "gift" appears as an indispensible dimension of living that renders relations authentically human and, as a consequence, renders existence authentically human. We know that life of humans cannot be worked out in the market and the experience of giving allows us to observe directly the unfairness of the logic of the market.  To relegate the market to utilitarian relations, beyond being a logical fallacy, seems ever more a practical error and in the long run could lead to political error. Catallaxy, the market, is the social typology proper to free people who knowingly cum-petono  to obtain the best result possible for the allocation of scarce goods that can be distributed; that which is not scarce and cannot be distributed-in brief, that which is not economic-evidently does not enter into and should not enter into the logic of the market.

We believe that the emphasis placed by Pope Benedict XVI on the importance of distributive justice for the existence of the market economy must be read in this theoretical context. By virtue of its exercise, men can have non-contractual factors necessary for a contract to be signed and that this is done at the lowest cost and in the safest possible way.

From this perspective, the authentically human measure of development bears a strict relation to the anthropological dimension of man, of his being created in the image and likeness of God and of his participation with the Creator in the Love of the Father-a love that, making us His children, reveals to us our fraternal relations with all the people in the world and our vocation to love our neighbor as God loves us.  This measure is traceable to the mystery-scandal of the Cross. It is the measure with which God has loved us and loves us still.

For this reason, the economic issue is expressed by Benedict XVI in the concept of the impossibility of the self-founded market. The market, for Benedict XVI, lives and thrives through virtues such as honesty, trust, "sympathy", but is not in a position to create them on its own.  If the market should promote them, it only does so to the extent that the subjects that operate in the market choose to live according to virtue, and, doing so-to use an argument typical of Smith, perhaps intentionally-they end by greasing the machinery of the social body.  The naked and crude market simply does not exist.  The market is composed of its institutions, which are nurtured in the culture of those that found and people it:  the institutions, as Popper reminds us, are like fortresses.  They hold out if they are strong garrisons.

In reference to the political question-in its most stringent and seemingly cold terms, the question of power, how to gain it, control it, and pass it on-we take up our discussion at exactly the point where Benedict XVI invited us to reflect at the beginning: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and that unto God that which is God's." The Pontiff writes: "When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it."

In Laicità. Le sue radici le sue ragioni (Rubbettino, 2010), Dario Antiseri reminds us that it is through religious edict that the political principle "Caesar is not Lord" enters history. In practice, the principle according to which political power was finally secularized, the worldly order relativized and the demands of duty to "Caesar" became subject to a judgment of legitimacy by an inviolable conscience.

The unique set of values that Christians should affirm is not whatever this party or that repeats without ceasing, updated for the sake of opportunism and always more conformed to the demands of contingencies, but that which was ascendant in the last half of the second century. The Letter to Diognetus notes:

"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign...And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives...They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law."

This means that their lives are always ready to rebel against the law, because, for the Christian, one God is the Lord, the Absolute.  The state, parties, power-in the eyes of the Christian are in no way absolute.

From these, it follows that to affirm and to testify with one's life, even to the extreme sacrifice of one's life, that "Caesar is not Lord" means to stick a thorn in the side of the omnivorous pretense of the state.  This speaks of a principle both religious and ethical, but one that also conforms to an anthropological archetype even at this unprecedented moment in the history of humanity: the person, unique, free, and responsible, and with this has nourished an inexhaustible spring of institutions in whose absence the liberal political experiment would be unthinkable; one for all; obedience to conscience.  This does not even take into consideration the myriad intermediate bodies, the true garrisons of liberty, of responsibility, of civic culture, such as universities, hospitals, orphanages, charitable associations, religious orders, confraternities, foundations, schools, cathedrals, cooperatives, political movements, savings banks, diocesan journals, youth organizations, and a list that could go on without end.

Thus, if we accept that perspective that Benedict XVI has laid out-that those who heard Jesus would have perforce understood that "The Messiah is not Caesar, and Caesar is not God," -it seems evident that Christianity, with its churches and its martyrs, is the most important political event in the West: for religious order, the State cannot be everything

We can conclude by underlining the way that Benedict XVI has invited us to reflect on the fact that economic and political activity is not carried out in a moral void or in a virtual world, but within a determinate cultural context whose matrices can be recognized and appreciated or ignored and disparaged.  When a social system negates the value of the human person, beginning with the right to be born and to participate in the economic dimension as well as the political and cultural ones, it shows itself to be inhuman, and deserving of criticism and opposition, even to the point of extreme sacrifice.  From this perspective, a healthy market economy as much as a healthy democracy are always limited by a juridical order that governs it and by moral institutions- the family and the multitude of intermediate bodies-which interact with them, and are influenced by them, even as they influence them as well.

 

 

 

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