Last night I was reading the Bible to my little boy – we are now in the life of Jesus – the story about when the Pharisees tried to trick him by asking him whether a good Jew should pay taxes to Rome (the occupying empire of the day). His answer, of course well known (to all who know, well anything really) was “Whose picture is on the coin?” When they Pharisees were forced to answer “Caesar’s,” Jesus responded with “Well then give him what is his and give God what belongs to Him.”
The message was revolutionary (in that period of zealotry and political ferment in occupied Jerusalem) because it was counter-revolutionary. He effectively told the Pharisees “I am not come to challenge the might, authority or legitimacy of Rome. I’m here after bigger things.” God is not particularly interested in the partisan political contest of the moment – His church is old and His work even older; from the times before he called an elder from ancient Ur to trudge across the desert, before he appeared to an ancient pre-flood nobleman in Job (probably the most ancient story of all). All the way back to a flood and the rainbow promise that there would be no worldwide cataclysm again. The politics of oppression? Rebellion against a fat king in a distant capital? Jesus was after way more than that – because there is always a fat king.
Today politics permeates everything; and I’m a little cursed because I work on political issues and the permeation affects my life too much, making me sad – as it does everybody else. These days it’s again the politics of oppression (perhaps it always has been), of who can lay claim to the sacred chalice of ‘most oppressed’ thereby finding the keys which grant entry into the ‘Kingdom of Envy’ in all its glorious misery.
But oppression? I daresay, the mantle for most-often and most-systematically oppressed goes to we, the Christians. Long before the Millennial Maoists of today are trying to take our Twitter handles for speaking ancient truths, we were being oppressed. Iraq has been emptied of Christians. North Korean Christians are put in re-education camps. The real Maoists in China massacred our missionaries in the hundreds; the Lumumba revolutions in Congo did the same. The Sudanese followers of the Mahdi put us up on crosses. The Pilgrims fled discrimination which was keeping them in poverty to a new land where they built a home of faith free from the state (not the other way around, like the modern Jacobians would insist). Farther back, did not Rome itself send us into the catacombs? Did not Nero light his debauched festivities of wickedness and hedonism with the burning bodies of Christians – impaled and covered in tar and set alight?
What did this oppression do? Did it make us bitter, redistributionist? Did it make us whine and complain? Did it make us revolutionaries – as the current Pope would hope? Far from it. We have always taken our cues from Jesus, “Give to Caesar”. No tax revolts against the powers; because who cares about money anyway – instead setting up the first ‘socialist’ societies of early Christians helping each other with the little they had? No slave revolutions; Paul writing to Philemon imploring him to receive back Onesimus (his escaped slave) but as a brother, knowing that it was Philemon’s immortal soul in contest. People of all colors from all background and both genders (yes, there are only two) united under the common story of survival against those who tried to wipe us off the map. I am uninterested, as most Christians are, in the modern politics of oppression unto utopia. My ideas are older, my loves are more profound than the current ferment. I know I have at best thirty more years on this lovely planet, and after that – I will go to where my immortal soul has found a place. Where will yours go? Have you asked yourself that? Beside Stalin and Hitler and Fidel; or beside those people that Hebrew’s calls “our great cloud of witnesses”.
And incidentally, for those who think perhaps ratcheting up the abuse might work – Christians are at their best when persecuted. We do not handle political power well, like everybody else. Corruption seeps into even those who started out well meaning. But push us into the catacombs and we become an unstoppable force.
So to fear the Maoist Millennials and their sophomoric attempts at ‘oppression’; to silence and ‘de-platform’ us? Ha! We will go back to the caves to carve our ichthyses. Because we the inheritors of the spirits of the Desert Fathers know that life is short and our faith is old and we can’t be bothered by earthly intimidations of the wicked. For we are also Augustine the Berber, who will again sit atop a hill while the new Rome burns, again writing “City of God” – if she cannot be saved, though we are trying with all our might!