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What is Caesar’s?

April 25, 2016

[A year ago, also around tax time (a coincidence, I promise), I tried to think about rendering unto Caesar and a few months later wound up talking about equivocation as a response to the threat of force. Now I find my thoughts returning to the render-to-Caesar scene…]

When Jesus tells us to pay the Roman tax with Roman coinage, how does this differ from complacently admonishing the will-be-martyr to just burn the damn incense already? I suggested in a previous post the skeleton of an answer: actions do not just have consequences, they also bear significance. While paying the tax may have worse results than burning the incense, speaking consequentially, it means something acceptable, whereas the incense-burning means damnation. Fine—but what does tax-paying mean?

Before answering the Pharisees, Jesus found it relevant to ask this question: “Whose image and inscription is this?” And, of course, Caesar’s face and name are stamped onto the coin. But so what? The stamp’s function is closer to the treasury secretary’s signature on a dollar bill than to George Washington’s face. It does not brand the coin as the property of Caesar, rather it puts Caesar’s authority behind a guarantee of the coin’s purity and weight, which physical properties themselves, so it was thought, determined its value. Moving from here to “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” seems a bizarre non-sequitur, as if Jesus thought that avowing that A is P makes one the owner of A, rather than just the owner of the statement. Were that true, of course, I could never bring a piece of jewelry in to be appraised without thereby transfering ownership to the appraiser. In fact it is the appraiser who owes me a fair estimate.

But perhaps it is not too far-fetched to say that Jesus was not naive about money, and understood that even gold coinage derives its value, not from the physical properties of the gold, but from the network of trust built up around its image and inscription. The stamp on a coin is not just a statement of its purity and weight, it is a promise to treat the coin as bearing a certain value, which promise itself confers value. It makes sense to say that such a promise is one of “the things that are Caesar’s.” It seems significant, at this point, that Jesus says to pay the tax in coinage, not in kind. One needn’t be a Sovereign Citizen to believe that money is the government’s property in a way other things aren’t. Currency is a bit like the king’s highway: all of us are able to use it only because the ruler owns it.


That the things are Caesar’s, then, isn’t so hard to understand; it remains difficult, though, to see why we have to render them back to him. One account would look something like this. The stamp signifies not just a promise, but also the terms of that promise, and if I don’t fulfill those terms, I can cling to the worthless lump of gold, but the money it represents is no longer mine. The main obligation, of course, is to pay taxes.

Now, the scrupulous Christian will still object that, since to pay taxes is to state one’s support for one’s government’s actions, and since some of government’s actions are intrinsically evil, we cannot willingly pay taxes because to do so is to support intrinsic evil. True! I cannot intend to pay my taxes. But if I’m not willing to support those actions, and so not willing to pay taxes, then I have no right to the currency I hold. Having no right to it, I am obliged to return it to the government—and once I return the amount of tax assessed, I regain the right to the remainder. So I cannot intend to pay my taxes, but I can still pay them. If that sounds casuistic, consider a more concrete situation. A friend loaned me his lawnmower, on the understanding that I would mow his lawn as well. I refused to mow his lawn, and so was obliged to return the mower to him. But in the process of returning it, I accidentally mowed his lawn after all, and so fulfilled my part of the bargain, and so can keep the lawnmower, without, however, having at any point intended to mow his lawn. If this is right, then I can pay my taxes without saying anything damnable.

The real problem, I think, is that this analysis would only apply to the paying of taxes, not to the having of money in the first place. If the promise of the stamp comes with implied terms, then bearing currency implies acceptance of those terms. Accepting a coin now seems to resemble Jephte’s vow (“Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord”): if I cannot in good conscience fulfill the terms, then how can I in good conscience contract to fulfill them?


Instead of thinking the coin a shackle we wear, perhaps we can see it as binding Caesar. Money comes with no terms of service; there is no obligation to pay taxes, and Caesar’s request that we do so is nothing more than a request, in the form of a threat, for us to forgive a promise he made us. Perhaps in such a world we never would pay taxes—but perhaps, instead, the moral calculus transforms utterly. Taxpaying becomes an act of mercy, like pulling aside on the highway to make way for the president’s motorcade can be an act, not of deference, but of generosity. We do it, not because we fear punishment, but because we want to allow the government at least some limited amount of agency. We pull over because, though the highway is for us, it is the state’s, and we pay taxes because we should see Caesar’s promise, not as as a magic spell guaranteeing the coin’s value, but as something Caesar has said, and might wish he could unsay.

But, we are warned, Caesar will use that agency for evil. Well, yes but after all the criminal who serves his time is also quite likely to do evil with his newfound freedom. When we consider paying taxes the question before us is not “Ought I to act as Caesar does?”, but rather “Are Caesar’s actions so horrendous that we must prevent him from acting at all?” Well, the answer may still in the end be “Yes,” about which circumstance Thomas Jefferson had some things to say. But until it is, grant Caesar the agency that is Caesar’s. In the end, this is just an application of the doctrine of argumentative pacifism: respond to the illocutionary force of each speech act, even if the perlocutionary force contradicts it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2016 9:00 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this Joseph!


  1. A retrospective catalog | Ironical Coincidings

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