Answering An Atheist
Original arguments are found in the post “Top Ten Worst Bible Stories”
On the web site “Not A Potted Plant” (NAPP)
I recently came across a blog post entitled “Top Ten Worst Bible Stories.” The blog goes by the name “Not A Potted Plant” (NAPP) which obviously says nothing about the author or the content but he does explain the reason for the title in the FAQ’s and a little additional perusing helps to fill in other gaps. He goes by the pen name of “Transplanted Lawyer” and I refer to him by the acronym LT.
From the profile you learn the author is a normal sort of guy and the content clearly indicates he is coherent, observant and thoughtful. He is an atheist and a bit glib on occasions but always fair. The fair part is what got my attention.
Any person can pick a side and be belligerent about it and there are many who do exactly that. They are completely intolerant toward and offer no fair discussion on points of difference. Fortunately, that description doesn’t fit LT. Unfortunately, that is particularly true of the “religious right” (RR1).
Actually, RR are my roots but honestly speaking, I have to admit that the most dominant characteristic of this political sector is the inability to carry on a fair discussion regarding any issue. They don’t talk nicely to each other and they don’t discuss issues with an open mind.
- Taking the “half loaf” approach to negotiation doesn’t figure into their political or religious strategies.
- The capacity to “agree to disagree” is dwarfed.
- Building relationships around common issues in the hope of influencing change on others is not a skill they own.
- If ideologies don’t match up to the letter, the differing parties are shunned or worse, run out of town, the modern day equivalent of burning at the stake. Thank God better minds have changed that trend.
It would be nice if the RR folks would just “take their ball and go home” but unfortunately that isn’t an option. Humanized religious chivalry requires a fight to the death, although they wouldn’t admit to the humanized part.
Anyway, back to the “Top Ten Worst Bible Stories” by LT.2 I’ve decided to answer a few of his observations. I chose him not because Bible critics are few but because he is articulate (unlike some atheists, he actually knows and uses words longer than “four” letters) and he spars the issue rather than the opponent.
I doubt I will change his mind on the issues or anyone else’s for that matter but debate, when healthy, fair and respectful, is always useful.
I’ll answer only one (or a few) issues at a time, not in his order and not necessarily in consecutive posts. Here goes. Hope you enjoy.
Jesus and Roman taxation
Criticism number 8 on the list involves the Pharisees and Herodians who, in an attempt to diminish the popularity of Jesus queried Him on a very sore political issue, taxation.
The Romans, having conquered most communities of the world, also had the right to tax everyone and for a well understood reason. The maintenance of law, order and public services is expensive. Everyone benefits and everyone should pay.
Accordingly, Jesus’ answer was “to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
LT argues that Jesus was being cowardly and encouraging the Israelites to collaborate with the enemy. His summary of Jesus’ response is…
Quisling-like collaboration with the enemy is fine as long as you pay the temple tax.
There are several reasons why we should think otherwise:
- The superior nature of Roman governance
- The biblical philosophy of government
- The practical nature of community
The superior nature of Roman governance
Was the Roman government abusive? Could we question the morality of Roman rule? Absolutely, without question! But, their approach to government was an improvement on all previous world powers (Greek, Babylonian, Syrian, Egyptian, etc.) and that should factor into the argument.
The Pharisees weren’t complaining because Roman rule was harsh compared to Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States of America. The Romans, as gruesome as we think they were today, were far superior to any that preceded them and they modeled principles that still influence modern democratic societies. Magna Carta was written in Latin for heaven’s sake. Roman Dutch law still holds sway in many parts of the world.
The land of Israel was under occupation not because Rome was oppressive but because religious bigotry made it difficult to govern the area. In fact, Rome was very tolerant of other cultures even to point of absorbing some of their religious beliefs, a practice made possible by the fact that their Romish religion had a very limited set of core values. This was the soil in which Roman Catholicism was established.
The RR of Jesus’ day was very similar to the RR of our day who threaten to withhold taxes because the money is used to fund disagreeable things like abortions. Both prefer a religious state to a democratic one not realizing that democracy is biblical even when the state is not. For a read on that go here.
And I think implying a correspondence between Rome and Nazi Germany is a bit out of sync with the facts. Rome had patiently worked with Israel for approximately a hundred years before razing Jerusalem3 to the ground and they tolerated continuous insurrections during that time. Hitler intended the annihilation of every Jew, along with several other “undesirables,” from day one.
For many more reasons there is little correspondence between Jesus and Philippe Pétain. Maybe Ghandi or Nelson Mandela, but never Phillippe.
We wouldn’t recommend the Israelites of Jesus’ day withhold taxes any more than we would encourage the many different political interest groups of our day to do so every time the government is in discord with their philosophical agendas.
Another issue to consider is…
The biblical philosophy of government
Human government wasn’t instituted in the Bible until Genesis chapter 9 suggesting that the best form of government is self-government, which obviously fails in the hands of fallen human nature. Human government is a necessary evil but unfortunately will never be perfect. We must learn to live with the imperfections.
For that reason, God has never endorsed any particular form of government and the Bible features examples of extreme forms which were quite humanitarian.
Joseph, for example, presided over a form of communism during the great famine in Egypt and it worked. He was a powerful man who honored God and respected human rights. He kept the best interest of the individual and the community in mind at all stages.
It was his foresight, along with state taxation, that enabled them to be prepared for the famine. It was his fair handling of the resources that enabled the people to maintain self-determination.
Had the people followed his example, communism wouldn’t have been needed. Unfortunately, communism in this case was necessary because the people were self consuming rather than cautiously frugal. But communism did work and God did honor it. Interestingly enough, the people asked for it, Joseph never suggested it.
Briefly stated, the biblical philosophy of government would be, “bad government is better than no government at all.” Abuse is the by-product of human involvement, is never endorsed and biblical history shows that any form of government can choose to be abusive or useful.
Therefore, Jesus wasn’t endorsing the Roman government. He was endorsing the principle of human government and suggesting that it is right to pay the fiddler even when they miss the occasional note.
The disenchantment people express toward governments, both good and bad, is universal. Jesus’ remark encourages interaction rather than disengagement. He was encouraging reasonable discussion and participation before adopting violent revolution. Reasonable people agree.
And there is a long list of Bible greats who did just that: Abraham, Joseph (as mentioned), David, Jeremiah and especially Daniel. Even Moses tried to talk sense to Pharaoh before everything fell apart.
Later, Paul restated this same principle in Romans.
You might disagree with the Bible on this issue but you can’t accuse Jesus of breaking with tradition or the common understanding. As was His practice He was giving further insight to what the Bible previously taught.
The last issue we must consider is…
The practical nature of community
As I said before, law, order and public services are not cheap to maintain and the Romans did a good job providing these things. Roman roads connected the whole world in Bible times and many of those roads still stand today.
Even the coins used to pay taxes were minted in the Roman monetary system. Before that, commerce was conducted and money exchanged by weighing precious metals on scales maintained by unscrupulous dealers. The Roman mint changed all that. People now saved more money in fair dealing than they spent in taxes.
There was no cowardice or collaboration here. Jesus’ remarks actually suggest that being a good Jew or Christian requires rather than precludes being a good citizen.
What do you THINK!AboutIt? All comments will be entertained.
1 RR = Religious Right
2 The author’s name is not given and the closest thing to a pen name is Burt Likko, I think. For simplicity’s sake and with no disrespect intended I refer to him as LT. He does this himself so there should be no insult assumed.
3 The razing of Jerusalem was instigated by Jewish revolt not Roman thirst for blood.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.