“They had not the courage, or else they were destitute of the power, to avoid, by means of their internal resources, that extermination which appeared to them, under the circumstances, to be inevitable. They were thrown into a most anxious state of despondency and alarm.”
John Penford Thomas, My Thought Book (1825)
I daresay the events of this past year have thrown many of you into “a most anxious state of despondency and alarm.” I know they have had that effect on me. The lines in my epigraph describe the mental state of the Britons around the year A.D. 400, when the Roman Legions had withdrawn from the province of Britannia and the wild Caledonians were threatening “mischiefs of murder, pillage, and devastation.” That day differs from ours insofar as the Roman Empire was failing and the Global Empire is triumphant, but the mental state induced is in either case the same: despondency and alarm: a conviction that a calamity has occurred and nothing can be done to reverse it.
You will have to look elsewhere if you want what young people nowadays call “copes.” I am not thrilling with the frisson of speculative horror. I am not shouting defiance in the aftermath of a temporary reversal. I am, like Bonald and Kristor, preparing to submit to conquerors who appear to hold all the cards and have power to dictate terms.
To that end, I have been reflecting on the lesson Jesus taught the lackies of the Pharisees with that Roman coin. This was, you recall, in answer to their loaded question about the rendition to Rome of what is properly translated as “tribute.” When I was a lad in Sunday school, I remember this being twisted into the lesson that the Government had a right to levy taxes; but I now understand it as a lesson about how Christians should deal with conquest and defeat.
Jesus was telling the Jews that they were, and for the foreseeable future would remain, a conquered and defeated people. The Herodians were a sham aristocracy, the Sanhedrim was a bogus priesthood, and the insurrectionary plots of the Zealots were suicidal copes for people who refused to wake up and smell the Roman coffee.
I mean no disrespect to my Sunday school teachers, but the payment of “tribute” is a sign of submission, just like bowing, or kneeling, or licking boots, or kissing bums. The word tribute comes from the word tribe, and “tribute” is what a subjugated tribe pays to the dominant Tribe as an acknowledgement of its submission. It has nothing whatever to do with paying taxes or duties of citizenship.
When Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he meant wake up and smell the Roman coffee. The only political choice remaining for the Jews was whether to make a sign of submission by paying the tribute, or to be forcefully reminded of the fact that they were subjugated by the legions of the dominant Tribe. Of course they chose to be forcefully reminded and their nation and temple were destroyed.
The lesson of the coin was that spiritual freedom is possible even in a state of political subjugation. Two thousand years ago, in the imperial province of Judea, the first step towards that freedom was to wake up and smell the Roman coffee. It was to fully face the fact of political subjugation and discard the “copes” of a sham aristocracy, a bogus priesthood, and mad fantasies of political rebellion. Today, in whatever imperial province we find ourselves, the first step towards spiritual freedom is to wake up and smell the Global coffee. It is to fully face the fact of political subjugation and discard the “copes” of sham parties, bogus priesthoods, and mad fantasies of political rebellion.
This is not, however, the final step.