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A good place to begin is with a question. What do I mean by the term dual loyalties? The idea came from a statement Jesus made in response to a question posed to entrap him. His answer was brilliant, profound, and, I believe, instructive for every generation of people who seek to follow him.

They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:14-17)

Give to God what belongs to God and give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. The instruction to give implies responsibility and obligation to both. It also requires appropriate balance and boundaries. Give to both, but also, do not give to Caesar what belongs to God and do not give to God what belongs to Caesar.

In order to be effective faith leaders, we must have dual loyalties. Our first loyalty must be to God aside from other persons and influences. Our secondary loyalty must be to the world, to the community in which they live. Dual loyalties mean we never put people and things in the place of God, including the state and its leaders who demand loyalty that borders on worship. It also means we do not ignore or close ourselves off from the world. We take up God’s work in the world and give our best energies to represent the Holy One’s vision. This is why clergy, rabbis, theologians, and scholars remind political, civic, educational, and business leaders of the wisdom from Holy Scripture and theology passed down throughout history so we can build a better world and live better lives.

I admit we have not done a good job of this lately. For one, many pastors shy away from their role as leaders in the public square and focus on congregational responsibilities – preaching sermons, teaching Bible studies, managing the business of a church, officiating weddings and funerals, and, of course, leading worship. This is important work. However, when congregational work dominates a pastor’s time, they are not present in the broader community to remind us not only of the importance of the work we all do in the world, but, more importantly, how and why such work is to be taken up.

A second and very pervasive problem is when the business and political community co-opts the religious and the sacred for its own end. Powerful leaders understand the power of the Christian religion to authorize and justify their agendas though they may not subscribe to the core tenets of the religion. To them, religion is a tool to be used as a cog to advance their vision, sometimes even equating their vision with God’s. When the church becomes the puppet of the state, giving to Caesar what belongs to God, she loses her voice and surrenders the moral authority given her by God who calls and authorizes teachers, caretakers, and prophets to represent the Holy in the world.

This tension and struggle to have dual loyalties is addressed in many places in the Bible. For example, in John 17:15, Jesus prayed for his disciples not to be taken out of the world but kept from the evil in the world. Shorter letters in the New Testament like James and 1 John charge Christians not to “love the world” because its vision and attendant passions are antagonistic to God’s. The verse in John is often used to communicate the idea of Christians being “in the world but not of the world,” particularly because Jesus says this exact thing in verse 16 “they are not of the world.” The point is that Jesus did not want to remove his followers from the world. He also did not them to succumb to it. Do you see the tension?

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrestled with this same tension in a sermon called A Knock at Midnight, written and delivered in 1963.

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.”

His belief that the church must resist becoming the servant of the state and his warning of what the church loses when this happens are as prophetic today as they were fifty-six years ago. Any serious study of Christian history will show the dangers and abuses of a religion that has been co-opted by state, empire, and the polis. When the church compromises spiritual authority, it loses the distance and vision necessary to advise and critique the state on political matters. I fear this has already begun. Too many of our churches and leaders are puppets of the state. Politicians at the national, state, and local level are pulling our strings to advance their agendas without appropriate respect for religious communities and beliefs, pushback against inappropriate pressures to support unjust policies, and accountability for their voting record and conduct as leaders. It is a sad spectacle to observe. We have much work to do in the coming year to salvage the prophetic role of the church and rescue our churches from the abyss of irrelevance we have fallen into over the past twelve years.

I will end with three observations that I hope you will give further thought to as a way to begin the hard work ahead for us.

1. I worry Christian churches and its leaders have been co-opted by the new Caesar, the American Empire and its three branches of government, the most powerful military in the world, and two-party system that is largely controlled by corporate interests (the wealthy). Our exclusive allegiance to the two-party system has become very problematic. This has resulted in a shameful loss of our ability to critique both parties for the ways they misrepresent, contradict, or oppose God’s vision for the world. It has also resulted in a blindness to the deeper problems with the current iteration and function of the system on both sides as faith leaders are content to toe party lines and bend and sometimes bow the religious to serve the political. Do you share this concern? If so, what can we do to bring awareness to this issue?

2. What would it mean to apply Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and King’s sermon to our work in the public square? To hold these together would mean to work within the current political system and structure without absolutizing it. It means learning to be an active member of a party but having enough distance to have a broader perspective. Jesus and King’s words suggest that our loyalty and support must be measured, never ultimate. Ultimate loyalty is only reserved for God. There are powerful examples of the need for appropriate loyalty and distance in Israel’s history with foreign empires and the first Christians encounter with the Roman Empire. These chapters need to be revisited in our churches and communities since they will affect how we draw on the rich resources of Scripture and faith to serve a prophetic role in the political system, especially when it gets off track like it has today.

3. I fear the dual loyalties required for ministry, advocacy, and leadership in the public square has been lost and a new generation has come on the scene, working in the public square but doing so with no awareness of the wisdom those before us can shed on challenges we confront today. More than ever, we need to remind political leaders and the public of the wisdom Scripture and history has to teach us. Such wisdom and insight remind us not only about “the what” but also the deeper “how and why” for what we do. We have lost some of this today. That is why I am so excited about the special column in Black Politics Today. It is a real opportunity to equip and inspire faith leaders to come out of hiding and reassert their place as representatives of the sacred and secondly as politically engaged American citizens. In the end, I hope we will recapture the rightful allegiance, balance, and distance needed to give rightly what belongs first to God and then to the American political system.

Lewis Brogdon (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and Research Professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville Kentucky.

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