The phrase is famous and the story well-known. When the religious scholars of his day were seeking to entrap Jesus they asked him whether it was lawful to pay tax to the Emperor. Jesus asked them to bring him a coin. They showed him a denarius and he asked them “Whose image is on the coin”. They replied, “Caesar’s” Then he said to them: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
In Christianity, the phrase has come to be seen as a principle for ordering the relationship between civil government and religion, although as Christ spoke in allegorical terms – there have been different views as to what precisely was meant. Nonetheless, the predominant view is that the phrase points to a separation between secular governance and religion. The idea is reinforced by the narrative between the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and Jesus in which Jesus replies “my kingdom is not of this world”. Yet in the end, when Jesus was crucified, the words “King of the Jews” were placed above his head.
In the case of Bahá’u’lláh, we find similar concepts explored and a similar pattern of persecution by the civil authorities at the behest of religious leaders.
To the rulers of society, in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Bahá’u’lláh writes:
By the righteousness of God! It is not Our wish to lay hands on your kingdoms. Our mission is to seize and possess the hearts of men.
To his own followers, Bahá’u’lláh writes:
None must contend with those who wield authority over the people; leave unto them that which is theirs, and direct your attention to men’s hearts.
In these passages, we see that “that which is Caesar’s” is civil authority and temporal sovereignty which Bahá’u’lláh regards as worth “as much as the black in the eye of a dead ant”. Also, in the story of The Puppet Show we have seen Bahá’u’lláh’s insight as a child of the vanity of the pomp and circumstance often surrounding temporal power.
We also see that “that which is God’s” is the human heart. From the early period of Bahá’u’lláh’s mission, in the Hidden Words we find for example the following:
All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee, except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me; and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened unto the sanctuary of the Beloved.
Bahá’u’lláh, as we have seen also wrote extensive letters to kings and rulers. Thus in letters such as those to kings and rulers collectively, to Napoleon III, to Queen Victoria and to Czar Alexander, Bahá’u’lláh both announces his mission and offers counsel.
In his book of laws, the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Bahá’u’lláh again addresses kings and rulers individually and collectively. Monarchs and rulers also have hearts — and they are also in relationship with their fellow human beings and with the divine world — relationships which have spiritual implications.
Thus also in the Hidden Words we find:
O OPPRESSORS ON EARTH!
Withdraw your hands from tyranny, for I have pledged Myself not to forgive any man’s injustice. This is My covenant which I have irrevocably decreed in the preserved tablet and sealed with My seal of glory.
We might consider these concepts in the light of history. For example, oppression fed by the way in which the relationship between the civil and religious worlds was framed in some places and periods in history – as well as some regimes in the present day. Or, on the other hand, the terrible human suffering that the 20th century saw when the civil world was entirely divorced from religion. We may think of the positive influence of religiously inspired leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who used religious inspiration to overcome great oppression. A question that will always be with us is how to foster a healthy interaction between these different systems so as to foster the well-being of society and individual human beings.
Image Credits: A Denarius of Emperor Tiberius – who ruled the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
(This article is the 151st in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)