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Render Unto Caesar

Render Unto Caesar

Ezra Pound and Propertarianism have gotten me thinking a lot about debt recently (even to the point of poetry).

The Christian personal-finance guru Dave Ramsey calls debt “slavery,” and he isn’t wrong. When you owe someone money, they have leverage over you, and therefore, control over you. They own you.

Now it is unanimously held that the ownership of another human being is morally wrong, and yet we simultaneously believe that people should have the freedom to enter into whatever kinds of contracts that we choose to. Sign away your privacy, your liability, your right to disclose information, your right to compete, whatever–it’s your life, your right to sign it away, in whatever distribution you choose.

Herein lies the conflict; if we hold that it is wrong for people to be enslaved, how can we simultaneously support a libertarian absolutism in terms of freedom of entering contracts? The concept of indentured servitude is perhaps the most precise illustration of this conflict, but it is not the only one. We can give up our freedom — or more accurately, control over our own lives — in degrees, rather than in absolutes. After a enough of an accumulation of these degrees, we may find that we are completely owned, even though it may not be by a single individual, but by a collection of individuals. How can we escape this slavery without restricting our own freedom?

Now I am not a Christian, but I find the Christian answer to this quandary to be very informative:

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial taxa]”>[a] to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

–Matthew 22:15-22

There is an interesting parallel here between debts and the Pharisees’ manner of argument: both attempt to trap you with words. This is, incidentally, what the lawyer attempted to do in Luke 10:25, asking Jesus “who is my neighbor?” In one case, the trap is self-incrimination; in another, it the trap is signing your name to a contract. But in both cases, it is a predatory play on reciprocity: ‘here, have this loaned money/attention.’ It is slightly less obvious in the case of argumentation, but you can see it in the way that journalists may feign genuine interest or curiosity, and a dedication to objective truth, while questioning a victim: “we want to hear your side of the story!” Of course, they’ll take that hour-long transcript, grab one self-damning quote out of context for their story, and ignore the rest.

Predatory loans are more straightforward. When you sign your name to the terms, you accept money (rather than interest) up-front, and then you pay interest — often compounding interest. It isn’t uncommon for students to graduate college with $30-50 thousand in debt, only for the interest to raise what those students pay in ridding themselves of that debt into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most people interpret the famous “render unto Caesar” line as an advocacy for separation of Church and state. And perhaps there is an argument to be made for this interpretation. But I think the far more compelling understanding of the intended meaning has to do with debt, ownership, and slavery, particularly as it pertains to the Israelites living under Roman rule.

The Romans, you see, were not particularly brutal conquerors — at least not when compared with the Huns, Mongols, or the Israelites themselves in the lands of Canaan. They were civilizers, bringing roads, infrastructure, and a high quality of life to most of the lands they took.

And yet to look at the civilizing without accounting for the downsides of being ruled, and for being — at least partially — enslaved by foreigners, would be to make the very mistake that modern debtors hope for you to make. Like taxes, interest is a source of income, and represents a loss in time and energy, not merely of an opportunity cost for yourself, but one that also strengthens those who rule over you. The fact that life might be a little easier is of little interest to those who prefer freedom and autonomy to an easy life — especially when how easy that life will be is determined by foreigners who, fundamentally, don’t care about you.

“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” then, reads as an injunction not to take the bait. Give to Rome what is Roman; reject their civilization and their World, no matter how attractive it may appear, because once you accept their terms, you are in their debt, and there’s no telling when that debt may be paid. Usually, it depends on the valuation of the services rendered, and when the person making that judgment is the person offering the services, you can bet that it’s going to be a long time.

As far as I’m aware, this is not a mainstream interpretation of the verse, but it seems both valuable and historically relevant. It also gives new meaning to the old phrase, “give the Devil his due.” If you don’t, then he’ll do his best to keep you indebted as long as he can.

Maybe forever.

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