Monday, December 18, 2006

Rendering Caesar

What's revealing about this controversy is that it involves the Perkins School of Theology at SMU:

A letter, dated December 16, from "Faculty, Administrators, & Staff" of the Perkins School of Theology to R. Gerald Turner, president of the Board of Trustees, is now circulating not only on the SMU campus but also among a wider academic community, urging the board to "reconsider and to rescind SMU's pursuit of the presidential library."
Paul Burka's response, however, is more typically Texan than one would like to admit:

The folks at the Perkins School should render unto Caesar: in this case, the trustees. The decision to accept or reject a presidential library is not a moral one--and even if it were, it is not theirs to make.
The uppity theologians of Perkins should mind their P's and Q's and remember who pays their salaries, in other words. They have no place meddling in the business of their betters, i.e., the trustees of SMU. Business decisions are no place for morality, donchaknow? And what are their objections? To hear Burka tell it, it's only a matter of politics:

Texas Monthly has obtained a copy of this letter, which, as you might expect, focuses heavily on objections to Bush's policies: "We count ourselves among those who would regret to see SMU enshrine attitudes and actions widely deemed as ethically egregious: degradation of habeas corpus, outright denial of global warming, flagrant disregard for international treaties, alienation of long-term U.S. allies, environmental predation, shameful disrespect for gay persons and their rights, a pre-emptive war based on false and misleading premises, and a host of other erosions of respect for the global human community and for this good Earth on which our flourishing depends."

"[T]hese violations are antithetical to the teaching, scholarship, and ethical thinking that best represents Southern Methodist University."

"Another matter that warrants our attention is that whether it aims to or not SMU will, in the long run, financially profit on the backs of hard-working Americans who feel squashed by policies they've now rejected at the polls. Surely it's not the case that SMU will allow itself to benefit financially from a name and legacy that globally is associated with suffering, death, and political 'bad faith.' Taken together, all these issues set decision-making about the Library in a framework of inescapable ethical questions, and remind us of a key imperative adopted by many leading universities around the globe: 'to be critic and conscience of society.'"
Burka offers no argument about these positions, mind. He simply engages the ad hominem of "no sympathy for the protagonists" (who promotes this position is completely irrelevant) and then slams them for having the temerity to involve themselves in matters better left to, well, businessmen like Paul Burka.

Which, of course, is what got us into the mess this letter decries. What could be more appropriate now, than to try to bring some sense of morality and justice to these issues, wherever they might apply? Ironically (or perhaps not), I've just been reading about the notion of redistributive justice under Roman rule when Jesus walked in Galilee, and how his proclamation and action of a basiliea tou theou in which all were welcome and all were fed was a radical challenge to the status quo of Rome.

I'm sure Mr. Burka would find that offensive, too, and probably profess no sympathy for the protagonists of that moral stance, either. After all, it was Caesar who secured the blessings of civilization for the Empire, and whose visage adorned the coins to remind everyone where their prosperity came from:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in hi hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....

Rome, and Rome alone, had built a kingdom and only it could approve how to build an underkingdom, a minrealm, a subordinate rule.
Jon Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79.

Those are the coins Jesus was referring to; not the simple folding money in your pocket with a dead president on it. The professed purpose of the Bush Presidential Library is "to spread the gospel of a presidency that for now gets poor marks from many scholars and a majority of Americans," and $500 million will be spent to do it. Mr. Burka's reference to the question of how to pay the temple tax is more apt than he realizes. One can almost hear him posing the original question, in fact.

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