Wily Tricks  & Tricky Questions

Taking a Knee

Presidential Race Baiting

Jesus and the Tax Question

It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave, we all sing, in the National Anthem . O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In truth, though, America is a land where Nazis march in the streets carrying tiki torches, where minorities are booed for free speech, and where the poor will soon be uninsured, unless Congress can figure out a way to undo the President’s latest executive order.

In truth, the President insists we understand that some among the nation’s Nazi banner carriers are good people, and also insists that all of the nation’s football players who kneel during the anthem are bad actors. And it is not a coincidence that these players are black.

In the gospel for next Sunday, a similar situation is in play. The name of the game was to praise Caesar for his excellent authority, in words, but also in the payment of taxes. A significant part of the population was engaged in this, which was their way of making the best of the hard times they were in, as an occupied nation.

Some of them liked being part of the Roman Empire. Personally, they were doing well. Socially, they’d made connections to Rome which helped in business. Politically, their social set was unrestricted because they cooperated. Yes, there were armed Romans walking around Jerusalem, but they reminded each other that not all Romans were bad people.

And then there were the protestors. Mostly, they were poor. Some were from a racial underclass, like the Samaritans. Some were undesirable because of their lifestyle. Prostitutes, for instance. And Jesus was making serious waves by gathering them in large crowds and telling them they were God’s beloved and they did not have to be ashamed of asserting their humanity.

The President argues that black football players are privileged to earn the millions they are paid, and should leave their politics at home. And most especially, they should not be throwing the suffering of the black men at the hands of the police into the field of pleasure, into games white fans have payed big bucks to attend.

But Ta Nahisi Coates points out that there is a double standard here: the team owners, multi-millionaires all, are in the President’s eyes entitled to their money and entitled to use the power that comes with that money to set national standards, while the players (who are making the owners rich by their playing) are not entitled to free speech on the field, and should be humbly grateful to have their jobs, doing and saying what the owners want on field and off, and respecting the flag by standing, in honor of the nation’s soldiers.

How it came about that the flag belongs more to the military than it does to civilians is a mystery to me.

And why so many are agreeing with the President that any posture other  than kneeling insults the flag – well, that is a mystery, too.

Since God is honored by many postures: kneeling, sitting, standing, genuflecting, lying prostrate on the floor, and even dancing in the Spirit; it seems odd to say that postures other than standing that honor God insult the flag. Enforcing this restrictive belief really denies the freedom the flag represents.

But this is a small thing, compared with the glaring unspoken truth that this public argument is about race. The President, the owners and the fans are white. The players who are kneeling are black. And the President’s argument is that blacks, even rich football playing blacks, should submit to the will of white people – the owners and the white folks in the stands.

So our current situation is quite classical in American history: working class whites in the stands are being lured to side with rich white owners and rich Donald Trump by insisting that black people, even rich black people, remember their status is secondary in this country.

Of course, the President does not use language about race in this argument. In fact, he insists this is not about race. He is, though, using code words for race, and most of us, especially white supremacists, understand them. We understand that minding your employers is code for telling black men to shuffle along good naturedly. Dishonoring the flag is code for telling black athletes that they may be paid a lot of money but they are not going to get to say what this country will value. Dishonoring the flag is the new code for denial of civil rights. This is the 21st century version of Jim Crow.

The professional class in Jerusalem (the Pharisees) spoke to Jesus similarly. They said “. . . you show deference to no one . . . . you show no partiality . .  .”

And then they tried to trip him up with a trick question about paying taxes to Caesar. Just as Trump uses a trick question about honoring the flag, to trip everybody up, they used a question about taxes.

The suffering black players are pointing to, and kneeling before their flag to ask us all to remember, is that of black boys and men who have died in police violence though they have not been involved in crimes. And this suffering has been eliminated from the public conversation, by the President of the US.

The suffering Jesus pointed to, in his refusal to defer to the upper classes or the authorities who worked for Caesar, and in his refusal to honor partiality in the class system of his culture, was ignored by the Pharisees who turned the conversation, instead, to taxes.

And of course, taxes are part of our public conversation today. Our conversation is about power and taxes. While Donald Trump is busy sabotaging the Affordable Health Care Act, by refusing to fund it, he is vocally declaring he will not spend much on rebuilding Puerto Rico. And he discusses all of this as part of his commitment to reducing taxes.

This is a way of getting us to understand that he is putting money back into the hands of rich white people rather than giving it to poor Puerto Ricans as a handout he says they do not deserve, because they were not rich enough in the first place to garner that kind of governmental help.

There is a dark side in these public conversations, a dark side everybody hears, though it is spokena bout in coded language.

From his campaign promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico, and his repeated assertions that undocumented Mexicans are a criminal class, to his rejection of Black Lives Matter’s pleas for police reforms, his desire to register Moslems, his restriction of Moslem entry into the country, his attack on black football players,  and his public disdain for Puerto Ricans, President Trump has consistently argued for renewed racial division in the US.

And Jesus, in his parable lifting up Samartans as more moral than priests and Levites, in his acceptance of the Canaanite woman and of the Roman Centurion, argued against social divisions in the kingdom of God.

He answered the Trick Question put to him by the Pharisees, saying, Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. As devout Jews, the Pharisees believed everything in the world belonged to God.

Jesus left them, and us, to wrestle with the tax question, and to wrestle with social distinction and the suffering that is so much a part of the lives of black Americans.

Bragging about his tax cuts and how he will not fund the ACA, Trump couldn’t resist adding that, from now on, we are going to say Merry Christmas in this country, not Happy Holidays.

Richard Painter, a stalwart Republican and a lawyer who was George W. Bush’s ethicist, a professor of legal ethics, and is now is a commentator on CNN, observes that “taking away poor people’s health insurance is not a Christian way of saying Merry Christmas, unless you are Scrooge.”

We are left to struggle with questions of taxes, whether our commitment as a nation to care for the least among us is still real, and whether or not we are Scrooge in our dealings with one another.

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Image: Football Players Taking a Knee During National Anthem. Quora (Wiki) image.

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