Gaius Octavius, or “Augustus” as he was later called, was Rome's first emperor and reigning monarch when Jesus was born. In his younger years, he had successfully avenged his assassinated predecessor and adopted father, the beloved Julius Caesar, triumphantly quelled Mark Antony and Cleopatra's famous uprising, effectively transitioned the old republic into an empire, built impressive aqueducts and highways, and ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity throughout the known world. “Pax Romana,” or the peace of Rome, is how they described Augustus' cumulative accomplishments. His kingdom seemed without end. He was known as the “savior of Rome” and the “savior of the world.” If this were not enough, he had the senate posthumously deify his murdered father and as a result became known as the living son of god. The “prince of peace,” “savior of the world,” “son of god”—remind you of anyone? I don't think we can fully appreciate the audacity and apparent absurdity of Christ's sweeping counterclaims without an understanding of Augustus and his successors. This was the setting in which Jesus' 1st Century followers defiantly contradicted the prevailing sociopolitical narrative by insisting that Jesus—not Caesar—was the true Savior and Lord.
We should take note of our first brothers and sisters' timely example. They didn't buy into the brick and mortar kingdom, and they didn't look to the emperor for things he couldn't provide. They suffered great tribulation at the hands of the Caesars due to their stubborn refusal to participate in the imperial cult (which generally consisted of a simple annual sacrifice to Caesar). 1st Century Christians were often excluded from trade unions, marketplace commerce, and they were eventually crucified and made sport of in the Colosseum. The ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse Roman empire was traditionally very tolerant of new spiritual ideas. Worshipping the emperor, however, was seen as one's minimal patriotic duty. After which, one was free to pursue any other theological conclusions that struck one's fancy. Jesus, the crucified Galilean, was not seen as a rival to the Roman pantheon, so long as his followers played ball. Only they wouldn't.
There always has been an alternative to Jesus—an antichrist. There's always another kingdom to pursue, another story that promises to be good news. Had the 1st Century Christians been seduced by the dream of “making the empire great again,” building a robust economy, securing the boarders, exhibiting national strength with a firm foreign policy and military prowess—Caesar would have been the obvious leader to follow (or any number of the ambitious zionist militants for the Hebrew Christians wanting to make national Israel great again). Jesus offered none of these things. Two thousand years later, his agenda and upside down methods remain unchanged.
21st Century American Christ-followers have tragically inherited a faith-culture that sees Christianity and rabid nationalistic pride and devotion as not only compatible, but essentially inseparable. We're enamored with the romanticized glory days of our country, back when Moses penned the 2nd Amendment on Sinai and Jesus rode shotgun with George Washington across the Delaware. Silly as it sounds, contradicting the spirit of this narrative is tantamount to blasphemy in many circles. Our version of the American dream has become a golden calf. So to my brothers and sisters of this star-spangled persuasion, let me state plainly what you already know: The president is not our savior, the United States is not the kingdom of God, and our inappropriate longing to “make America great again” (the way we mean it) is incompatible with, and therefore a distraction from, the mission of God.
Our political anxieties often reveal our misguided hopes and divided loyalties. Every election year is sensationally described as the “most important.” “We can't have—so and so—get elected.” “We're doomed if—what's his face—doesn't get into office.” Whether we're banking on a human hope that promises change we can believe in or the guy or gal who vows to make America great again, we'll always be disappointed. Our leaders are not as to the point as Augustus was in calling himself the "son of god" or the "savior of the world." It's mostly us who expects them to be these things as seen in our collective angst and gnashing teeth. Interestingly, the rancor and vitriol we so freely spew about our political leaders on social media and around the water cooler is just another side of the same ugly hero-worship coin. The cycle of deifying and demonizing human leaders in general and politicians in particular is rooted an unrealistic, and inevitably unmet, expectations. Fellow Christ-follower, we seem to have largely forgotten that Caesar is not lord.
To be clear, I'm not trying to imply that there is a one-for-one equivalence between the Roman Empire and the United States or the Caesars and the Leader of the Free World. Nor am I suggesting that all patriotism is incongruent with following Jesus. I'm also not proposing that there should be a divide between politics and faith. As Christ-followers, we should love our country (wherever that may be), pay our taxes, faithfully perform our civic duties, genuinely respect and obey our leaders (in so far as their commands don't conflict with the wishes of our King), and actively seek the common good (Matt 22:21, 1 Peter 2:13, 17, 1 Cor. 10:24). In our current context, seeking the common good will include taking our democratic responsibilities seriously. In our earnest pursuit of God's kingdom, we will inevitably be invested in political outcomes. But we must never lose sight of our true Savior and Lord, the one who holds the hearts of kings in his hand. We don't look to Caesar for protection and prosperity. We don't curse his/her name when the Dow Jones plummets or unemployment rises. Our gaze is fixed on other things. Even if Nero or Jezebel takes the throne, we know who ultimately reigns supreme, and our lifelong task of declaring and demonstrating the good news of his kingdom remains the same. Keep calm this election season, and thank God that Caesar is not lord.
“to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (Jude 1:25).