In 1942 the US Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision limiting our right to free speech. The court’s ruling is commonly known as the Fighting Words Doctrine.
The justices saw no constitutional problem with prohibiting, and punishing the use of, a narrow class of words: the obscene, the libelous, and those intended to incite a breach of peace. The latter they referred to as “fighting words.”
Over time, the court has more closely defined this doctrine. Merely offensive speech remains protected by the constitution. To be called fighting words an utterance has to pose a genuine threat.
So it may come as a shock to hear that Jesus used some fighting words. If people actually put his words into action as he intended, those words posed an existential threat to the stability of the accepted order. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the story.
A faction within the religious establishment has their sights trained on Jesus. They perceive him as a threat to their status and influence.
This group has teamed up with the local civil authorities: the Herodians. The Herodians maintain their own political power by collaborating with the occupying Roman forces. They fear that Jesus’s popularity could lead to social unrest. The Roman military response would be swift and catastrophic.
Since entering Jerusalem, Jesus has fended off one verbal assault after another. Finally, his critics seek to trap him with a lose-lose question. They ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
Roman taxes were a galling and burdensome form of exploitation. It was like paying protection money to an especially vicious mob. So if Jesus consented to the practice, his approval rating would plummet. And yet, urging a tax revolt would invite a severe and probably deadly Roman response.
So, Jesus says, “Hand me a coin. Whose image do you see on it?”
“The emperor,” they replied.
“Well, give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. And give to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:15-22)
Any Romans nearby may have heard Jesus giving his assent to Roman taxation. Something like, “These coins belong to the emperor. Give some of them back to him.”
But that is not what his fellow Jews would have heard. The word “image” would have been fighting words. They would have recognized an allusion to Genesis 1:27. God created humans in the image of God.
So Jesus is actually asking, “To whom do you genuinely give yourself? Which relationship will define your true self and guide your life?”
By pointing to Emperor Tiberius’ image on that coin, Jesus is naming one of the basic structures of an Empire. It always claims absolute sovereignty over its subjects. And for the children of God, those are fighting words.
Only God has absolute claim on the children of God. Only God deserves our utter devotion. We betray our very nature if we allow anything short of the God of perfect love to form us in its image.
The Empire’s claim on Jesus’s contemporaries were fighting words. And those remain fighting words for us too. No country or political party or social class or regional identity can legitimately claim our absolute, unconditional fidelity.
But as you might expect, Jesus did not speak those words to incite violence. He was ushering in a relentless, costly, and yet peaceful struggle for justice. A struggle inspired and informed by the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom where the first are last and the last are first; where leaders are servants, not tyrants.
With various metaphors Jesus repeatedly teaches us to counter violence and coercion, hate and oppression with the holy subversiveness of love. To be the leaven in the dough that changes everything from the inside out. To take up our cross and follow him. To lose our life to save it.
Richard Rohr calls this a cruciform life. People who accept Christ’s invitation to this kind of life, he writes, “agree to embrace the imperfection and even the injustices of our world, allowing these situations to change themselves from the inside out, which is the only way things are changed anyway.” (Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, p. 148)
Jesus issues fighting words to you and to me. If we act on those words as he intends, we will pose a mortal threat to systemic racism and sexism, unjust income disparities, poverty, and war.
And Jesus gives us the only weapon that can prevail in a fight for justice, a fight for the peace that passes all understanding: the power love.
You’re invited to join me for a series of in-person Zoom conversations called “A Love Shaped Life” Thursdays (6:00 p.m. CDT) in October. This coming Thursday (Oct. 22) we’ll be talking about mending relationships.
Missed last week’s session? No worries. Each conversation stands on its own. Hope to see you there!
There’s no charge. No registration. All you need to do on Thursday is click this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81224620632?pwd=V1V1dmJGQW12djZmb2hDVWp0a1lZZz09
All talks are based on my book A Resurrection Shape Life. Click here to learn more and read reviews.