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Render Unto Caesar

January 25, 2006

I think it was William Burrroughs who said, “to speak is to lie, to live is to collaborate”. His point is that all of human existence is tinged with compromise.

This is a difficult truth for me to accept. I am something of a fundamentalist – not ideologically, but ethically. I have a very clear sense of what I consider to be acceptable behaviour, and any deviation from this, any ‘realpolitik’ or accepting of ‘reality’ is very difficult for me.

For instance, a lot of my trade union colleagues work with the Labour Party in the UK, and they’re able to clearly demonstrate the benefits a labour government has brought to union members in some areas. But I absolutely cannot bring myself to shake hands with the people who went to war in Iraq.

Clearly, it’s also no good being ethically beyond reproach, and snow white morally, but achieving nothing of substance because of not wanting to sully oneself by associating with people more willing to compromise.

This also comes up at election time: I think the whole system of parliamentary democracy is a farce, a kind of legalised side show to distract people from the fact that they are actually being ruled, not by governments, but by harsh economic truths they have absolutely no control over.

So what about people who seem sound but intend to contest power? Support them, or refuse to have anything to do with an illegitimate system? Does one vote Green, or Socialist, or just declare a pox on all their houses?

My argument has always been “don’t vote – create an alternative system” – but isn’t that just an excuse for opting out, a way to excuse doing nothing tangible? Because ‘building an alternative’ is such a huge, all-encompassing project.

Power is exercised in our names, wars are declared, policies agreed on – are we not then required to contest this in any arena available to us?

But I am not one for moral ambiguity. I cannot bring myself to vote for, or add my name to something I don’t believe in. My integrity is all I have – I can’t bring myself to compromise for the lesser of two evils.

I don’t want the lesser of two evils. I want good. I want love, peace, harmony and justice. Nothing else will do.

I think what Jesus has to say is one of the most wise and succinct contributions on the issue: he said, when asked whether Jews should pay tax to the occupying Roman forces, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. In other words, “if it is Caesar’s, give it to him”.

The church, typically for an organisation that cravenly kow tows to power, has always interpreted this as an endorsement of accepting the demands of our rulers.

But it is a much more subtle and intelligent statement than that.
“If it’s Caesar’s, give it to him.”  But is it his? He thinks so, and has thousands of armed men to back him up. But if I know that I worked for it, that it’s money earned from my sweat – so should I give it to him?

Rendering unto Caesar is an issue I face everyday, whether it comes down to voting, or paying tax or bank charges, or having to jump through hoops so that anal British bureaucrats will give me the paperwork I need to stay in their repressed little island.

There is no clear solution. You need to take it on a case by case basis. If you render everything that is asked of you, you end up with nothing of yourself. If you give no ground, you remain a rebel outsider, sexy and romantic, but probably dead, like Paul Newman’s character in the film Cool Hand Luke – which is one of my favourites.

I think all of us are far too quick to compromise on our principals and accept a very marginally better version of the status quo, because it’s the path with the least effort or risk. But we’ll never live in the world we want unless we are prepared to stand up for it.

So I guess you pick your battles, from one day to the next, and try to stay true to what really matters while compromising on the details. But it’s a perilous path indeed – the system is designed to wear down rebellion by attrition and incorporate rebels as its research and development wing.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Alan permalink
    February 1, 2006 9:49 pm

    My 2 – probably unoriginal – cents.

    The anarchy proposed by a lot of non-voting activists sounds like a recipe for less scrupulous, less controlled strongmen to take power.

    I think that structures are the only way we can all have a chance. They may need shaking up – end of apartheid – but they don’t need eliminating – somalia. Make a change. Maybe a big one. But ripping down a system that’s better than anything before in mass human societies (britain/america/sweden/etc.) and seeing what happens sounds like you’re gambling to lose. Baby steps for me. Even end of apartheid ‘baby’ steps.
    If you can say: “let’s tear down the system” in public and you don’t get arrested – you probably shouldn’t.

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