Review: Cody Cook’s What Belongs to Caesar

I am in an interesting spot to review this book. I am a former Tolstoyan with a Christian anarchist perspective, so there’s something unusual and familiar to a return to Christian anarchism from a pacifist lens.

What Belongs to Caesar is a series of essays on the role that the government plays in the life of Christians. Each essay addresses one or more common misconception about the government as it relates to Christianity, especially in mainstream culture.

I’m not much of a theologian, so take my critiques and assessments of the book with a grain of salt as it comes to the doctrine. However, I find myself at my harshest with those who agree to me but make mistakes along the path.

And What Belongs to Caesar clearly comes from a place of both genuine reverence to God and a well-reasoned approach to the political course it proposes.

A Thousand Foot Overview

There’s a distinction in Christian libertarian/anarchist circles about different strains of philosophical thought. As I mentioned earlier, I used to subscribe to a Tolstoyan school of absolute pacifism, though I no longer am as committed to it.

Cook doesn’t explicitly choose one path over all others, but he is close to this conclusion. I find some of his reasoning more solid than Tolstoy’s, in part because he is bringing his work out of the Austro-libertarian tradition. For comparison, Tolstoy started from a Proudhon-like economic framework, which lent itself to many errors that colored the interpretations of his work.

Further, this is less of a work that explicitly advocates a particular end-point, though there are strong Christian anarchist messages about the role of the state as “peacekeeper” being at odds with Christian life.

Rather, it is explicitly a refutation of the Christian arguments for the state, as well as an analysis of how these arguments have wielded Christianity cynically or corrupted it.

I can’t assess how well these arguments would do in practice, but there were a few things in particular that stood out to me:

  1. The refutation of the idea of “just war” as being Biblical.
  2. The discussion of the significance of the phrase “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”
  3. The analysis of Christianity and the profession of the soldier considering Christians not telling soldiers to quit the trade.

The Arguments

Cook has some great arguments in the book about things that are more complex than I feel comfortable really addressing because I might not do them justice.

I don’t know Christian scholarship as well as I might, but one place where What Belongs to Caesar seems strong is its use of evidence. I don’t have the background to assess the credentials of the works he cites, but I can attest to the fact that he never makes tortured arguments for his points, instead earnestly and honestly drawing upon Scripture and others’ work to build a case for his positions.

Some of these may be helpful in the sphere of Christian apologetics at times, such as explaining how the use of Christ’s image for warmongering (e.g. by the Germans in WWII) is an unacceptable interpretation of the text.

Against “Just War”

I’ve seen just war theory applied to Christianity, but I’ve never seen it come up in an argument. However, I’ve noticed more trends moving toward that direction from the neocons in the current warmongering around Ukraine, so there might be providence at work in Cook’s choice to publish these essays.

Many of the arguments revolve around a need to punish the wicked and defend the weak, which I would argue is a perfectly Christian idea (within its bounds), but there is no evidence that supports this as a doctrine for declaring war.

Cook’s arguments are strong on this point. Although he does not shy away from the fact that there were wars within the Bible, many of which had God’s approval, he points out that the reasons for these wars are not the wars that we hear justified.

Further, the whole idea of just war is that it serves as a legitimating process, but the Bible is very clear that there is no action that is justified by merit of it being a wrong made right by context. Rather, even righteous things may be wrong in a certain context, but the inverse is not true. A lie begins life as a lie and cannot mutate into a truth.

In his assessment of the question of just war, Cook lays to rest the idea that there is such a thing as a just war under Christian doctrine, and I think this is a lesson that even those of us who do not embrace pacifism should learn from.

The Christian and the State

My own approach to the state is very straightforward. I am informed by the Austro-libertarian idea that taxation is theft, and as a result the state is a criminal organization because it derives its income through coercive force.

Naturally, as Christians are supposed to abide the law, I have no associations (except those I am impelled to by force) with criminal organizations and instead advocate for a private law society.

But my argument builds from many presumptions, and my political position on the state draws from economics and political theory rather than a Biblical case for the role of Christians in the world (though I obviously believe it to be in alignment).

Cook builds the case for Christians as living apart from the state using a more Biblical argument, drawing from classical, medieval, and modern Christian thought to build the case that we are not of this world, and as a result we should not associate with the things of this world.

This is an argument that is familiar to me as a former Tolstoyan, and I think he builds a case that is more explicit as a call to Christians and does not rely on a particular attitude toward the state itself.

He does not limit himself to a mere analysis of the current state, however. He goes through each of the “ideal” governments, i.e. those without corruption and those that are truly voluntary unions, and looks at how their functions are still incompatible with Christian doctrine.

I differ from him in this respect, being more hawkish on worldly enforcers of justice through my private law perspective, but I cannot think of a strong refutation in the points where we disagree.

Christians and the Soldier

One point that is often used against us anti-war Christians is the idea of the Christian soldier, using examples like Cornelius, who merges a faith in the Lord with a profession of fighter.

Cook points out that the Biblical case for this is quite weak and draws upon a sort of tortured analysis that would imply that we are only worthy of Christ after we have been saved.

If the argument is that Christians should always hate sinners, then it could be said that the proper response from the Christian to the pro-war individual would be open hostility.

But we are never called upon to hate those who sin, because it is not our perfection that saves us but the grace God bestows upon us.

We are not to become prostitutes and tax collectors just because Christ associated with those most in need of His help–they are most in need of His help precisely because they are those we should not emulate.

But it is not our place to judge just the same as it is not our place to follow in their footsteps, and that is the thread that Cook draws out.

Conclusion

What Belongs to Caesar is a short book; the advanced review copy he sent me is about a hundred pages long. It’s a collection of essays, each on a different topic, but they build up an image of the role of Caesar (i.e. the state) in Christian life.

I have my personal bias, Christian anarchist that I am, but I think that Cook’s points lend themselves well to an unconfused thought on the matter of the Christian and worldly life. This is a place where many thinkers run into pitfalls; Tolstoy, for instance, clearly places his own preferences above the Bible in many places, but I cannot find any fault in this book other than that I am left wanting more.

But brevity alone is no flaw.

You can find What Belongs to Caesar on Amazon (affiliate link) in digital and softcover formats.

Afterword

Cody sent me an advanced reader copy of this book back a few weeks ago, before rumors of the current conflict in Ukraine had really even circulated.

Does the ongoing conflict change my mind on the book? Is there some peculiar quality of this modern conflict that lends itself to a Christian support for the state or its wars?

The answer is no. If anything, this book has become more timely in our present circumstances.

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