Some religious leaders provide leadership on disputed social, economic, and political questions; others do not. Jesus did not. The hot political topic in his day had to do with loyalty to the rule of the Roman government. Jesus’ enemies tried to trap him by posing the question to Jesus whether we should pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus said “No,” then he would have gotten himself in trouble with the Roman authorities. If Jesus said ”Yes,” then he would have aroused the antagonism of the Jewish people. Jesus’ reply was to ask the questioner for a coin. Jesus asked, “Whose head is on the coin?” The antagonist said, “Caesar.” Jesus replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Jesus thereby chose not to take sides on the hot political topic of the day. It was obvious what the political and military consequences would be if the Jews had revolted against Rome. At the beginning of his career as a public teacher, Jesus settled that he would not pursue “the kingdoms of this world.” Jesus gave a different kind of leadership—spiritual leadership. If that leadership had been accepted as, among other things, a tactical alternative to revolt, it would have allowed the Jews to survive. But Jesus did not argue on this basis for the leadership he offered. He simply offered his spiritual alternative.
Developing this religious philosophy, I have tried to carry out the same choice. When I taught applied ethics, I made it my business to ensure that my classroom was a place where people of any position were respected and listened to. I held up a model of reason practiced by Thomas Aquinas, who took on the discipline of researching the most important counter-arguments to challenge his own views and then, after carefully stating his own position, responding to those counter-arguments with fairness and reason. I assigned readings that showed well-informed and well-argued positions based on different ethical philosophies. In class I would sometimes set forth something like the strongest case I could for each side in the debates. I did not hesitate to criticize what I regarded as poor arguments. But not for a moment did I suggest that all positions are equally wise, or that it is impossible to come to a correct judgment about such matters in particular cases. I occasionally assigned students to find a law review article relevant to a topic of discussion; because lawyers get into details of careful reasoning about topics more than philosophers usually do. It became abundantly clear that it takes more than reading one’s favorite newspaper or listening to one’s favorite radio talk show host in order to form a well-based ethical judgment—not to mention the fact that a personal dilemma may often not yield to ethical reason alone; in such cases, ethical reflection becomes a stage in a wider prayer process.
I believe that this philosophy needs to stand for responsible family life rather than personal indulgence, for the service motive as well as the profit motive in business, and for global concerns rather than nationalism. But how those urgent needs are to be worked out alongside legitimate, competing concerns I leave in silence. Not only do I lack the expertise to offer guidance; I believe that this philosophy functions best when it avoids entanglements with issues that can interfere with the clarity of its spiritual ethical priority: humankind as the family of God.