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Houses divided: is there a way to give both Caesar and God their due, with integrity? (testaments).

ONCE UPON A time, both God and Caesar came to town and settled into opposite ends of the neighborhood. At first, the arrangement was agreeable all the way around. Nobody seemed to mind when God set up a clamshell Madonna on the lawn and Caesar hung a huge flag from his porch. They were both nice neighbors, and they kept their hedgerows neatly trimmed. What's not to like?

It was easy to establish a relationship with both of our new neighbors, so easy that nobody noticed right away that they never seemed to talk to each other.

God, admittedly, was a party guy. He had everybody over on Sundays, and there was always food and wine and music. Caesar was never around on the weekends, and he didn't care much for socializing, being a rather formal fellow. But he was always available Monday through Friday between 9 and 5 to do business. Caesar seemed to have his fingers in every pie, and it was hard to pinpoint exactly what his business was, because he did a little of this and a little of that. We liked him, despite his aloofness. Caesar was a very helpful sort, and most solicitous of our needs.

In the beginning, both God and Caesar made substantial contributions to the neighborhood. They both started schools for the children, which were sorely needed. God's philosophy was simple: He thought children needed not only an education but also a moral compass. Some people preferred God's school, even though it cost a little more, because they thought the children got better all-around formation as people.

This is the same reason others favored Caesar's school. They thought their children's values should be shaped at home, not by the system. Caesar did communicate values in his school, of course, but his were those of the model citizen. Having two schools in the neighborhood was not a conflict, however, and actually helped to improve the quality of both schools.

Both God and Caesar set up services for the disadvantaged, though it was hard to compare what they were doing, because they approached the problem so differently. God wanted his hands dirty, getting involved in individual lives and doing the hands-on work of preparing and serving meals. He even let people into his house on cold nights to sleep all over the furniture and floors. It was messy, inefficient, and only randomly successful, people said. It didn't address the big picture of social issues at all. It was too bleeding-heart personal, more satisfying for his volunteers than it was in achieving solutions.

Caesar's plan was more comprehensive, and he had more financial backing at his disposal. But there were also mounds of paperwork, endless regulations, and sometimes the bureaucracy took so long that the people who needed help couldn't hang on long enough to get what they came for. So many people in need went back and forth between God and Caesar, hoping to patch themselves and their children through to the future.

But not everything our new neighbors did was in competition. Caesar did a lot to stimulate the economy, while God, many complained, seemed positively indifferent to it. Caesar talked a lot about opportunities for the future, and he was behind the growth of industry and commerce all the way. God talked about the future more vaguely. Sometimes it seemed that what he had to say was a long way off, not particularly useful in the here and now. Some people grew tired of God's peculiar promises and pipe dreams. They drifted into Caesar's camp, where the goals and the rewards were more tangible and accessible.

Still, God's weekly celebrations became central to our community. Through them, without really thinking about it, we became aware of our interconnectedness in a way we hadn't been before. It was there that we met the grocer, the crossing guard, the mayor, and the teacher who worked at Caesar's school. People from other neighborhoods with whom we rarely had contact showed up at these parties, too. We speculated about the invitation list and decided at last there was no list. People just came, and the door was open to them. The gatherings broke down the usual barriers that keep people separated into "their kind." We learned so much about our town just by showing up.

Of course, Caesar had his gatherings, too. But in keeping with his style, they involved a lot more planning. Things like his annual parade, which gave us all a chance to boast of the town's achievements--which were, truth be told, Caesar's achievements. Or the street fairs, which were really retail opportunities disguised as social events. Everyone had a good time there, just the same. He also held endless meetings for those with the stamina to attend.

Admittedly, Caesar could be a bore sometimes. But some people were fascinated by his power to make a dollar and get things done, so they sat on his boards and yawned through his ribbon-cutting ceremonies, hoping to get noticed and maybe to get a piece of the action in Caesar's next deal.

Most of us, as I said, got along well with God and Caesar. They were both decent folk, smart, dedicated, and good talkers, and, in their own way, quite full of convictions. But don't get God started on the subject of justice: You might not get home at a reasonable hour! And Caesar could go on forever on topics like liberty and rights.

At times, some of the things God said sounded a little bit in conflict with what Caesar was saying, but because no one remembered seeing the two in the same room together, it never came down to an argument. Still, when you were over at God's house, you heard all about his plan for right living, and when you were in Caesar's office, he had his own laws posted on the wall for all to see. Many of these ideas were not in opposition, and some of them actually supported each other to a certain extent. But a few of them were eerily aimed in different directions. For the most part, we chose not to think about that.

BUT THAT WAS BEFORE THE TROUBLE STARTED. THAT YEAR during the fall, as election time rolled around, both God and Caesar were wing for our attention. God urged us to be just. Caesar wanted us to be free. Some of us wondered if we had to choose between the two. Up to now most of us had felt pretty glad to have both these guys in the neighborhood. We had admired them for their zeal and made use of our relationships with each of them. We really didn't see the need to take sides, much less to view one or the other as a threat to the community. After all, both had become so useful and integral to our society. We hoped the whole thing would blow over, and the tension would just dribble away.

I personally never got the sense that either God or Caesar was behind the events that followed. People started forming political factions, pitting God and Caesar against each other with evil-sounding rhetoric. Somebody posted God's plan for right living near Caesar's house. It was torn down. Somebody raised a flagpole in front of the clamshell Madonna. It was quietly removed.

People started saying that Caesar was oppressing the friends of God, while others accused God of being a bad citizen and a danger to the best interests of the neighborhood. The parents who sent their kids to God's school started demanding some backing from Caesar's coffers since, as they pointed out, some of the money they put at the disposal of Caesar's neighborhood improvement campaign went to his school, which their children did not attend.

And some of the parents who attended God's parties while sending their kids to Caesar's school wanted to see God's plan for living taught there as well. Naturally, other parents who sent their children to Caesar's school said that, if God's ideas were forced upon their children, or one dime of their money went to God's school, they would vote all of Caesar's influential friends out of office. A faction of the parents, dismayed with what was happening in both schools, yanked their kids out and started teaching them at home. All of this made the headlines.

Others were less interested in what was happening in the schools and more interested in what was going on with the social programs for the disadvantaged. They complained that Caesar was pitching far too much money and effort at a segment of the population that did not seem to give a reasonable return on the resources allotted to them. They demanded he change his policies, and he obliged them. But Caesar was shrewd and diplomatic about it. Instead of simply canceling his outreach, he made a large donation to God's operations on behalf of the poor. In fawning tones, Caesar said he'd always admired what God was doing and felt that the money would make a wider impact over there.

Of course, the sum he offered was a fraction of what it cost Caesar to run his own programs, and the money did not come without strings attached. Caesar wanted his laws to apply to God's programs. It made a lot of people very uneasy, and while the debate raged on about what to do, the safety net under the poor was becoming threadbare.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD BECAME DIVIDED IN A WAY MORE AGgressive than anything we remembered in the past. Some flew flags from their porches. Others put Madonnas on clamshells in their front yards. Some did both, and we wondered what the heck they were trying to say. Maybe they didn't know themselves. Some of us still wanted desperately to believe that we could all just get along somehow, that the differences of opinion between God and Caesar could be ironed out over time, or that they weren't all that important to begin with, or that we could just live with the differences.

But others were adamant that these differences were fundamental demarcation points between right and wrong itself, or between citizens and subversives, or even between the saved and the damned. As the language climbed into ever more searing rhetoric, it seemed that the old days when God and Caesar could live peacefully on separate ends of the neighborhood were gone for good. Was there a way to give Caesar his due, and God his, with integrity? Or were the warring camps correct in saying that one side would have to capitulate to the other and that the future happiness of our children was at stake?

Elections came and went, and, of course, little changed. Some of the candidates posed as friends of Caesar's or God's in order to attract voters. They swore they would uphold God's values or Caesar's laws if elected, and many did get elected on the strength of these promises. But lots of us, disturbed by the midnight conversions of some of these candidates to one platform or another, remained unconvinced. Some folks, demoralized by the debate, failed to vote at all. The headlines blared that the results showed voter apathy.

But here's what I think. I think most people in this town care deeply about our children, as well as the inequality in our society, and the need for law and order and values. I think we would like to see the community prosper economically but not at the expense of a sense of interrelatedness. We'd like to enjoy the parties at God's house, and do business with Caesar later in the week, and not feel like we are crossing enemy lines when we do so.

But from where I'm sitting, it still seems like we are a long way off from resolving this thing.

ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to Catholicism (ACTA Publications) and the Sunday readings commentary God's Word Is Alive! (Twenty-Third Publications).
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Title Annotation:Christian philosophy
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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