There once were many places where you weren't allowed to see an image of Jesus anywhere. Any depiction of Christ was banned. In the wrong place you could even get killed for having one.
Who were those awful, Jesus-banning people?
Were they the Nazis? The Communists? The ACLU?
Actually, they were … the Christians.
One of the many bitter fights of early Christianity (and there were a lot) concerned "icons," the depiction of holy figures. Many church leaders believed they violated the Second Commandment, the one against worshiping graven images.
But human nature eventually prevailed. Most Christians demanded to see their Christ, their holy virgin, their saints. Eventually the dispute was settled in their favor.
More than a thousand years have passed since then, and we are still going at it — this time, with a proposal to depict the Son of God, the Lamb, the Savior …
On an official state of Florida automobile tag.
An auto tag.
Jesus is to be mass-produced, imprinted on metal, given a reflective coat and sold for money. His crown of thorns will lie just beneath the "FLORIDA" across the top of the plate; his outstretched arms will be truncated to the left and right by the tag numbers, so that one does not actually see the cross, the nails, the wounds — no, we would not have that! The words "SUNSHINE STATE" will be stamped across his unscathed, unlashed torso.
And yet, if even this censored Passion is still too strong for one's taste, the Legislature is producing an alternative "faith" plate as well, that one with a stained-glass window, a prettied-up cross and the slogan, "I Believe."
My first thought upon hearing this news, as an erstwhile Methodist and reader of the Gospels, was not about the legal separation of church and state in our secular democracy — though this surely violates it — nor whether Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or atheists should now get their own plate — though surely they are entitled, since they pay exactly the same taxes to the state — nor even whether the Legislature should stick to the pressing worldly matters of the day, such as opening up Florida to oil drilling, handing out new tax breaks and protecting old ones in a budget crisis, and otherwise running the state entirely into the ground, a secular task at which it appears to be doing a bang-up job.
Instead, my first thoughts were more about the stories of Christ in the Bible, angrily throwing the money changers out of the temple, and instructing his followers to pray privately in their closets rather than displaying prideful piety on the public streets like the "hypocrites" (which is exactly what he said. Look it up.).
Most of all, I thought about the story in Matthew when his enemies tried to trick Jesus, tried to get him to come out against paying taxes so that he could be arrested. Jesus threw it back in their faces by saying, show me a coin — whose face is on it? And they had to reply, it is Caesar's face.
"Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's," he said, "and unto God the things that are God's."
Since everybody these days claims to know What Jesus Would Do, let me ask a question. Do you think he would want to be mass-produced by Caesar's state, sold for money and displayed on the public streets to gratify an act of pandering political piety?