Sunday, July 1, 2012

God and Country

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,"
"This is my own, my native land,"
Whose heart hath ne'er within him turned
When wandering on some foreign strand?
If such there be, then mark him well,
For him no minstrel raptures swell,
High though his title, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim.
Despite those titles, power and pelf,
The wretch, concentered all in self,
Living shall forfeit fair renown,
And doubling dying, shall go down
To the dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored and unsung!

I wrote that from memory. Not bad for something I had to learn more than 45 years ago in elementary school. I don't know why I remember this one rather than, say, the one about daffodils. But I remember it being about patriotism. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when it seemed that some people lacked a sufficient love of country. I personally never encountered anyone, no matter how "radical," who hated this country. I have met lots of people who have wanted to improve this country, make it match its ideals more closely. In that way, it's like the church. We never completely live up to the principles laid down by our Lord but we continually strive to do so.

Next to religion, one's country is the most important allegiance most people acknowledge. But often religion and politics clash. Despite the popular idea that during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages religion dictated everything, in fact, princes and popes often clashed during this period. For instance, the downfall of the Knights Templar on charges of heresy was really engineered by the French King Phillip the Fair. By that time this militant order was primarily a lending institution. Phillip owed them a lot of money. He was powerful enough to bully Pope Clement V into disbanding the Templars. 200 years later, Henry VIII couldn't get his first  marriage annulled because his wife's nephew was Holy Roman Emperor, who like Phillip was able to control the Pope.

If you are disgusted by the idea of politicians dictating what religion says and does, then you have to admit that the people who set up our government were brilliant. And one of their most brilliant ideas was to separate religion and government. They did it to maintain our religious freedom. Imagine if the president or the governor or even an elected body determined whether your religion or denomination was legal. Before the Constitution was ratified, you could not hold elected office in several states if you were Jewish or Catholic. Maryland was created to give Roman Catholics a place to worship freely. The framers of the Constitution wanted to prevent restrictions on how people worshiped and how people of all faiths are treated.

They also did not want the churches to be corrupted as they were in countries with state churches. The traditional role of such a religious establishment has been to bless whatever the state does. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella asked for permission from the Pope to run their own Inquisition. They found that the Spanish Inquisition was not only a good way to go after heretics but also to neutralize political enemies. Declare an opponent a heretic and you could seize his wealth and property. The Pope actually tried to shut down the Spanish Inquisition because of its abuses but the Spanish monarchs wouldn't let him.

There is another problem with having a state-sponsored church. People drop out of a church that is too closely tied to political power. Today some of the most secular countries, such as Denmark, Norway and the UK, have official state churches. When you give people little or no choice in how to worship, people are apt to opt out of religion altogether.

Of course, the separation of church and state makes it possible, if not probable, that some churches and the government will disagree on certain issues. I'm not going to talk about those issues. I'm not a political scientist. Nor am I going to talk about other religions because that's not my specialty. I'm just going to point out that because sometimes secular government agrees and sometimes disagrees with the church, the relationship between the 2 is complex. And I'm going to suggest that the 5 paradigms that Richard Niebuhr set out for the relationship between Christianity and culture work equally well in describing the various ways that Christianity can relate to government.

Niebuhr gave both Biblical and historical examples of each of the 5 ways church and state interact. They are: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transformer of culture. Since government is part of culture, this offers us ways of looking at how Christians have and can relate to secular powers.

The "Christ against culture" position can be seen in the New Testament and the first 3 centuries of the church. Jesus and the apostles came into conflict with the ruling powers of Judea and the Roman Empire. Jesus of course was executed by order of the Roman governor. What got him killed was his claim to be the Messiah, God's anointed prophet, priest and king. Pilate, quite in character, resisted doing Caiaphas the High Priest any favors but caved when accused of treason should he not crucify a self-proclaimed king and therefore rival of Caesar. Government likes tame religion. It likes a religion that knows its place. It is uneasy when people say God comes before the state. "King of kings and Lord of lords" was a title claimed by the emperor. This meant those who said Jesus is Lord must be shut up. The apostles' response to this, as recorded in Acts 5, was "We must obey God rather than men." Most of the 12 apostles died as martyrs. Under Nero, all Christians became targets of the government and were persecuted periodically until Constantine made Christianity a legal religion. For 300 years, Christians had no choice but to find themselves in opposition to the government, at least on matters of freedom of religion. And again, during the Third Reich, many Christians realized that they could not reconcile Nazi ideology with Christianity. Many Catholics and Protestants hid Jews and otherwise disobeyed the Nazis. They often ended up in the camps, as did Corrie Ten Boom and her family, and were often executed, like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Separatist groups, such as some fundamentalists, use the Christ vs. culture model, seeing it as a radical either/or choice.

The "Christ of culture" position existed in the Eastern Orthodox church from the time Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman empire. Its Biblical analogy would be the theocratic Kingdom of Israel. The idea was to meld Christianity and the culture, so they speak with one voice. Obviously it helps if this union of church and state means that Christian ethics will be practiced by the government and thus influence government policy. Christian monarchs created hospitals and universities and built churches and gave us the some of the best of their culture. But as we've seen the danger is that political considerations will influence the church rather than vice versa. It is because of this risk that our government was designed to separate church from state.

This separation can lead to a position of "Christ above culture." In other words, the church is separate from but superior to the government. This position recognizes a hierarchy of values and puts Christ above the state. This was the ideal that the medieval church was going for. Some things fall into one realm and some into the other but in a conflict, the church should be given top priority. Popes usually did not try to micromanage kingdoms but wanted kings to defer to them in certain matters. It's nice in theory but as we've seen a powerful prince could resist a pope and if powerful enough, even control him. In what was called "the Babylonian Captivity of the Church," the French king got the Papacy moved from Rome to Avignon, France and for nearly 70 years, the popes were the puppets of the French royalty.

So how does one recognize the reality of the 2 realms and yet live in both, as we must? The "Christ and culture in paradox" position tries to do that by recognizing that a Christian has 2 competing loyalties, to the earthly kingdom in which he lives and to the Kingdom of God. Living within the tension of the 2 doesn't mean the conflict extends into everything. There is no Christian reason to, say, deny the authority of traffic laws. But at times a Christian may find himself pulled in different directions by his duties as a citizen and his duty as a follower of Jesus. The chief reason for this is sin. If we weren't sinful, we wouldn't find human culture in a conflict with Christianity. But because sin touches and taints, even if only slightly, all we do, even our best efforts to govern ourselves and our society aren't going to be perfect. But since we do not, at this time, have an alternative perfect society, we have to live in this tension. Niebuhr felt Paul was a good example of one who saw Christ and culture in a paradoxical relationship. He emphasized Christ as the Creator, Redeemer and Judge of this world as well as the one who reconciles it with God. Government has a God-given role to play in the world and so we should support it, especially when it comes to order and justice. As Paul writes in Romans 13, "For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, devoting themselves to this very thing." But Paul also found himself and the churches he founded prosecuted by the government unjustly for their beliefs. He spent the last years of his life imprisoned for his faith and he was beheaded in Rome after appealing to the emperor.

Another proponent of the "Christ and culture in paradox" model was Martin Luther, who wrote of the 2 kingdoms in which Christians simultaneously live. It parallels his teachings on law and grace and resembles the paradox of the Christian being simultaneously sinner and saint. God rules the world in 2 ways. Physically the Christian is under the jurisdiction of earthly kingdoms, whose chief function is to keep peace and order. Spiritually, he is under the Kingdom of Heaven. The government is necessary to curb and restrain sin. But the Christian obeys the laws not because he is compelled by law but because of his gratitude to God for his love and the grace to love others. Luther thought the Christian both can and should be involved in government.

Niebuhr liked the realism and honesty of this approach. It recognizes the tensions and the effect of sin. It bravely rejects simpler solutions and offers the freedom to creatively respond to the paradox without neat, rigid or prescribed answers. He did feel that an overemphasis on freedom could lead Christians to feel they need not obey laws and an overemphasis on law could stifle criticism of the government or recognizing that sometimes one must defy human authority.

Lastly Niebuhr delineated a position called "Christ transformer of culture." This holds that despite the pervasiveness of sin, cultures can be transformed. Niebuhr held that St. Augustine was a representative of this model, though some feel Calvin might be a better one. Calvin did work to transform Geneva into a model Christian city, using the law not merely to turn a mirror on sin or to curb it but also as a guide. Niebuhr, who obviously liked this model best, did not critique it but it is hard to see how this is much different in practice from other models of working in tandem with government. The same problems of a state sponsored church remain, including corruption, while the new danger of believing we can through our efforts build a utopia presents itself.

Different situations have given rise to each of these models. And all can provide some triumphs. The purity of the original message of Christ was preserved by the church living through times of persecution. The "Christ of culture" and "Christ above culture" left vast legacies of good as well as ill effects. The "Christ transformer of culture" is certainly a good goal, which led to a lot of social reform. William Wilberforce, motivated by his Christianity, worked his entire career as a Minister of the British Parliament to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself.

But I have to agree with Angus J. L. Menuge, whose online paper I consulted, that probably the most useful position is that of "Christ and culture in paradox." Because the church at different times can find itself in any of these paradigms, because no government is perfectly aligned with God's will on every issue, Christians can find themselves simultaneously in agreement and in disagreement with governments. Most times we obey government, as Paul advises in Romans 13. We render unto Caesar what is his and unto God what is his, as Jesus said. But when a government demands Christians go against Christ's explicit commands, forbidding us to worship God or preach the Gospel, or requiring us to act contrary to his command to love all others, as the early Roman Empire and the Nazis did and certain regimes today do, the Christian must obey God and not men.

James Madison, who drafted the First Amendment, explicitly cited Luther as the inspiration for the idea of 2 spheres, the civil and the ecclesiastical. It made it possible for different Christians to worship according to their own traditions, for people of other religions to worship as they wish, and, yes, for some people not to worship at all. That is freedom. That is one of the reasons we celebrate our nation's birth this week. That freedom is something other countries are just discovering. That freedom is also what some countries are fighting against. Because freedom allows people to choose not only how to worship but also how to think. Not every government allows its people to think and choose. But our God does. He gives us the freedom to choose him or not, to love him or not, to follow him or not. Which means we should do the same to our fellow human beings. Love and goodness can only be true if they are freely chosen. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, "You cannot make men good by law; and without good men you cannot have a good society." It's a paradox. Like our being both sinners and saved. Like our living both in the physical realm and the spiritual realm. Like a God who hates sin but loves sinners…enough to die for them.

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