Sunday, March 3, 2013

Church vs. State

Many thanks to Jerry D. McCoy, Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Emeritus, of Eureka College for sharing his recent Humbert lecture entitled "Church, Mosque, Temple, and the Public Square: Religious Freedom in Contemporary America."

When I first drew our Sermon Suggestion slip I thought it said, "Church and State" which is a topic so broad that many volumes could be (and have been) written about it. But a second glance showed that it says "Church vs. State" which is a smaller subject, though only slightly. All I can attempt is a very broad and quick outline of the subject.

Religion generates strong emotions because it is about Ultimate Values. It's about compassion and fairness and sanctity and freedom and authority and loyalty. Religion binds people together. The only thing that comes close to religion in generating emotions and standing up for certain values and binding people together is politics. And for as long as there have been rulers they have tried to combine religion and politics. Because if you can convince people that you, the ruler, are doing God's work, they will follow you. Better yet, convince them that you are a god or demi-god or at least God's representative on earth, and you will have little opposition to whatever you want to do, even if it is otherwise nakedly political. So kings and emperors were traditionally seen as divine or semi-divine and obeying them was not merely politically expedient, it was God's will.

Israel wasn't much different. David's line was chosen by God to rule and so the people felt the son of David on the throne was at least in a spiritual sense somehow the son of God. The Roman Emperors, though initially achieving godhood only after death, eventually claimed that status while living. Which made their relationship with the Jews very contentious. Rome didn't mind its subject peoples continuing to worship their own gods as long as they made room for the emperor in their pantheons. For most pagan religions this was not a problem. The Jews, however, had as their first commandment the worship of their God alone. Rather than wipe out the people, Rome reluctantly acknowledged Judaism as one of the legal religions. But it was a fragile arrangement.

It didn't help that the thoroughly undiplomatic Pontius Pilate was made governor of Judea. From the day he entered Jerusalem with the Roman standard, seen by Jews as an idol, he was forever trampling on the religious sensibilities of his subjects. In today's gospel, Jesus responds to Pilate "mixing the blood" of some of his fellow Galileans with their sacrifices; in other words, killing them in the Temple. Eventually the Samaritans did petition Rome and got him removed. Which explains why, at the trial of Jesus, the otherwise dictatorial Pilate folds like a card table when the crowd outside the Antonia fortress accuse him of treason against Caesar for trying to spare Jesus, a royal pretender in their eyes. Pilate knows his political career is on thin ice and orders Jesus crucified. Ironically, this is a case of the state deferring to organized religion.

In the book of Acts, we see the apostles first run afoul of the religious authorities and only later, as Paul spreads the gospel outside Judea, of Roman officials. In no case do we see the apostles deliberately picking these fights, nor acting belligerently. And always the issue is their preaching of the gospel. At that point, the Roman Empire had not taken notice of Christians. Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism. Which is why Paul, in Romans 13, endorses the idea that all human authority is granted by God to enforce law and order. Only the lawbreaker need fear the government, he says. After Rome burned, Nero, looking for scapegoats, blamed the Christians, had Peter and Paul executed and began the first imperial persecution of the church. From then on, depending on the priority various emperors put on it, declaring oneself a Christian was dangerous. Christians were ordered to make a sacrifice to the divine emperor and to curse Christ. Those who refused were killed.

The only New Testament book that we know was definitely written under imperial persecution is Revelation. The author's portrait of Rome, under the guise of Babylon, is that of a powerful prostitute, drunk on the blood of the saints and martyrs. Her downfall is brought about by God. Nowhere in this book, or indeed in the entire New Testament, are Christians pictured as combatants, only as witnesses testifying to Jesus and the gospel.

The persecution of the church waxed and waned until, after nearly 300 years, Christianity was legalized under Constantine. About 60 years later, under Theodosius the Great, Christianity, as defined in the Nicene Creed, was made the only official religion of the Roman Empire. But any idea that church and state never clashed again would be wrong.

I saw a bumper sticker that said, "When religion ran the world, it was called the Dark Ages." This is a prime example of why bumper stickers are a lousy way to make political or religious arguments. There are a number of gross oversimplifications in this slogan but I will select 2.

First, it was not the church that caused the Dark Ages; it was the destruction of the western part of the Roman Empire by barbarian tribes who had no interest in literacy. It was the church, especially the monasteries with their massive libraries, which preserved the writings and wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In fact the primary way of proving you were clergy was by showing you could read. When the barbarian lords needed someone to keep their books, they hired a cleric, from which we get the word "clerk."

Secondly, the idea that the church "ruled" Europe is fallacious. While the barbarians eventually became Christians (though "Christianized" might be a more accurate way to describe pagans who were suddenly ordered to get baptized because their ruler had converted), they in no way let the church dictate how they ruled or conducted themselves. While theoretically the church ruled over religious matters and the state over secular matters, controversies between popes and princes over jurisdiction in various issues characterize not only the Dark Ages, but the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. If the church had actually ruled Europe, there would have been less fighting among Christians. The church declared the Peace of God which sought to grant immunity from military violence to noncombatants, women, children, churches and church lands, merchants, even farm animals. Violations of this, such as burning houses or beating the defenseless, could get you excommunicated. The church also declared the Truce of God which prohibited fighting on Sundays and holy days, all of Lent and every Friday. As we know, so-called Christian princes often violated these rules. Were the church really running the world, the "Dark Ages" would have been a lot lighter and a lot more peaceful.

This is not to say that the church did not have a measure of political power at certain times and in certain places or that it did not abuse that power. But our topic is the church versus the state and it is important to note that the church often vigorously fought the state to curb the abuses those in power committed on the less fortunate and less powerful. Remember the impetus for abolishing slavery came initially from the church, not the state. Of course, we need also remember that others in the church opposed getting rid of slavery.

I don't have time to go too deeply into this subject but I think I've established some principles for the legitimate disagreement of the church with the state. First, from scripture, when the state is actively prohibiting Christians from spreading the gospel, Christians must dissent and may resort to civil disobedience. Second, from history, when oppressed and powerless people are being harmed by the state, the church must work to protect them.

By the way, scripture explicitly excludes taxes from being considered an illegitimate exercise of state power. Jesus, holding a coin, says, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's" and Paul in Romans 13 says, "For this reason you also pay taxes for the authorities are God's servants, devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenues to whom revenues are due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due." You can quibble about the amount of taxes, you can dispute their being used to fund certain programs but there is no Christian basis for denying the validity of the existence of taxes. There is a irreducible cost to living in a civilized country and taxes are the dues we pay for that.

Speaking of which, we live in an era and political system unique in the history of the world. It used to be that the country where you lived determined whether you could freely exercise your religion or not. It used to be that you had little or no voice in who ran your country. We live in a nation that allows everyone to worship, or not, as they wish. We live in a democracy where we can, through initiatives and advocacy organizations and elected representatives, work for or against issues that concern us. Those 2 conditions change the relationship we Christians have with our government.

Though some Christians say they are persecuted in this country, it is obvious that this does not mean they cannot publicly proclaim Christ, nor is anybody being thrown to the lions. But because of the separation of church and state, one cannot use the government as the vehicle of our message. I'm afraid we are limited to print, radio, TV, You Tube, blogs, websites, Internet forums, pulpits, large outdoor events and person to person communication. I think we can manage to get the message out, nevertheless.

The good news is that while our government may not be Christian, as some desire, neither is it Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhist, Odinist, or Mormon. The Puritans who came to America sought their own freedom to worship but did not offer that freedom to Jews, Roman Catholics, Baptists or Quakers. According to Professor Jerry McCoy, colonial Massachusetts passed laws that let Quakers be imprisoned, publicly whipped or have their ears chopped off! In 1658, a law was passed that banned Quakers from the colony upon pain of death. Even after the United States constitution banned Congress from making laws establishing religion, many of the states had established churches. The last of these was only disestablished in 1833, once again in Massachusetts. As it is, no religion or denomination has the power to compel you to go to their place of worship or support it with your taxes.

Nor are we unable to make ourselves heard in regards to the poor or the powerless. Many churches were involved in the civil rights movement, their members often being beaten, sprayed with fire hoses and locked up for their civil disobedience in support of the rights of African Americans. The Roman Catholic church has done a lot to champion the poor and immigrants, based firmly on Jesus' words in Matthew 25. As a democracy we do have a voice and we can reach the ears of our elected officials.

Is government perfect? Of course not. Are some of its policies contrary to Christian ethics? Yes. But we do not live under the same system that most Christians have throughout history, or that many Christians do in other parts of the world today. For instance, you can worship in Christian churches in China today but only those licensed by the government. They even have their own version of the Roman Catholic church with bishops and clergy approved by the government, not the Pope. If you worship in an unofficial house church, you can be imprisoned. Our government can't dictate how or what we worship. And if we disagree with our government we can make them listen to us. We can vote to change things--even our officials. It's not that conflicts of church and state will now disappear but they need not end up in bloody confrontations.

We DO, however, have to compete in the marketplace of ideas. We must learn to make better, more compelling arguments, not just yell louder. We must give reasons, not just appeal to the authority of scripture which others may not feel is binding on them. We must show courtesy to people with other views if we expect them to show us courtesy when we present our views. That's the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated.

We must resist the temptation to resort to violence or spreading untruths to advance God's kingdom. And while Christians can and should run for office, they must not succumb to the dirty tricks or deception that politicians have resorted to ever since the first human settlement picked a leader. We dishonor Christ if we trade his ethics for those of the world.

We are, as Martin Luther noted, citizens of 2 kingdoms. We must live in both and nobody said that was easy. It wasn't for Jesus or the apostles or the early Christians. Still, as Paul said, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." But when a conflict is clear and unavoidable, we must remember that our God and King is Jesus Christ. And as Peter and the apostles said when forbidden by the authorities to preach and teach what Jesus said and did, "We must obey God rather than men."

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