This passage is famous; it’s rendering in the King James version – render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…has become a well-known phrase in our language. We see Jesus’ enemies try to trap him. If he agreed that taxes were allowed under the Jewish Law he’d have been seen as a collaborator with a hated occupying power – after all the taxes paid for the Occupation. The crowd that followed him in the hope that as a Messiah he’d throw off the Roman yoke would have deserted him. Yet if he had said “no, taxes are unfair, they pay for our oppression and God is a god of justice” then the Romans would have pounced on him as a seditious rabble rouser. The entrappers just sat back and wondered what he’d make of the dilemma.
Jesus is being asked about the relationship between religion and state. He, of course dodged the question. The answer would have amused those who were on his side, puzzled his questioners but, I suspect, would have won a grudging respect for his ability to side-step the trap.
However, the relationship between Church and State is one that has troubled the Church for all its existence. Even now it’s an interesting thing to ponder.
The Earliest Church had to work out if it was simply a Jewish movement – and therefore legal – or if it was something else. As more and more gentiles became Christians – without first becoming Jewish – the Church and Synagogue separated. This was significant as in the Roman Empire everyone had to worship the Roman gods – that worship may have only consisted of offering some incense in a pagan temple and praying for the Emperor. In a society which consisted of many races, faiths and cultures the Imperial religion held the Empire together. Gods of different nations were adopted into the Roman system and everyone was happy. Everyone, that is, except the Jews who refused to worship anyone but God. The Jews were rather troublesome, and given to revolt and an accommodation was made to recognise them as a legal religion – the only legal religion other than the state religion. If the Church was simply part of Judaism they’d be protected under Roman law. If, however, they weren’t Jewish – and those gentile male converts had no desire to go through the Jewish conversion ceremony – then they weren’t protected. Romans saw Christians as anti-social and a threat to the cohesion of the Empire – In truth the Romans were right – Christians were, and still should be, deeply subversive.
And so, from time to time, the Church was persecuted. The persecution was never thorough but in various places it was hard and people were put to death if they wouldn’t offer worship to the pagan deities. The New Testament reflects this difficult relationship with the state. In Romans 13 Paul asserts that the Emperor is from God and should be obeyed; in Revelation 13 – written during a time of persecution – the Empire is seen as Satanic. Since then the Church has oscillated between Paul and Revelation’s view of the State!
In the 4th Century, however, Constantine became Emperor after a battle he won attributing his victory to Jesus – as if Jesus blesses battles. This led to the establishment of Christianity as the state religion and, eventually, the outlawing of paganism. Many temples became churches and the Church went from being persecuted to being a persecutor.
If someone was convicted of believing the wrong things then the state was expected to execute them. Until the Reformation no dissenting Christian voices were allowed, the Reformation in these isles was never about religious freedom – the Mass, north and south, was outlawed and Catholic priests were persecuted; Protestants soon became as intolerant as the Medieval church had been. It wasn’t until much later on that the persecution stopped – the anti-Catholic laws weren’t repealed until 1829 – and earlier laws had been met by riots in Scotland and London.
Over the 19th Century the influence of the Church waned and that has led to greater freedom – divorce, remarriage, abortion and homosexual law reform in the 1960s were only possible as Parliament no longer saw itself as the guardian of Christian morality (or recognised that Christian morality is a rather complex thing).
Now, in the west, the Church is largely irrelevant to the State. Here coronations are still expected to be religious and, as we saw from the coinage, we’re not only a Kingdom but one that officially believes the monarch is given us by the grace of God. But in all meaningful ways we’re a secular state with all the freedom and problems that causes
So what should the relationship be between Church and State. I expect that we don’t want a situation where the State tells us what to do nor a situation where we tell the State what to do. We may long for more influence but we have to be careful, just as Jesus was, to avoid traps.
Just as Jesus was tempted to fall into a trap so the Church can be tempted to fall into modern traps when we think of our relationship with the state and wider society.
The first is the trap of private religion. In our contemporary society religion is seen as a private matter – for the home and the church for those who like that type of thing. It’s about private spirituality – if you wish to light a candle, say a prayer, fast, give money to peculiar causes that’s fine – just don’t let your faith intrude in the public sphere. Faith is for those who wish to unburden themselves privately, to have their own spiritual moments.
Now there is much which is good about this. Humans are spiritual and the Church has much to offer as people make sense of the spiritual aspect of their lives. We need somewhere to unburden ourselves, to heal from the wounds of life, to find rituals which are helpful. The problem is if that is all faith is then it has nothing to say to wider society, no critique of unjust laws or economics that oppress. A private faith has nothing to say about political responsibility or social behaviour. It becomes toothless.
Then there is the trap of being a club or close knit community. The late 19th Century sociologist Emile Durkheim described society. In the pre-industrial societies there was glue which held a community together. Unless you went hunting together the tribe didn’t eat. In agricultural society the ties that bound you and the land together were very clear. Unless the farmer farmed – and unless you helped – you didn’t eat! In our contemporary society we are, largely, divorced from growing our own food. We don’t go hunting; instead we forage in the supermarket! We buy our meat nicely wrapped in plastic and we don’t need to, nor want, to think about the process that changed the cow or the lamb or the pig into the nice package of meat. We live in streets and often don’t know our neighbours. I’ve found this a bit different in Scotland as I’m getting to know neighbours here. In our street in Manchester there are 12 houses and we only know two of our neighbours. That’s because it’s an area of change with people moving in and on regularly. We live in an age when we can talk to people on the other side of the world for no cost using internet apps like Skype but may not know the family who live two doors down. Durkhiem foretold this and said that we’d be alienated from each other. In a society like that the Church can easily become the place where community is built, where we become a club against the cruel realities of the world, a place where we are known and loved; a place where we leave loneliness behind. After all Marx, rather movingly I think said: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Now Marx wasn’t a fan of religion – it might sooth but it, he thought, in that soothing stopped people changing the world. Yet the world is painful and faith can mitigate that pain.
Of course, we need community, we need friendship and we need to counterbalance the individualism, and loneliness of the world; the Church is great at that but we fall into a trap if that is all we do. If all we are concerned about is community that bandages the wounds of our cruel world then we offer the opium that Marx wrote of and lose our opportunity to proclaim the coming Kingdom when our world will be turned upside down. We are more than a counter balance to society we are, instead, foretellers of a new society, a new world order, a new realm where everything will be different.
The final trap is being an institution. In a world of rapid change it’s comforting to have the institutional church. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland is trotted out for State Occasions, the Archbishop of Canterbury at royal weddings, the Bishop of London at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, the Bishops in the House of Lords all give a sort of connection with a bygone age and, as long as institutions are trusted, can give comfort. But the problem with institutions is that they betray our trust. The Church is reeling from the abuse it has perpetrated and hidden; rank hypocrisy has been exposed. If we leave it all to the institution we will always be let down.
So these traps are both powerful, reflect necessary aspects of the church:
- institutions pay clergy for example,
- the provision of community is very healing in our world and
- we need to nurture a personal – if not private – faith.
Yet because these things are necessary, and easy, we can very quickly become trapped by them as we accommodate ourselves to the realities of our world. If we fall into these traps we are seen as socially useful but lose the ability to say that which society doesn’t wish to hear. A private religion has no business telling banks to pay their taxes; a mere social club has no business telling politicians to mend their ways; an institution mired in sin has no ability to be a prophetic witness to our world.
Jesus calls us to render to God that which is God’s – all too often we render to Ceasar – the world but leave God out of the equation. We have been busy showing how relevant we are to the world as it is but forget that the world is going to change. The coming Kingdom is what we are called to proclaim – not to forget about the world but to serve it in the light of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. We are here to be a revolutionary force in history – to remind the rulers of our world that they will have to give account, to proclaim a world order where all matter, where all have enough, where all are valued. If we remain private, club like and institutional we sanctify society as it is whereas we have to force Christianity to refuse to identity with the current order but, instead, proclaim the values of the Kingdom.
So what does this mean in practice?
We need a relationship with the state where we continue to assert that all are valuable as God values us all. We need to work for, and model internally, a society where all are treated well without regard to race or class or gender or any other irrelevant distinction. We need to critique those who create a hostile atmosphere in our society for those who have fled here for safety. We need to model the society which Jesus spoke of where the first shall be last the last shall be first, where the weakest are central. The love of death and decay in our passing shallow world needs to be replaced by the radical love of God which has a zest and desire for life.
Our personal, but not private, faith enables us to live as disciples who model the coming kingdom. Our church can be a haven from the world but never ever should lose sight of its mission to our world and whilst we are part of an institution we never let the institution be without critique.
Will you pray with me?
You challenge the powers that rule this world
Through the needy and the compassionate,
And those who are filled with longing.
Make us hunger and thirst to see right prevail,
And single-minded in seeing peace;
That we may see your face
And be satisfied in you
Through Jesus Christ, Amen