Friday, November 11, 2011

Church and State

Romans 13:1-10

I generally don’t talk much about politics, and as a rule I keep my ideas about government out of my Bible study, but Paul brings up the role of Christians in civil government in Romans 13, so here goes.

I learned in high school that government has two primary roles: promoting the welfare of its people and protecting property. It sounds simple enough, but based on the party warfare going on at the present you’d think those are evil intentions. “Welfare state” has come to mean a waste of tax money supporting lazy no-good poor Americans who won’t work, and the Occupy Wall Street movement bemoans a government that protects the personal property of a bunch of greedy no-good rich Americans. To some extent disagreement along party lines of this balance is not new, but it seems a bit less cordial now than in the past (to put it mildly).  I was once told that any young person who is not a Democrat has no heart, and any old person who is not a Republican has no brain.

So far, it’s just an argument, but then religion gets dragged into it. When President Thomas Jefferson was prompted by some Connecticut Baptists to keep the government out of their church he clarified the First Amendment in a famous letter that introduced the phrase "separation of church and state." The establishment clause of the Bill of Rights gives us both freedom “of” and freedom “from” religion and it’s a brilliant idea.  A good article by Brent Walker explaining the benefits and misconceptions of religions liberty as defined by the constitution was published in the June 30, 2011 edition of the Alabama Baptist newspaper. Here’s a link if you’re interested.

Paul tells us in Romans 13 to be subject to the government. Jesus is recorded in Matthew 22 as saying “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Christians have had a lot of trouble figuring out how to do this, and as a general rule it has never worked well when the church was not separated from the government. From the Inquisition starting in the 12th Century and continuing in some form through the 19th, torturing heretics to death and burning witches was seen as a way of giving God his things. Sensing that honoring God by dismembering his children might’ve missed the point, we’ve moved toward more symbolic gestures. In the 1950s, as a response to the atheistic Communists, we added “under God” to our pledge and instituted “In God We Trust” as a national motto. We don’t fear the Communists now that the Cold War is over, but nevertheless, the US House of Representatives reaffirmed our motto earlier this month by a vote of 396-9. This is a shameless political ploy with no practical significance whatsoever, so I wondered who on earth those 9 dissenters were.  One of them was Justin Amash (R-Michigan) who opposed it as a slap at genuine religions conviction.  In this opinion he joins Teddy Roosevelt who felt that putting In God We Trust on our money was an “irreverence that is dangerously close to sacrilege.”  It appears that to some putting faith on equal status with politics is not exactly a step up for faith.

Here’s an editorial that I read recently. The parenthetical clarifications are mine:

Here’s my last word to the arrogant rich. It’s time to take some lessons in weeping. You’ll need buckets for the tears when the (stock market) crash comes down on you. Your money is corrupt and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your gut, destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you’ve piled up is judgment. All those (illegal immigrant) workers you’ve exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of God. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse.

Can you guess the author? A crazed protester? Some grunge hippie tree hugger? Actually, that’s the Message translation for the first verses of the 5th chapter of the book of James.

So, the Bible doesn’t make it easy for us. We’re to be submissive to the government and pay our taxes and respect elected officials as ministers of God. But sitting around in blissful contentment while ignoring injustice and oppression is not an option for Christians. Law and government are useful and play a valuable role in daily living, but Christians are to go beyond obeying the law into fulfilling the law. Sometimes this requires civil obedience, and sometimes civil disobedience. Here’s how Paul sums it up:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

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