JESUS AND POLITICS
JESUS & POLITICS
This one of the most controversial of all topics. There are those who think that the Christian faith only involves private spiritual matters and should have nothing to do with politics. There are others who think that Christianity is purely a matter of politics and social justice and it should control everything in society.
Should religion be kept out of politics?
Many people in the minority, Western World would say, “Yes”. They are usually influenced by a certain understanding of individualism, secularism and democratic freedom.
Some time ago I was interviewing some young people in Brazil for a TV discussion programme. When I posed the question, “Do you think religion has a place in politics?”, most replied with an emphatic, “No!” Doubtless they were thinking about the powerful Catholic and Evangelical lobbies at work in Brazilian politics and resisting such unwelcome interference. But my follow up questions were, “Do you think politicians in power should, love and care for the people they represent? Should they be honest, truthful and not look for personal gain? Would you like to see corruption rooted out of politics?” The answer to those questions was nearly always, “Yes!”
I pointed out that these values are not merely political. They are human questions and, in a real sense, they are also spiritual. It seems then that politics could benefit from many values traditionally associated with religion and spirituality.
The Modern, Secular State is a fairly recent phenomenon. Two main ideas lie behind this concept:
- Freedom of belief
The state should not attach itself any one religion and should not promote one religion above another. The government must not dictate the religious beliefs of the people. They should be free to believe, to disbelieve and to change what they believe. There should be no coercion, no forcing people to believe this religion or that religion.
- Religion is a matter of private opinion not public fact
This thinking is philosophically biased. It adopts an idea called, ‘materialism’. All that exists, all that we can know or be sure about, is the physical world. The existence of the spiritual realm or non-material forces is only a matter of opinion and therefore such ideas can have no real place in the public realm, and certainly not in how we organise ourselves politically.
The first idea, to my mind, is a good one. We should be free to choose our religious beliefs, or choose to have none. But the second idea, that religion or faith is entirely a private not a public matter, seems to me to be going too far. It means that religious faith or religious values should have no place in public life at all. One of the roles of religion in society is to inform people’s conscience, to remind society of moral duties and the higher values of life and living.
Religion should not dictate, but it can inform peoples’ conscience. For example, many people in British political history achieved remarkably enlightened goals because they had faith in God and a spiritual conscience. Their Christian faith gave them a deep sense of responsibility to their fellow members of the human family. We see this with the great Evangelical social reformers of 19th Century Britain. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) helped end transatlantic slavery. The 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885) was involved in the abolition of the slave trade, as well as improving conditions for the mentally ill, child labourers, factory workers, boy chimney sweepers, and the suppression of the opium trade.
The State cannot do everything. It certainly should not determine what its citizens believe in matters of conscience. In extreme forms of secularism, the State has become all powerful, and tends towards totalitarianism, a strange form of religious-type control. Perhaps there should be an understanding between these two bodies. One which is based on collaboration, not antagonism and a mutual calling to account.
When we ask the question, “Should religion be kept out of politics?” We could answer, in some respects, “Yes”, but in other ways “No”. Religion can have a part to play, provided it does not control people’s consciences or dictate their beliefs. But, there is another important question.
Should politics be kept out of religion?
For much of world history, religion and government or politics, were virtually one and the same thing. There was a union of religion and state or, at least, religion was given a prominent role in the state. This is still a dominant idea in many nations around the world today.
Politics itself is often driven by ideologies, many of which are not objectively proven and have totally failed to deliver. The problem really has to do with freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to discover, freedom to choose, freedom not to be dictated to by the state.
An example of a modern secular state is frace France/ “La laicité” reigns supreme. France is governed by the people, the lay people, not the curates or the religious people.
At one time we were looking to get permission in Paris to have a church building. We found insurmountable resistance from the authorities. Finally, we suggested that it might be a matter of freedom of religion. The official replied, “No monsieur. Here in France we have freedom of thought, not freedom of religion!”
In seems to me that in this case, the State has become not just bureaucratic or autocratic but quasi-theocratic in nature, bordering on seeing itself as all-powerful. A theocracy is when the state and religion are one. The rules of the government are the same as the rules of the religion, supposedly on behalf of God.
This was the situation in ancient times and in much of mediaeval history. In the Hebrew kingdoms, the people lived under a theocracy. The nation was controlled by religious law. The Laws of God were also the laws of the land. Religion controlled the whole of life. It enveloped national life, civil life, military life, family life and jurisprudence. The Law of Moses dictated what you could or could not eat, what kind of clothing you should wear, religious rituals, national religious festivals, local worship, moral provisions and all civil matters.
This idea of the ‘union of religion and state’ was also the general view of many of the great world empires of history. The Persian empire, the Roman Empire, the Christian Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic Empire, all had more or less the same view – One God, one people, one empire, one government under the rule of One Religion that was said to represent him on the earth.
All this was long before the emergence of the modern democratic state that upheld individual rights, and freedom for all. This explains why in those days, and in some cases today:
- That people engaged in religious wars – they were not only defending or advancing their country, or their territory – 5 they were also defending or advancing the cause of their God, their religion. This is still the motive behind many acts of violence and efforts of the “holy wars” of today.
- That people were tried and condemned to death for blasphemy, adultery, sodomy as well as perjury or theft. This is still happening today in certain parts of the world.
As a Christian I am obviously interested to know what does Jesus think about all of this. What did he teach? When I look into it, I find myself more drawn to him than ever.
What did Jesus have to say about politics?
Jesus was revolutionary for his time in that he taught a separation of powers, a separation of religion and state. Whether church, mosque, synagogue or temple. We find this in the Gospel story of the denarius, “Give to Cesar what is Cesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” Jesus gives this rapid and astute response to a trick question about taxation, in Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 22 and Verses 15–22.
His response introduced a revolutionary change in attitude to the ‘one state, one religion’ approach of the Old Testament. When asked by a delegation of Pharisees and Herodians (who were usually arch enemies) whether the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus’ reply was monumental and introduced the new principle of separating the church, or religion, from the state. He also dealt with the trap they had set for him.
If he had said ‘Yes’, he would have been sanctioning Caesar’s authority and, by implication, Caesar’s religion. If he had said ‘No’, he would have been obeying the Mosaic law which decreed, “You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother” (Deuteronomy Chapter 17 Verses 14–15). He would have been in serious difficulty with the Roman Government of his day.
The denarius Jesus used to illustrate his teaching was an idolatrous and blasphemous coin. Denarii from both the period of Augustus and Tiberius ascribed glory to the emperor. During the time of Emperor Tiberius, a denarius had on the obverse an image of the emperor with the inscription, ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus’. And on the opposite side of the coin, the reverse, was inscribed the words ‘Pontifex Maximus’, which mean, ‘the highest priest’.
The denarius, therefore, claimed that the emperor had religious, even divine status. As ever, Jesus showed that his personal authority was greater than the Law of Moses, and perhaps for the first time in history, the claims of state and religion wdere separated, “Give to Caesar what is Ceasar’s and give to God what is God’s”.
In other words, Jesus was saying that his followers should give civil obedience and respect to the king, but the king had no right to prescribe religious beliefs to his subjects. Instead of speaking about ‘one state, one religion’, Jesus instructed people to abide by the distinctive authorities of Caesar and God in their parallel, but distinctive, realms. He was not asking us to carve our lives into two sections, one a ‘spiritual life’ and the other a ‘secular life’. Rather, he was telling us to live one godly life, and to learn to distinguish, and obey, two different but overlapping, areas of authority over our ‘one’ life.
Jesus was also asking people to remember the One who is above all earthly rulers and authorities, the One to whom all kings and governors must give account, the God who created us all in his image. Just as that coin bore the image of Cesar, so your life bears the image of God. So, give to God what belongs to God.
This is the real challenge of the Christian faith. It’s not about what political party you favour, or which system of government you prefer. It’s about the claims of God over your whole life. The God who created you is the God who loves you, and wants to draw you to himself into a way of living that is not only a good life, but also brings glory to him.
The government of God
When we talk about Jesus and politics, sooner or later we have to consider what Jesus said about the ‘Government of God’. What is the government of God?
A record of Jesus’ trial before the Roman Governor, Ponitius Pilate is found in John’s Gospel Chapter 18 verses 28-37. Verses 33-37 read,
Then Pilate went back into his headquarters and called for Jesus to be brought to him. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked him. 36 Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” 37 Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
New Living Translation ®
The key part in what Jesus says here, is that his kingdom is not of this world. It means God’s government, his rule over our lives, does not come through earthly, human-based initiatives or governmental control. It is supernatural. It comes from above, from God. The conversation between Jesus and Pilate reveals a total confusion of issues on the part of the Jewish and Roman leaders.
The religious leaders were envious of Jesus’ popularity. They contrived to have him executed for insurrection because he claimed to be ‘king of the Jews’, a political title. This was the cynical use of politics by religious people. But Jesus’ kingdom is not political one, in the usual sense of the word. I has to do with the rule of God welcomed into people’s hearts. Pilate’s decision to condemn Jesus to death was to appease the religious people. No wonder people say religion and politics do not mix!
Religion and politics are different. They should never become one and the same. Politics is responsible for civil matters and religion has to do with spiritual matters. Political governors should uphold freedom of religion and freedom of belief for all. Religious leaders should be prepared to challenge the moral conscience and the policies of any government on spiritual grounds. And civil leaders should also call religious people to account as citizens.