Monday, October 20, 2008

A: Proper 24 (19 October 2008)

Matthew 22:15-22

Isaiah 45:1-7

Now, you can’t count “supercalifragilisticexpealidocious,” because it’s an entirely made-up word. So, aside from that Walt Disney invention, what’s the longest word in the English language? Well, as far as I know—and this I learned in school—it’s “antidisestablishmentarianism.” What nobody bothered to tell me, however—perhaps, I suspect, because my teachers themselves didn’t know—what nobody bothered to tell me was what the word actually means.  Just what is antidisestablishmentarianism? In fact, this is a good thing for Anglican Christians to be curious about, because it directly concerns the Church of England, and is probably going to be an increasingly high profile issue in the coming years. It refers to the fact that the Church of England is the official state church in that country—or, another way of saying this is that it is “established.” There have always been those—and their number is now growing even within the established church—there have always been those who believe this ought not to be the case. They might be referred to as “disestablishmentarians,” because they advocate that the church be disestablished. So, if you oppose this point of view—that is, if you favor continuing the established position of the church with respect to the state in England—you are an “antidisestablishmentarian,” and the view you represent is antidisestablishmentarianism.

As Americans, of course, this is all quite academic, because the fact that the church was established in England, and in other European countries, was precisely what the founders had in mind when they included language in the first amendment of the U.S. constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The population of the British colonies in America was overwhelmingly Christian, but there were several different brand names of Christianity represented, and many of the original colonists had come to the New World specifically to escape their disadvantaged minority status of not being members of the officially established state church in whatever country they had come from. And so, Thomas Jefferson, in his commentary on the First Amendment, coined the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state. Even that phrase, however, is subject to a wide variety of interpretations, and it remains a source of conflict and controversy in the American political process.

But, even though it’s a very contemporary issue, it’s also a very ancient issue. The same tension we may experience between our identity as Christians and our identity as Americans, between what we owe God and what we owe our country, was also experienced, even more intensely, by Jews at the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry. As I said, the question was a good bit more acute for them, because they perceived the government of imperial Rome to be an unwelcome intruder in their land. Some were looking for a leader who would drive the Romans out, and restore the sovereignty of Israel. So, when some of Jesus’ antagonists were looking for a way to entrap him in his own words, they naturally reached for one of the hot issues of the day: “Tell us, then, what you think,” they said to Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  Now, by posing the question this way, they hoped to impale him on the horns of a dilemma. If he were to say, “Yes, it is completely lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he would alienate himself from the majority of Jews who considered the Romans unwelcome guests in their country. Once the word got out, he would have lost all credibility even with some of his closest followers. But if Jesus were to answer, “No, it would be wrong for an Israelite to pay taxes to Caesar,” he would very quickly be branded a political trouble maker by the Roman authorities, and dealt with accordingly. It was a win-win proposition for the adversaries of Jesus. Whichever way he answered, he was bound to offend somebody, and his effectiveness would be neutralized.

As usual, however, they underestimated Jesus. Rather than allow himself to be impaled on the horns of an impossible dilemma, Jesus turns their own dilemma around and tosses it back at them. “Show me the money for the tax,” he tells them. So they bring him a coin, and he says, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  Well, it was, of course, the emperor’s image on the coin, which was especially odious to pious Jews because of the commandment that forbids the making of graven images. Jesus’ point was that, despite this objection, Jews bought and sold things with Roman coins. They enjoyed the benefits of the Roman economy, the civil order provided by Roman administration, and a pretty good transportation infrastructure that allowed them to carry on commerce with areas as far apart as Britain and Persia.  Then Jesus says to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  What can we surmise, from what Jesus says, about the proper relationship between church and state, between citizenship in the United States and citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, between our civic duties and our religious duties?

One possible approach to these questions is what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “God and country” solution—and to get the gist of what I’m talking about, you have to pronounce “Godandcountry” as if it were one word—to minimize any distinction between religious duty and civic duty, and to refuse to recognize potential conflicts between the two. This view has its roots in the European Middle Ages, when there was a seamless relationship between church and society: to be a citizen was to be a Christian, and to be a Christian was to be a citizen, and it would never have occurred to anybody to make a distinction between the two. The fact that the Church of England is established today represents a vestige of this arrangement. Now, you might think that, with our “wall of separation” between church and state, we are immune to this in America, but not so. The peculiarly American form of the “Godandcountry” solution is the rather outlandish—when you stop and think about it—the rather outlandish notion that America is somehow God’s new chosen nation, that we are somehow “special” in the eyes of God, that God has a particular soft spot in His heart for the U.S. of A. Not too many years ago, somebody declared a National Day of Prayer, and literature was circulated picturing an American flag right next to a quotation of II Chronicles 7:14:

If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land.

Well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with corporate repentance and humility, and the Lord is certainly forgiving in nature, but an American National Day of Prayer was the wrong context in which to use this verse. The American people are not called by the name of God the way the ancient Israelites were, and God holds no affection for our land over any other.  Even more profoundly, though, the “Godandcountry” solution fails to make sufficiently clear the fact that “Christian” is a deeper identity than “American.” America is finite and temporary, and will someday be swept away into the trash heap of history. The Kingdom of Heaven, of which we are made citizens through baptism, is eternal and abiding. It is our true homeland, and deserves both our primary and our ultimate loyalty and affection.

Another approach to the “church and state” issue is what I will call the “Lutheran” solution. Now, don’t go telling all your Lutheran friends that I’m bad-mouthing Lutherans, and I wouldn’t even suggest that any of them actually hold this view, but Martin Luther and his companions did, so that’s what I’m calling it. In this “Lutheran” scheme of things, the Church does what the Church does, and the state does what the State does, and they otherwise leave one another alone. The church is instituted by God for the purpose of forming individual consciences and providing an ethical context for our private behavior.  The church’s vocation is to reveal the love and grace and mercy of God. The state is also instituted by God—in fact, just as divinely-instituted as the Church is—but for the purpose of regulating public behavior and protecting the public welfare. The vocation of the state is to reveal the wrath and justice of God, so it bears the power of the sword—that is, the right even to take human life if necessary for the accomplishment of its legitimate purposes. Both the church and the state are God’s appointed agents in their respective spheres, and should be appropriately respected. However, in my view, there’s a fatal flaw in this “Lutheran solution,” because it requires that the church and the state be on a separate but equal footing with respect to one another. It can therefore only work in a society where there is only one church as well as one state. It cannot work in the sort of pluralistic environment that we have in America, and so is of little relevance to us.

Yet another approach is what I might call the “Amish solution,” something we know a little bit about in Northern Indiana. It is not limited literally to the Amish, but they are certainly powerful examples of it. In the “Amish solution,” there is such a radical separation of church and state that Christians effectively withdraw from society and refuse as much as possible to participate in its institutions. Secular society—political, economic, social, and technological—secular society represents “the world,” and Christians, we are told repeatedly in scripture, are to avoid being caught up in the concerns of the world. In its favor, I would point out that the “Amish solution” recognizes one of the important implications of Jesus’ pronouncement about paying taxes to Caesar, which is that, while we indeed should give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, we should manifestly not give to Caesar anything  that actually belongs to God. However, while the “Amish solution” may technically comply with Jesus’ teaching, I’m afraid it misses the spirit of what he says.  The use of a Roman coin by those who lived in the Roman Empire—either voluntarily or against their will—the use of Roman coins was a sign of their participation in a socio-political infrastucture from which everyone benefited, even the Jews. Again, looking at the Amish, they are certainly more interdependent than they may care to admit with the outside world that they have tried so hard to shun. When I took a cross-country train trip some years ago, I saw a group of about a dozen Amish folks boarding an Amtrak train in Chicago. Once on board, of course, they kept to themselves, but they were on the same train along with the rest of us, and anything that affect that train affected them.

So…if it’s not the “Godandcountry” solution, if it’s not the “Lutheran” solution, if it’s not the “Amish” solution, then, how does a responsible and conscientious Christian balance the demands of citizenship and faith, of church and society, of the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of Heaven? How can we be both faithful Christians and patriotic Americans? Well, to answer this question, we need to look at an Old Testament passage that would otherwise be pretty obscure, except for the fact that we just read it. It’s a prophecy addressed to a king, but it’s not one of the kings of Israel or Judah, who would have known about the LORD and, presumably, cared about the will of the LORD. No, this prophecy is about Cyrus, the King of Persia, a land where the name of the LORD was neither known nor worshiped, and who probably cared not one whit about what the LORD thought of him. God says to Cyrus:

I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.  For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.  I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I gird you, though you do not know me that men may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the LORD, who do all these things. 

The phrase that keeps getting repeated here is “though you do not know me.” Here’s a kingdom where the LORD enjoyed none of the privileges of being the established religion, either officially or unofficially. It’s not so much that he was despised, or even ignored. The people had simply never heard of Him. Yet, God is saying that He’s going to use Cyrus and the kingdom of Persia for the accomplishment of His purposes. What we can take from this is very simple, but very penetrating: the Kingdom of God includes the “kingdoms” of this world. And when I use the phrase “kingdoms of this world,” I’m talking about not only nation-states and other political entities, but anything else that might lay claim to our loyalty or affection. The Kingdom of God is neither identified with any of them, nor set alongside any of them on a “separate but equal” basis, nor completely divorced from them. The Kingdom of God includes all these other kingdoms, though it is vastly larger even than the sum total of them. Jesus is not advocating anything as simplistic as American-style “separation of church and state.”  What Jesus is saying is that “Caesar”—whoever Caesar is—Caesar is contingent, temporary, passing away. God alone is ultimate, comprehensive, enduring. In the end, we see that what “belongs to Caesar” ultimately belongs to God anyway. Caesar is, in effect, a tool in God’s hand. So even when we give to Caesar what seems to belong to him, we’re still giving to God. Christians are not to be “of” the world—the Amish have that part right—but we are nonetheless very much “in” the world. We can be patriotic Americans. We can love our country, and defend our country, so long as we realize that we have a higher loyalty, that we are “American” only for a brief while, but “Christian” forever. Blessed be God forever. Amen.

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