On Church & State

Sunday 19th October 2008
Year A, The Last Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
Matthew 22:15-22

You can imagine the gasps of admiration when Jesus performed his one coin trick, the kind of thing that would earn you a drink in the pub; two sides to the story, neatly separated so that we naturally use the expression: "Two sides of the same coin". But now imagine the same scene today and another one coin trick performed, say, by Richard Dawkins; he says: one coin, two sides, the private and the public; religion has nothing to do with Caesar, the state, the government, legislation; it must stick to its proper place on the private side and never raise its ugly and mendacious head in public.

Do we buy this? Well, I am sorry to say that to a considerable extent we do. In spite of our history as an established church firmly rooted in the political processes of our land, we have, in a strangely paradoxical way for which I can't account, other than to use meaningless platitudes about the "English" phlegmatic, pragmatic or empirical "Temperament", we have subtly but definitely, split religion and politics in a way that would be incomprehensible to Roman Catholics and Methodists in this country and to the whole of Continental Europe and much of the Christian United States.

What do I mean by this? I think there are two levels of disengagement that we ought to think about. The first is to 'buy' the Dawkins agenda, a transaction most clearly illustrated in the behaviour and pronouncements of former Prime Minister Blair who, in spite of his deep Christian convictions, said that it would be impossible for him to introduce God into political discourse without being misunderstood. If I might paraphrase what he said: if I say that I prayed for guidance from God on an issue such as the invasion of Iraq I would be accused of obeying God instead of being rational. Of course the dichotomy is totally false: it raises rationality, the calculation of the odds, the analysis of risk and opportunity, to a false position of supremacy (as we have seen with the recent banking crisis); and it relegates the wisdom of God, received individually and collectively through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the status of a gypsy tossing another coin: heads we invade; tails we stay out! Indeed, one of the lessons we might learn from the Dawkins controversy in trying to be articulate in an adult way about Christianity is that trying to defend Jesus without mentioning him is tactically inept.

The second level of disengagement is more obvious and derivative of the first: we have fatally separated our attitude to politics and legislation from the teaching of Jesus. Now this is often crudely misrepresented by people who say that redistributive political parties are more ethical, more in line with the teaching of Jesus, than non redistributive parties but that is to miss the point. It may well be that the Labour and Liberal Parties are more inclined to take money from the rich and give it to the poor than is the Conservative Party but it is our obligation as Christians to look at the total policy offer of each party and make a democratic decision on which is most closely aligned with our Christian principles. Yes, you heard me correctly; the way we vote should depend not on our personal well being, upbringing, abstract theory or prejudice, the way we vote should depend upon a careful evaluation which shows which party most closely follows the teaching of Jesus. And so, to give you the opposite perspective from that of redistribution, it may well be that the Conservatives are more likely to resist abortion, Euthanasia and the use of human tissue in medical experiments. This perspective, of course, is somewhat clouded by the contemporary convention which allows free votes on ethical issues, as if there is something particularly ethical about medical research as opposed to the way we treat the poor.

From this you can see that the position of contemporary Christians is not so simple as that of Jews under Roman occupation where the religious and ethical aspects of their lives were governed by the Torah, the Temple and their religious leaders while the Romans confined themselves to defence and the administration of criminal justice. But one trend is evident today: we have rendered a good deal to Caesar that we ought to be rendering to God. Not only have many of us ceased to give ethical discussions a Christian dimension under the inane slogan that religion and politics do not mix, we have even separated public conduct from Christianity. It may be all well and good for us to mourn now over our follies and say that bankers and brokers ought to be more tightly regulated and behave in a more ethical fashion; but how often did we say this when the mutuals were being de-mutualised, yielding massive windfalls for account holders? How many of us thought that it was immoral when our pension fund holdings rose far in excess of inflation? And were our tears genuine when we bemoaned the plight of first time buyers while the value of our houses doubled in eight years without any effort on our own part? With a few honourable exceptions - one remembers the bravery of Faith in The City and Mrs. Thatcher's vicious riposte - the Christian response, corporately and individually, to the transformation of greed from one of the seven deadly sins into a public virtue has been pathetic.

In this time of crisis it is easier for us to be good Christians than when times are good -  that is what Jesus meant by his parable of the  camel and the eye of the needle - so let us do the easy thing. Let us recognise that there is a vital Christian dimension to the way in which we regulate our economic and social lives. But thinking that "they" will solve the problems is not only inept, it is un Christian for at the heart of the teaching of Jesus there lies the central principle of individual responsibility for individual and collective behaviour: more policemen can't reduce crime, only criminals can; regulators can't reduce greed, only speculators can; Parliament can't make us happier, only we can. Policemen, regulators and legislators deal with symptoms but only we can deal with causes. The culture of callousness and greed, whether its symptoms are mugging or short selling, is our culture.

It is not enough, then, to let the message of Jesus pass across our consciousness as a glib statement; we must do more than render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's; we need to be very deliberate and determined to restore to God some of the things we have thoughtlessly rendered to Caesar.