The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
One of my oldest and dearest friends is a Jewish agnostic – or atheist, she’s not quite sure – who recently told me that she had joined Freedom From Religion, a group that works for the separation of church and state. They fight against things like prayer in the schools and the use of public funds for religious purposes. They even take it further, putting up billboards you may have seen around town, with slogans like “Imagine No Religion.”
My friend and I also spoke of Martin Luther King, whose holiday we were celebrating at the time, and how much we both appreciated the manner in which he brought his faith into the public arena. After all, he was a clergyman who preached from the scriptures about changing the hearts and the laws of our nation. He didn’t completely separate church and state.
Our conversation came at a time when I had published an Op-Ed piece in the paper suggesting that Roman Catholic legislators not bow to their church’s pressure to conform, but vote their own conscience. Some who misunderstood me claimed I wanted the church to keep its nose out of politics.
And about the same time, I watched our nation’s greatest religious festival, the Super Bowl, which now features not only the national anthem, but also the hymn God Bless America, accompanied by flag-draped cheerleaders and flyovers of Air Force fighter jets.
What’s a healthy relationship between church and state? Do patriotism and religious faith belong together? Should religion be entirely limited to private matters and keep out of public debates on issues of the day? What’s the role of the prophet these days? And why should I bring this up on the 2nd Sunday of Lent?
Because our readings today reveal much about the relationship between religion and the state – an issue that is as alive today for us as it was thousands of years ago for Jews and early Christians.
In our first reading from Genesis, we see the beginning of Israel’s fusion of religion and state. In a vision, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as many in number as the stars above, and that these chosen people would be given a promised land. A God, a people, a religion, and a nation – all in one.
To fulfill Abraham’s vision, the Israelites would conquer a people who already inhabited this “promised land.” They formed a theocracy, where Moses’ law was the law of the state. Eventually this affiliation became corrupt. Religion served the needs of those in political power, and vice versa. In the name of God, the chosen people were economically oppressed, forced to work and fight for the king, and woe to anyone who resisted God’s anointed leaders.
By the time Jesus came along, 2,000 years after Abraham’s vision, the religious elite still wanted to hold on to some semblance of the old alliance between religion and state. So they compromised themselves in order to share limited power with the Roman occupiers. As long as they supported Rome’s interests, Rome would support theirs, even helping rid them of troublemakers like Jesus. They were violent men, extorting taxes and land from helpless people. They would do anything to protect their privilege.
All of this was in the background when Jesus remarked, so poignantly, in today’s gospel Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. Jerusalem, the city of God, had become the very place where God’s own messengers were rejected.
This sad history is how it always evolves, wherever religion and state are unified. This is what brought us the Crusades, colonization, and church-sanctioned slavery. It is behind the oppression of women in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. And it is how Zionists justify themselves when they dehumanize and exterminate their enemies.
In our own nation, it is what leads to attempts to take over local school boards by “good, Christian believers” so that they can ban books in the library. Or we get the “prosperity gospel,” where Jesus’ message is engulfed within the American dream of individual wealth. We hear it in sentimental, triumphalist country songs about God Bless America and kicking Muslim butt.
The blurring of religion and state always corrupts both. It is always dangerous. But what is the alternative? Is it really “Freedom From Religion?” Is it to demand that religion slink away from the public arena, and confine itself to private spirituality?
I believe that the alternative - the traditional, biblical alternative - is the prophetic stance. The prophetic voice is where faith and politics meet together, and are not blurred.
The need for prophets arose when the nation of Israel became corrupt under the power of King Solomon and others after him. And so God sent Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. These lonely voices cried in the wilderness, naming the perversion of God’s ways by the state, risking their lives as they did so.
Jesus was one of these. He was an unauthorized teacher and healer. He condemned religious law that harmed people. He gathered crowds without a permit. He spoke openly about how the religious elites, in bed with the Romans, lined their own purses with the suffering of the poor.
Well, for all this, they may have killed Jesus, like they did to many of the prophets before him, like we still do. But his message rose from the dead with him, and has continued, so far, for 2,000 years.
We may still have times and places where religion is blurred with the state, where we imagine that God sanctions our lust for privilege, violence, and domination. But we will also always have prophets. God will continue to send messengers into Jerusalem, no matter what it does to them.
Now we aren’t all going to be prophets, in the sense of a fiery leader whipping up large crowds. Very few do that with much purpose that has anything to do with God. But each of us can be prophetic, in the sense that our loyalty is to God first, and consider everything else, including politics, fearlessly through that lens. We can be prophetic in the sense of not compromising the values of the gospel for the sake of getting along. It’s a matter of having a place to stand, a place that is grounded in Christ.
This was Paul’s message to the church in Philippi that we heard in the second reading today. He wrote about some of those in the Christian community: Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. I tell you this with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.
We are worldly citizens of a nation that is, in so many ways, noble, prosperous, diverse, beautiful, and free. But it is not the kingdom of God. We are loyal to our nation: we pay our taxes, we vote, we support our laws and defend against our enemies. But this is not our primary loyalty.
As Paul said, our citizenship is in heaven. Our primary and overriding loyalty is to Christ and his ways. That gives us real freedom. For when we know this, our footing is on an eternal foundation. Then we are free to live prophetically in this temporary world that we are just passing through. And we do so in the hope that in our short lifetime, we might tease God’s kingdom into the open just a little bit more.