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Reuniting church and state

  • 24 October 2011

There is a biblical story in which Jesus responds to a challenge about 'paying taxes', put to him by parties who wanted him to side with one of the political factions of the day, with the dictum 'Give to God the things due to God and to Caesar the things due to Caesar'.

His answer caused consternation then, and through most history since then. The passage has been used to legitimate the separation of church and state, and a kind of differentiation of responsibilities that usually, of late, leaves church and religious voices marginalised.

The Lutheran doctrine of the 'two kingdoms' was used by Hitler's Germany to silence the critical voice of churches who felt bound by this theology to leave the state to govern. Today, politicians who dislike criticism argue that churches and religions should stick to 'spiritual matters'.

Is such a position legitimated by this passage? I argue no.

We live in a time when religious voices have returned with greater strength to the arenas of civil discourse. Far from receding to the margins, groups once quiescent are lobbying and voicing critique alongside those like Catholics who have maintained a sustained voice. Questions are raised, for example, about gambling, and the dependence of 'Caesar' on the avails of gambling.

I am waiting for a sustained cry from the Christian community about the outrage of a nation more concerned about one teenage lawbreaker in a foreign jail than about its own incarceration of thousands of men, women and children in detention centres.

In a very real sense these critical voices are part of what religious groups are called upon to 'render to Caesar'. In holding 'Caesar' to a moral standard the Christian communities render to Caesar the things due to Caesar and seek to make the world a better place, usually.

Holding in accountability the many 'Caesars' of the world — governments, corporate executives, officials, and judges — is part of ensuring that civil society works.

But there is another side to this coin of accountability. One of the roles of 'Caesar' may be to hold the church accountable. One of the duties owed to 'Caesar' by the church is to be accountable for what it does to civil society, social cohesion and the wellbeing of the larger community