Church and state: Separate, but equally important
“Good intentions may be used for evil purposes…” The Gospel of St. Thomas (Bob, that is)
Recently I’ve noticed renewed debate on the question of separation of church and state.
Even the theme of last Sunday’s Catholic mass was a St. Matthew gospel wherein Jesus Christ was put on the spot by a Hebrew Sadducee about whether or not it was lawful, within the context of Hebrew religious law, to pay taxes to the Roman government.
You see, the Romans proclaimed Caesar a god which the Hebrews absolutely rejected.
Jesus responded by asking the Sadducee to describe whose face was imprinted on the coins with which people paid their taxes, and the answer was “Caesar’s!” So Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Now this single statement by Jesus has been taken by many to be a mandate for the separation of church and state.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus certainly recognized the need for a secular government. Government, by its very nature, cannot be encumbered by religious regulations controlled by non-elected clergy. Today’s orthodox Jewish faith alone has over 800 laws. You think the Ten Commandments are rough? No democratically constituted government could possibly function efficiently under such circumstances, witness Israel.
But don’t confuse the separation of church and state with the separation of God and state. There can be no separating God from anything! Church hierarchies are man-made institutions which can be, and historically have been, impediments to the government. Our founding fathers and mothers knew that, having experienced such at the hands of the British government – Church of England, which is why we U.S. citizens have legal safeguards separating church from state.
So what, then, is left to be rendered unto God? Why, our individual behavior as stipulated in the Ten Commandments, that’s what. Impossible concept to live by, you say? Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Why should it be impossible to go about our business, private or government, treating our fellow beings in accordance with God’s laws?
I’ll bet most of you do that already. Many people have achieved a spiritual balance between God and secular life and they’re the ones with genuine peace of mind.
Make no mistake about it, neither Jehovah God nor Jesus Christ ever implied that a different set of moral rules apply to government leaders and workers, as individuals, from the rest of us. But Jesus recognized and tacitly acknowledged that government collectively has the right to perform unpopular tasks like collecting taxes, jailing certain people and yes, even prescribing capital punishment for some crimes. But God’s law dictates that such taxes must be collected equitably, and no one can take from, or arbitrarily punish or mistreat others. Not even a king!
Yes, I can see the hackles rising on the backs of the necks of you who oppose capital punishment. But before you get too angry, see if you can find Biblical proof that Jesus ever questioned Caesar’s right to have Him (Jesus ) crucified. I’ve looked and looked and nowhere in the Bible have I found anything where Jesus took issue with Pontius Pilate’s “right” as the Roman government representative in Judea, to sentence Him to scourging and crucifixion.
Of course, as it turn out, Pilate washed his hands of judging Jesus, leaving that to the Hebrew lynch-mob. But it was Pilate’s men who carried out the sentence, and again I say I haven’t seen proof anywhere that Jesus questioned Caesar’s right to punish him in accordance with Roman law as prescribed for the “crime” He allegedly committed. If God had intended to include capital punishment in his commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill,” then I sincerely believe Jesus, even though He wanted to be crucified to fulfill the scriptural promise of death and resurrection, would have made an issue about the immorality of capital punishment.
Now, since I’m no Biblical scholar, perhaps some of you who are will write and set me straight. I only know that in some of His parables, Jesus spoke of justified punishment, including torture and death, such as that justly rendered by an irate employer against his unjust estate manager, and by a royal member who threw a wedding party where the invites either failed to respond or showed up insufficiently dressed. The punishments exacted were capital! Jesus likened these punishments to what we can expect if we seek heaven under false pretenses.
Returning to the question of separation of church and state, I think many citizens are unnecessarily paranoid about this. Humanists, agnostics and atheists live in fear that we Christians, through church-government partnership, would, if given the opportunity, control your lives to conform with our religious doctrines.
Well, I can assure you that the vast majority of Christians and Jews don’t want any church or synagogue controlling government any more than you do. We don’t believe that people can be legislated or forced into heaven.
But we Christians will continue working hard toward getting everybody, government leaders especially, to exercise their free wills to live and work in harmony with God’s Commandments. After all, we believe that everyone’s final reward will be directly related to how close each of us as individuals come to achieving that goal.
Bob Thomas is a Carson City businessman, local curmudgeon and former member of the Carson City School Board and Nevada State Assembly.