The relationship between Church and state is one fraught with complexity and peril. This Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22:15-21) features one of the signature scriptural texts on this relationship. Jesus says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Several years ago there was a news report about a state senator in Nebraska who filed a lawsuit against God, “seeking a permanent injunction to prevent God from committing acts of violence such as earthquakes and tornadoes.” A district court judge wisely threw the case out of court, citing the impossibility of serving a subpoena to God.
All sensible people can agree on the absurdity of suing God. But this story shows us a dramatic example of the consequences of seeing an absolute division between God and politics, between Church and state. The Church and state can become imprudently entangled, sometimes to disastrous effect. But there can also be too-sharp a division, one which sets the state against the free exercise of religious belief. And when this happens, people can come very close to saying that there is some part of human life over which God is not Lord.
Then they’re only a step away from making God a defendant, one Who is subject to our laws, our politics, our ideas.
God sets the record straight in Sunday’s First Reading (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6), saying, “I am the Lord and there is no other.” God is the Lord of all things, even politics and government.
The truth of God’s sovereignty finds an echo in most of our country’s founding documents, as well as the long tradition of presidential speeches, the existence of governmental chaplaincies, the Pledge of Allegiance, and countless other ways in which God’s providential rule has been honored in our society.
Consider the Declaration of Independence, which says that people are “endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.” Or consider Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, one of the most highly regarded presidential speeches ever delivered. It is a classic example of striving to honor God’s rule over the affairs of human society, and to demonstrate that we are answerable to God for our society’s sins, such as the scourge of slavery:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Jesus guards against over-interference by religious authorities in the affairs of the state when He says, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” But the very fact that Jesus is the One answering this question, guards against hyper-separation of Church and state.
Jesus is the Son of God, and He is the Source of human rights, of natural law, and of the legitimate authority of “Caesar,” meaning those who govern. And so He has a “right” to speak, through Scripture and through the teachings of His Church, about how we govern, how we vote, and how we live as good citizens, defending human life, human dignity, peace, and justice throughout the world.
Again, the Church does not seek to run the world by means of political power. Her only power is the power of the Cross, the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christ the King reigns from the place of His execution. His throne is the Cross, the instrument by which the powers of this world sought to kill God. The first loyalty of all must always be with Him. And all whose allegiance is to Christ are called to sacrifice themselves for the good of others.
But while the Church does not seek to run the world by means of political power, she needs to be actively engaged in seeking the good of others, of both individuals and our communities. The faithful need to serve others in Christian charity and to be God’s voice in the public square. There are things that properly belong to Caesar, certainly, and those claims deserve respect, but it must never be forgotten that Caesar himself belongs to God.
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