Some thoughts on the relationship between Christianity and Politics.
The relationship between the Christian faith and politics is not an easy topic for discussion, especially if we take our starting point from the Christian Scriptures – the New Testament.
Whereas both the other ‘religions of the book’ (Judaism and Islam) saw their sacred texts emerge in contexts where the faithful were in positions of political authority, the New Testament was written at a time when the church was a persecuted minority with no political power. Accordingly, while there is plenty of material in both the Jewish Scriptures and in the Qur’an that illustrates how a state should be run in accordance with religious principals, there is nothing comparable in the New Testament. On the contrary, the only references in the New Testament to political power, suggest that it is something that believers should avoid having any association with!
I suspect that the words of Jesus that most immediately come to mind when most Christians think about His relationship with politics is Jesus’ response to the question of whether his followers should pay taxes to the Roman occupying power. His response – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) – suggests that God’s realm and the political realm are two separate spheres, and that one should not interfere with the other.
I do not doubt that verses like this have contributed to the current Western democratic dogma of the separation of church and state, and indeed that position is consistent with other statements attributed to Jesus, such as “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), which is, significantly, said to have occurred in conversation with the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – a man of considerable political authority.
Whether words such as these should be taken as forbidding Christian believers to seek positions of political authority, or whether Jesus was just trying to keep the spiritual and political sphere’s distinct is open to debate. What is less ambiguous is that Jesus had a concept of leadership that was distinct from the model displayed by the political leaders of his day.
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It is not to be so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43)
This command of Jesus is recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels and is particularly significant for our purposes as it explicitly distinguishes between the accustomed way in which political power is exercised – where rulers ‘lord it over’ their people – and the form of authority that Jesus Himself modelled, which was an authority embodied in service to others.
The language Jesus uses seems to be deliberately extreme. Literally, He says that we are supposed to be the slaves of those who are under our authority, rather than the other way around! Instead of manipulating those under our authority, we are supposed to serve them.
Countries like mine still display the legacy of this teaching in the titles we bestow upon our political leaders. We refer to our governmental leaders as ‘ministers’, which means ‘servants’, and we refer to our most powerful political leader as the ‘Prime Minister’, meaning the first amongst servants. Even so, we don’t see a lot of servile behavior amongst the political leadership in my country. Regardless of the language, we lord it over each other just as well as ‘the gentiles’ of old ever did!
My reading of the New Testament, and of Jesus’ life as well as His teachings, is that institutional power was something that Jesus Himself deliberately avoided, and whether or not He would have explicitly discouraged his followers from seeking political office, I think it is beyond question that Jesus expected His followers not to use positions of authority, if they had them, to manipulate and exploit others.
This is obvious, and the other thing that is equally obvious is that the church throughout its history has paid scant attention to Jesus’ teaching on this subject! On the contrary, the church over the centuries has shown itself time and time again to be as power-hungry and as manipulative as any of its secular counter-parts.