Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Testament: Crossroads of Government and Religion

In the Gospel according to Matthew it is revealed that Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is descended from King David.  This invokes the concept of the hereditary monarchy for Jesus, who is known as "King of the Jews".  Of course there is a clear and important break from this genealogy -  Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph.  Therefore it would appear there is a separation of the worldly, temporal kings from the heavenly kingdom of God. The line of Jewish kings has ended and this is a new age.  Naturally, others might also interpret this as a new line of kings, sanctioned by God.  Many Christian kings in the next two millenniums would assume the latter, but I believe the Bible is telling us that God is separating political power from religious authority. 

To the Israelites, there appears to be no difference between church and state.  Religious rules were political laws and limitations on cultural freedoms.  This principle is still true today in several Islamic countries and many of the laws in our country are descended from religious codes of conduct. Jesus, however, felt there needed  to be a clear distinction between church and state. Critical questioners of Jesus hoped to trick him into paying a census tax to the Romans, which they believed would make Jesus look weak, inconsistent, and submissive to the Roman occupation of Israel.  Jesus said he would pay the tax stating,

"Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s"

In other words, give the state what the state needs, but give God what God needs.  This idea was completely foreign to the Jews (see the books of Samuel and Kings) and creates a powerful precedent as it sets a division between political and religious requirements.  Do what the state wants, but also do what God wants.  It does provoke the question of where our allegiances lie. Can we obey both religious and state laws?  When and how do we acknowledge these rules?  What affect does our conscious play on following either direction?

Much of the Acts of the Apostles covers the journeys of Saul (Paul), the tax collector turned preacher, who travels throughout the Mediterranean sharing the Gospel with Jews and Gentiles. At several points the Jewish religious leaders try to stop his preaching, arrest him, and put him to death.

Paul giving the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles
Eventually Paul is detained and is nearly killed.  However, Paul declares to the authorities that he is a Roman Citizen.  This fact supersedes the religious laws of the land.
"This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen."
"Festus said: 'King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome.'"
Paul seeking protection with the Romans
Paul is taken into protective custody and travels to Rome where he continues his preaching.
Paul says, "I had to pay a big price for my citizenship" and he uses this privilege to avoid punishment by the Jewish religious leaders.  The Romans were more interested in following the law than the religious tenets of the Jews.
The protection of a religious minority (the Christain, Paul) by the Romans could be thought of as a primodial form of religious tolerance or freedom of religion, clearly one of the tenets of our own government.  Its inclusion in the Bible suggests that seperation of church and state is not only a good idea, but it can also save your life.

It does however resurface the issue raised in Matthew of what obligations we have toward our religion and toward our government.  Is Paul following his faith by seeking succor with the Roman political system?  At what point will his allegiances shift or is he maintaining a consistent course?  Is Paul  manipulating the political system  to support his own agendas or religious belief?   

Old Testament Kings

When the Israelites fled Egypt the only leader they needed was Moses.  Later they had "judges" who helped guide the Jewish people, although they focused largely on military matters.  At the time, many other nations had kings who ruled over their populations and in the Book of Samuel the people of Israel ask God for a King. God is not happy that they require a temporal leader, but he helps his prophet Samuel choose the man Saul to rule as king.  This proves to be an unfortunate decision for the Israelites, and eventually David (son of Jesse, slayer of Goliath) becomes King. 

King David
David and Goliath

Although David is held up as the gold standard of divine appointments, he had his share of personal problems.  After his death, his heirs continued to rule establishing a hereditary monarchy. The Book of Kings continues this succession and it seems that each king is worse than the last.  A few virtuous notables do exist, such as Solomon, but most were licentious, avaricious monarchs who tolerated pagan worshipping in their kingdom.  Yes, a lot of pagan kings - not a good thing in the Old Testament when God loves to throw his weight around. 

Israel eventually pays a great price for having divinely appointed monarchs and still descending into iniquity.  The 12 tribes of Israel are destroyed by the ancient kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon.  Eventually the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II enslaves the Jews of Israel the sends them into captivity deep in his own kingdom (around 586 BC).
The divine right of kings?
What do we learn from this?  God warned the Israelites that a king would bring iniquity, chaos and debauchery among them.  This much appears to be true. A minority of "good" kings cannot justify the overwhelming number of bad kings. Strangely, even though God rejects the idea of a king, he still selects one for the Israelites (?)  I suppose God is saying that he is willing to give the Israelites the freedom to fail. 

One question is why does God need a temporal ruler (a king) on Earth to direct his people?  Didn't Moses receive his directions from God?  What is the purpose of a King?  Is it to interpret and enforce God's will or to rule over worldly mankind?   It is for wielding political power or to enforce religious decrees? 

Interestingly, many if not most of the kings who initially  received divine approval turned against God and caused great misery for their people.  The message from the Bible would seem to be that while God recognizes the right of man to rule on Earth, vesting this power in one individual is a blueprint for disaster. 

In the Middle Ages, and even into the Age of Enlightenment, people wondered if kings or any other person had a divine right to rule.  Does divine right mean that God has chosen a ruler or that this ruler is blessed? 

The Bible is practically constructed for misinterpretations so how can we know what God really wants?   One man's "faithful" seeems like another man's lunatic, so we certainly cannot trust another person's judgement.  Maybe this is why our government and others wanted a clear separation between religious and political authority.  In addition the Book of Kings provides a vivid example of how absolute power in the hands of one man, no matter how divinely inspired, is almost always a disappointment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Political thought and the Bible

Year Two of the GBWW series focuses on political thought and government.  Continuing with that theme, the next readings are centered on the development of government in Judeo-Christian society and the earliest records from this tradition come from the Bible.

Our government has been influenced by numerous sources, including the feudal kingdoms of Europe. The kings of the Middle Ages traced their supreme authority back to the Jewish King David, who was selected by God to rule Israel. The idea of a divinely appointed ruler originated here and that belief was carried forward for 2000 years. 
Since God chose his own representative to rule man on Earth, the kings of Europe were absolute monarchs over the temporal world.  This principle had great consequences the political destinies of both men and countries, and no doubt contributed the "separation of church and state" which is bed rock principle of our own government.

The four texts of the Bible that GBWW directs us to read for this section include two Old Testament texts (The Books of Samuel and Kings) and two New Testament works (The Gospel of Matthew and Acts of the Apostles).

A tangential comment, the God in the Old and New Testaments seems quite different.  In the Old Testament, God seems more capricious and less tolerant of dissension - more like an ancient Greek or Roman god.  In contrast the New Testament God seeks out the lost sheep (prostitutes, tax collectors, etc) and would rather guide than punish.  For me, reading the New Testament invokes many memories of Sunday school and church services, however, the Old Testament feels much more foreign and unfamiliar.  I am looking forward to reading more of both in the future.