Christianity and politics

Christianity and politics

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Not only does the action of Governments not deter men from crimes; on the contrary, it increases crime by always disturbing and lowering the moral standard of society. Nor can this be otherwise, since always and everywhere a Government, by its very nature, must put in the place of the highest, eternal, religious law (not written in books but in the hearts of men, and binding on every one) its own unjust, man-made laws, the object of which is neither justice nor the common good of all but various considerations of home and foreign expediency.

Leo Tolstoy, The Meaning of the Russian Revolution

The relationship between Christianity and politics is a historically complex subject.



[edit] Foundations

The Hebrew Bible contains a complex chronicle of the Kings of Israel and Judah, written over the course of many generations by authors whose relationships and intimacy with the rulers of the several kingdoms fluctuated widely in both intimacy and respect. Some historical passages of the Hebrew Bible contain intimate portrayals of the inner workings of the royal households of Saul, David, and Solomon; the accounts of subsequent monarchs are frequently more distanced and less detailed, and frequently begin with the judgment that the monarch "did evil in the sight of the Lord."

The Christian New Testament, instead, begins with the story of Jesus, crucified as a criminal who had offended both the Jewish priesthood and the Roman imperial authorities. At least to outward appearances, Jesus was at the periphery of political life and power in the Roman province of Judea. Nevertheless, a number of political currents appear in New Testament writings

[edit] Render unto Cæsar

All three synoptic Gospels portray Jesus as saying "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25) Jesus gives this answer to Pharisees who ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not; Jesus begins by asking them whose portrait appears on a Roman coin.

The incident can be read to support a position that Jesus announced that his religious teachings were separate from earthly political activity. This reading finds support in John 18:36, where Jesus responds to Pontius Pilate about the nature of his kingdom, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world." A certain quietistic indifference to earthly politics is one possible reading of these teachings.

[edit] Have all things common

The first Christian communities, as described in Acts of the Apostles, were organized along a principle of communal ownership of goods. This is first mentioned in Acts 2:44-45, then reiterated in Acts 4:32-37.

Acts 2: 44 And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (King James Version)

Acts 4: 32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. 33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. 34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, 35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. 36 And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, 37 Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet. (King James Version)

These verses seem to indicate that the ideal Christian society would be similar to the modern ideas of socialism or communism. They are part of the inspiration for political currents such as Christian socialism and Christian communism.

[edit] The apocalyptic view

Apocalyptic texts frequently couch radical criticism of existing regimes under the form of allegory; this, at least, is a frequently mentioned interpretation of the Book of Daniel, frequently interpreted by secular scholars as a second-century diatribe against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who persecuted the Jews and provoked the revolt of the Maccabees. The Book of Revelation contains even more vehement imagery, which many secular scholars believe was directed against the Roman empire. The empire, or the city of Rome itself, are identified by these scholars as the Whore of Babylon, and the Roman emperor becomes the Beast or Antichrist. Both divine punishment and economic and military catastrophe are prophesied against "Babylon", which most scholars agree is John's code name for Rome.

No call to arms is contained within the Christian apocalypse. Instead, the calamities that doom the oppressive regime represented by these allegorical figures are expected from divine intervention alone. Nevertheless, if the books are properly read in this way, they seem to evidence deep hostility to the Roman government, no doubt a reaction to the persecution of Christians by the Roman state.

[edit] What the Biblical texts do not contain

All of these Biblical sources, whether counselling separation from political concerns or expecting divine retribution against their corruption and oppression, share one thing in common. They all assume that the Christians will be members of a religious minority, outside of power, without great political influence. Similar assumptions underlie Jesus' advice to his followers to avoid lawsuits (Matthew 5:25) and Paul's advice that they should avoid litigation before pagan judges (1 Cor. 6:1-8)

There is nothing in the Bible, especially the New Testament, that suggests that any of its writers anticipated that Christians would themselves wield political authority, and no specific advice about how to manage things if they do ascend to political power.

[edit] The Christian empire

When the Roman persecution of Christianity was ended under Constantine I, and Roman Catholicism became the favoured religion of the Roman empire, Christians confronted issues that they had not hitherto had to confront. Could a Christian ruler legitimately wage war? If Roman Catholics were discouraged in Scripture from entering litigation against one another, how were Roman Catholics supposed to function as officers within a judicial system? What civil rights were to be afforded to non-Roman Catholics in a civil commonwealth governed by Roman Catholics?

[edit] The City of God

Saint Augustine of Hippo was one religious figure who confronted these issues in The City of God; in this work, he sought to defend Roman Catholics against pagan charges that the abandonment of official sponsorship of pagan worship had brought civil and military calamities upon the Roman empire by the abandoned pagan deities. Augustine sought to reaffirm that the City of God was a heavenly and spiritual matter, as opposed to an earthly and political affair. The City of God is contrasted with, and in conflict with, the city of men; but the City of God's eventual triumph is assured by divine prophecy.

[edit] Roman Catholics, war, and peace

Roman Catholics historically have had a wide variety of positions on issues of war and peace. The historical peace churches are now the chief exponents of Christian pacifism, but this was an issue that first came to light during the Roman Empire.

Soldiers in the Roman military who converted to Roman Catholicism were among the first who had to face these issues. The Roman Catholics in the Roman military had to confront a number of issues, that go beyond the obvious one about whether the institutionalized homicide of war could be reconciled with Christian faith. Paganism saturated Roman military institutions; idols of the Greco-Roman gods appeared on the legionary standards, and soldiers were expected to revere these idols. Military service, then as now, involved oaths of loyalty that may contradict Roman Catholic teachings even if they did not invoke pagan gods. The duties of Roman military personnel included law enforcement as well as defense, and as such Roman soldiers were sometimes obliged to participate in the persecution of Christians themselves. Sexual licentiousness was considered to be a moral hazard to which military personnel were exposed.

The conversion of Constantine I transformed the relationship of the Christian churches with the Roman military even as it transformed the relationship of the churches with the Roman state. A strongly contrary idea, sometimes called "caesaropapism", identified the now Roman Catholic Empire with the Church militant. The Latin word Christianitas originally meant the body of all Christians conceived as a political body, or the territory of the globe occupied by Christians, something akin to the English word Christendom. Apocalyptic texts were reinterpreted; the Roman Catholic empire was no longer the "Whore of Babylon," but was the armed force of saints, depicted in Revelation as participating in the triumph of God and Christ. The idea of a Christian empire continued to play a powerful role in Western Europe even after the collapse of Roman rule there; the name of the Holy Roman Empire bears witness to its claims to sanctity as well as to universal rule. An apocryphal apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, written during the seventh century, depicts a saintly Last Roman Emperor who holds his earthly kingdom in anticipation of Christ's return. According to Pseudo-Methodius, the Last Emperor will wage war in the last days against God's enemies, including Gog and Magog and the Antichrist. He will surrender his imperial dignities to Christ at the Second Coming.

In Western Europe, after the collapse of Roman rule, yet more issues arose. The Roman Catholic Church expressed periodic unease with the fact that, in the absence of central imperial rule, Christian princes made war against each other. An attempt to limit the volume and permitted times of warfare was proclaimed in the Truce of God, which sought to set limits upon the times and places where warfare could be conducted, and to protect Christian non-combatants from the hazards of war. Because the Truce actually provided a military incentive to gain the element of surprise by breaking it, the Truce was not successful.

On the other hand, greater success attended the proclamation of various Crusades, which were at least in theory the declaration of war by the entire armed body of Christendom against an enemy that was implicitly labelled an enemy of God and his church. Most Crusades were proclaimed to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims; other Crusades were proclaimed against the Cathari, and by the Teutonic Knights against non-Roman Catholics in the Baltic Sea area. In Spain, the Crusader mindset continued for several centuries after the last crusade in the Middle East, in the form of the Reconquista, a series of wars fought to recover the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim Moors. These latter wars were local affairs, and the participation of the entire armed body of Roman Catholics was only theoretical.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  • "Politics", entry in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper, editors. (Oxford, 2000) ISBN 0-19-860024-0

[edit] External links

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