Saturday, November 29, 2008

Church and State

I'm writing a page or two on the separation of church and state for my Masters. It's cool to bring together the thoughts of Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas and John Mbiti. I was wondering what Jesus thought about the separation of church and state when he was around physically.
It is odd, now that I come to think of it, that he didn't talk to the Romans at all. He made no attempt to address the structural oppression that existed. He did not try to create a Christian state. He simply worked with people and their attitudes.
And that is so different from one of the key tenets of Liberation Theology - that one needs to remove oppressive structures before one can have freedom. Jesus was concerned for the poor and the marginalised - so far he agrees without doubt with Liberation Theology. But he seemed to have an amazing lack of concern for the Romans and structural injustice.
I need to think about this some more - can't believe I haven't asked the question before!


Steven Jones said...

Hi Jenny

Your Masters sounds fascinating, and I hope to read your thesis one day when it is complete.

Regarding your post, I have a theory on this. One of the things that disappointed the Jews the most (which was one of the things that led to His crucifixion) was that their idea of a Messiah would be one who would free them from Roman oppression.

Jesus, of course, had a different agenda. The sense in which He "came to set the captives free" was not to free groups of people from oppressive regimes, but to free individuals from their sin. The only groups that He seems to be "having a go at" are the religious leaders (mainly the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees), in the main due to their hypocricy in interpreting the Law.

His addressing the needs of the poor and the marginalised fits in with the liberation theologians, as you have stated, yet His seeming lack of concern for the Roman rulers is something that a liberation theologian may have difficulty with.

To my mind, Jesus' ministry reflects the following steps:
1. Uplift the weak, so that they can become strong.
2. Encourage the newly-strong to seek out others who are weak, and help them to become strong in Christ ("go out into the world and make disciples...")
3. Repeat the process until He comes again.

I know this may sound extremely simplistic, but could it be possible that Jesus wanted to influence individuals, who can then influence communities, who can then influence cities, who can then influence nations?

John Wesley and the early Methodist movement ultimately brought about massive social change by ministering in exactly this fashion - something us modern Methodists would do well to take note of.

I unfortunately don't have any academically-sound references for what I have said, but part of what you are looking for may lie in an examination of how the early Methodist Church brought about social change, applying these lessons to contemporary society, perhaps? Another direction you could go in may be the historical events that led to the Christianisation of Rome, and how the influence of the early Church brought this event about.

Blessings as you continue with your studies and your ministry.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Hmmm ... interesting ... just report what you actually find and you'll be on a good track!

Unknown said...

Jesus said that he came for the Jews. As the afetced people his concern was to set them free from opression and liberate them. The disciples on the other hand was sent to the Romans e.g. Peter and Paul. God still works through the church and us His instruments.

Steve Hayes said...

"It is odd, now that I come to think of it, that he didn't talk to the Romans at all. He made no attempt to address the structural oppression that existed. He did not try to create a Christian state. He simply worked with people and their attitudes."

It strikes me as odd that you should say that. In my youth that argument was used as nauseam by evangelicals who insisted that the church should have nothing to do with politics, and should not oppose 90-day detention and things like that.

And perhaps the key to the matter is what one's theology of the atonement is. Something you may find helpful in this is an article I wrote on Orthodoxy and liberation theology. And just possibly Notes from underground: Christianity, North and South

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Steve. In my youth - which is not actually all that much later than yours - it was all reconciliation and working together and the church overcoming apartheid. All of which I got involved in and thoroughly supported - but the stuff that you refer to never touched me. We were into Peter Storey and Michael Cassidy. I can't remember anybody every presenting me personally with that argument you quoted. I guess I was around at the turning point - you were there slogging uphill.

Steve Hayes said...


My most vivid recollection of that argument was when I was a student and I and a group of fellow students in a fit of ecuemnical fervour visited the Assemblies of God church across the road from the men's residence. The sermon was on whether the church should oppose 90-day detention, and the preacher said it should not -- "Render unto Caesar ... etc"

As we were leaving the preacher asked what we thought of the sermon, and we said we disagreed. He asked why, and I said, "Consider a political detainee being held for 90 days -- in whose image is he made, God's or Caesar's?"

And the preacher's reply was "There are lots of policemen in my congregation, they'll put you in for 90 days if you're not careful."

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Steve. I still have a deep down gut fear of policeman. Those were seriously bad days. But I'm still thinking.
Is it possible that any government is almost by definition oppressive? Or perhaps any belief system that expects adherence to those beliefs is oppressive.
Apartheid was really something that had to be fought against. No doubt. But what is oppressive and what is legitimate standard-setting? I'm not being too clear, I know. Thoughts in progress . . .