Monday, October 22, 2007

Of Politics and Theology

We like our politics, don’t we? I have to admit, I do enjoy following the competition and wondering who will be competing against whom for President. Will it be Obama vs. Thompson? Or Hillary vs. Giuliani? Will the Republicans take back congress? Will there ever rise up a truly viable Libertarian candidate?

And then there are those instances when candidates dress themselves in religious clothing: Obama with his United Church of Christ membership, Clinton and her Methodist upbringing, George Bush as an evangelical. We could continue on ad infinitum. At one time candidates ran from religion, now they are practically lining up at churches.

Speaking of this did you notice all of the fall out over 17-year-old Andrew Larochelle’s request for a flag for his grandfather? The Eagle Scout requested for a flag to be flown over the US capitol and presented to his grandfather with a certificate with the following inscription: "This flag was flown in honor of Marcel Larochelle, my grandfather, for his dedication and love of God, country and family." The Capitol Architect who administers the program removed the word “God” from the certificate. After quite a bit of protest the Architect found a face saving argument, which allowed him to reinsert “God” into the certificate. Of course, not until politicians from both sides tried to milk the controversy for what it was worth. For so many people God and country are inseparable. And when understood properly and kept in proper tension, that is healthy.

Perhaps the most serious accusation made against Christ-followers in the first century was their view of God and country. We’ve started a series on the book of Romans last week. It’s important in the discussion of any first century document to understand the cultural and sociological issues of the time. This is especially true of the New Testament and the letters of Paul.

As we read Romans and any other New Testament document we have to be aware of the backdrop against which the letters are written. The backdrop is not just a world filled with a plurality of pagan religions—it is a world that is quickly being dominated by a very fast growing religion; and it isn’t Christianity. It is called The Imperial Cult (aka Emperor Worship).

The idea of the imperial cult came about through Greek thought. Before Rome, Greeks viewed certain rulers as having superhuman qualities, which could be construed as divine. There was a tension between this impulse and the democratic ideal. However, the divine aspect of certain heroes became popular when Alexander the Great conquered the world. Eastern provinces worshipped him as a god—and the idea stuck.

Enter the Roman Empire, which tended to subsume all religions and transform them into Roman religion. Rome was shrewd and intelligent. She understood the power of religion and sought to use it to shore up her power base. Rome was also powerful. When she brought peace to the world, created one new empire out of competing kingdoms and warring monarchies, it was perceived she saved the ancient peoples from chaos. Rome and Caesar were seen to have done something only the gods could do. Rome was powerful and its symbol of power was the Roman cross —the power to utterly humiliate and destroy. Rome brought justice (righteousness) and law into the world—two very important concepts among Romans.

Julius Caesar was proclaimed a god by the Roman senate after his death. Temples were allowed to be built and sacrifices offered to him. A month was named after him (Roman months were generally named after gods and numbers). Augustus, who was Julius’ adopted son was quick to point out if Julius was a god then he was the son of god. Augustus was proclaimed Lord and Savior because he brought peace (Pax Romana) and justice to the world. Note the excerpts below from an ancient inscription called the Priene Inscription regarding Augustus Caesar:

‘… Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things…he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done…the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the gospel [glad tidings/good news] for the world that came by reason of him...’

Augustus was shrewd. His goal was to unify the people under the Roman Empire—religion was a useful tool. In the provinces Augustus was sure to demand any temples or altars dedicated to him had to include the words: to the goddess Rome and Augustus. To worship Caesar is to worship Rome. It was quite useful ploy, really. As the Anglican theologian N. T. Wright points out: you don’t need a strong military presence if the citizens are worshipping the Emperor!

Pay close attention to this—these words written about Caesar were written either before Jesus was born or in the years of his childhood. Now, listen again to the words in the first chapter of Romans:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

Also, recall other writings of Paul, like Philippians 3:20- But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is apparent Rome is not borrowing these terms from Christianity. The Empire was applying these words and ideas to Caesar before Paul used them. Paul’s use of these words immediately set Jesus against Caesar and his claims. By speaking of Jesus’ power through the cross he sets Rome on its head! Caesar thinks the cross is his symbol of power. But Jesus in a moment of incredible paradox turns it into his own symbol! Caesar and Rome base their power on violence and death, but Jesus conquers death! Caesar employs the power of death while Jesus employs his power over death.

Make no mistake, this is a challenge: Caesar is not Lord! Jesus is Lord.

So, what do we make of all of this and how do we appropriate Paul’s emphasis for today? First we need to understand any claim of allegiance to government—whether it is Rome, Russia, or America is always to be subservient to allegiance to God. Only Jesus is Lord—not government. This is why I am uncomfortable to see American flags prominently displayed in church buildings—or the pledge of Allegiance being given during a religious service. As Christ followers our pledge is first to God. The state is not on equal footing and any practice that seeks to place country on the same plain as God is a blatant promotion of the state above God.

I think Paul would agree we must observe government’s use of religion with a healthy degree of skepticism. Caesar viewed himself as answerable only to himself. Paul would say to him: “Whether you realize it or not, you are subservient to a higher authority.” Such a stance literally undermines totalitarianism—that is why Rome persecuted the church and why so many governments to this day persecute Christ-followers. This does not mean we are exempt from civil obedience—Paul in Romans 13 makes it quite clear following Christ does not entail violent overthrow of the government. God ordains government to create order and punish evil—so individuals would not violently seek vengeance. But God alone is to be worshipped; not the state.

Secondly, I think we must realize: neither America, nor the President, nor the Supreme Court, nor the Congress is the savior of the world. Jesus is Savior—no other person or even form of government is our savior. We tend to forget that every four years. It is as if one candidate will cause America to slide into ruin while another candidate will save us from destruction! Sorry. Jesus is Savior, no one else.

Third, God’s ultimate victory—his ultimate change of the world--is not accomplished through military conquest. After all, Rome knew how to fight wars. She was very adept at crushing revolutions and uprisings. But neither Rome nor any government can defeat a community who imitates and serves a crucified and resurrected Jesus. Ask Rome, ask Poland, ask Russia, ask China (who is beginning to understand)—they fight a losing battle as long as the Christians remain faithful to their Lord and do not give in to violence.

Finally, and this relates directly to the theme of Romans, how Christians treat each other and relate to each other serves as a critique of all other ruling powers and governments. Rome sought to unify the world—but it did so through fear, greed, power, and pride. Even then, there was a clear distinction and separation between social classes: Roman citizens versus non-citizens, barbarians, Greeks, Jews, slave, freedmen, men, women, trade guilds, the poor and the wealthy. The power of Jesus is seen in how he can bring all classes, all races, and all people together into one family. Pax Romana is merely a parody of the Pax Christi.

This is a challenge for the church today, isn’t it? We sometimes have a hard time giving our total allegiance to God. We tend to place all of our trust in systems of government or systems of economic theory or some expression of power and security. But those are always to be understood as second order things, which do not receive ultimate trust or obeisance. We find it easy to allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race, politics, and economic status. Look around on Sunday and you probably won't see much diversity in your church building, will you? Yet, of all people, the church should be the most diverse group that gathers together. And that diversity of social standing, race, and opinion should be overshadowed by mutual love, respect and yes even affection for each other.

We do like our politics, don’t we? Participation in politics can be useful and honorable when kept in its proper perspective. If you wish to campaign for your favorite candidate: do so. But never forget: our ultimate allegiance is to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Government does not and cannot save. Government, while helpful and set up by God specifically to punish evil doers—is notorious for forgetting its place and for demanding total commitment. And sometimes we can allow our patriotism turn into a religious fervor. Government, which uses religion to control others, is a frightening thing. Religion, which uses government to control others, is equally frightening. The ultimate Savior and Lord is God. The ultimate family is the people of God. The ultimate kingdom is the Kingdom of God. Let’s never loose our focus!

May your allegiance be to Jesus Christ and to the good news that comes through him. May you be able to say with full confidence: Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior to the glory of the Father.

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