Ten years ago, I took part in an introductory weekend course for clergy and religious from abroad who had come to work in Scotland. The main goal of that weekend course was to give us a better understanding of the country, including its historical, cultural, religious and political background. One talk was about the political framework of the UK including the devolved Scottish administration. At that point one of the priests asked the speaker, a Scottish priest, which of the political parties was specifically supported and backed by the Catholic Church. The speaker looked rather flummoxed; initially he thought he had misunderstood the question. Then, when it had been repeated, the speaker looked even more confused by such a question. The idea that the Church could support just one political party and back it exclusively seemed incomprehensible to him. But I knew where it had come from. In the home country of the priest in question the Catholic Church had been highly politicised for a very long time.
Politics and religion have always been tightly intertwined. Each has used the other for its own ends. For emperors, kings and any other kind of political leaders, religion has been useful in providing an extremely strong ideological cause. On the other hand, religious leaders have sought political influence in order to introduce their beliefs into the law of the land, effectively creating theocracies – states governed by a religious code. This kind of mutual coexistence has rarely been made out of love; the mutual back-scratching has mainly been for practical purposes.
Today’s gospel illustrates how such a mutually beneficial arrangement worked. The Pharisees were Jewish patriots who despised the imperial Roman rule and the pagan customs it brought to their hallowed land. The Herodians – other party mentioned here – were the supporters of the puppet governorship subservient to the Roman Emperor. Having to pay tax to the Empire was a bone of contention among the Jews for several reasons. Tax was paid to the occupying power; it was a heavy burden; and it was paid in coin bearing the Emperor’s effigy. This last – an image – was considered to be a grave violation of the Mosaic Law. Yet those two opposing parties were united against a single common foe: Jesus. Both parties considered him so dangerous a threat that they formed an alliance to get rid of him. Their plan was simple but clever. If Jesus condoned the paying of tax to the Roman occupation, he’d lose his popularity with the crowds overnight; if Jesus rejected the paying of tax, he’d be prosecuted and punished by the authorities.
Yet Jesus outfoxed them all with his response and he introduced the idea that we call the separation of state and church. It took nearly eighteen centuries to achieve that, in the form of the First Amendment to the American Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Since then, many countries around the world have followed suit, ours among them. Such an arrangement creates a wonderful environment, where people can grow spiritually without neither imposing their religious views and beliefs on those who don’t share them nor being forced to obey someone else’s religious code. It’s particularly important in our society, so diverse and multicultural that introducing a faith-based code might be great for some but oppressive for others. The horrific reality of the so-called Islamic State is a terrifying illustration of such an arrangement.
Let me return to the question to which I drew your attention earlier: which political party in Scotland was backed by the Catholic Church? The speaker gave a great answer to that: ‘There are Catholics in each political party, and they are there to work for the common good – the greater good of all.’ That’s the point that each and every one of us should latch on to. Our beliefs and practices ought to motivate us to build a fairer and more equal society, to drive us on to build a society where everyone can aspire to achieve greatness in their own way. ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God’.
Photo by Robert_z_Ziemi