Sunday, 4 March 2012

Why separate Church from State?

Since it’s Sunday, here’s a nice story for all those who think the world would be better if Christianity were more closely involved with public life.

For the first three centuries of its history, Christians got nowhere near power, being either barely tolerated or actively persecuted by the authorities of the Roman Empire they inhabited. Then early in the fourth century, the tide turned: though not yet the official religion, Christianity won the active support of the Emperor Constantine.

So we had a chance to find out how Christianity would improve public life.

In the most recent wave of persecutions, a number of Christians, including priests, had taken the injunction to ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ to justify them in obeying imperial edicts to sacrifice to the old gods, however false they were. In that way they at least avoided the alternative of a particular ugly martyrdom.

When the persecution ended, a group called Donatists spoke up for reincorporating these backsliders into the fold and letting bygones be bygones. Against them, those who had refused to compromise with paganism felt that these traitors and their supporters, were an intolerable presence within the Church.

Constantine organised two Councils at which these great questions could be debated. Both Councils decided that the Donatists were heretics. This unleashed the first ever explosion of violence by Christians against Christians.

To me, the most admirable initiatives of recent years have been the attempts of former adversaries, sometimes particularly bitter, to find a way to settle their differences without violence. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa showed the way, and has been followed by similar efforts in Northern Ireland and perhaps in the near future in Burma too.

All such initiatives are messy. They involve people getting away with unforgivable crimes, and victims being allowed little closure for their pain. In a word, they involve compromise. What they don’t involve, on the other hand, is anyone being burned at the stake. A particularly shining example has been the way Germany has learned to come to terms with its Nazi past, without witch hunts, an achievement that has eluded Austria.

Christians have played leading roles in these initiatives, not least Desmond Tutu in South Africa. But Tutu is remarkable precisely because he’s so rare. The mainstream of Christianity, from the day it first tasted power, displayed righteous enthusiasm in its persecution of those it identified as adversaries. Even when they were members of the same Church.

And they went right on as they'd started. The crushing of the Cathars. Protestants and Catholics burning each other. Crusades against the Moslems, one of which even sacked the Orthodox 
Christian city of Constantinople. Just today Cardinal O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, has spoken out against gays; similar views in the African dioceses seem likely to split Anglicanism too. 

‘Blessed are the peacemakers’: they most certainly are, but whatever the Sermon on the Mount may say, they’ve proved rare in the Church. Down the ages, Power has turned Christians into persecutors, from the very first time they got close to it.

So why don’t we just keep Christianity and State Power well apart?

After all, the stake casts an awfully long shadow.

Christians exercising authority over other Christians.
Keen to try it again?

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