How do we live out our faith in a secular environment?

Stephen Adam, 19 October 2014

1 Thessalonians 1: 1–10; Matthew 22: 15–22

Even as I speak, RAF jets may be involved militarily in Iraq against the so-called IS Islamist extremists. Our military action was preceded by debates and votes in both houses of parliament. In the Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury was among church leaders who spoke. Whilst he supported the action now, he also stressed – in a prophetic and challenging way, drawing on his experience in conflict resolution – that force of arms alone would not be enough. There was also a need that any response should be ‘undertaken on an ideological and religious basis that sets out a more compelling vision, a greater challenge and a more remarkable hope than that offered by ISIL’.

This, and many other issues in our world today, raises complex and controversial questions. To what extent, and how, might Christians bring their faith to bear on such matters? What is the proper relationship between our faith and politics in an increasingly secular society?

When faced with questions of public policy, should the church withdraw and keep quiet (as the Mennonites in America and other groups practise)? Or should Christians seek to contribute from an informed faith perspective, as the archbishop did regarding the issue I mentioned above?

Or, when faced with the intractable and desperate events that we read about and see on our TV screens, do we sometimes need to be honest with ourselves and recognise that our faith doesn’t give us easy or obvious answers? And so we restrict ourselves to generalisations which, to some, may seem as adding up to no more than pious platitudes and hand-wringing.

I hope Bishop John will forgive me if I mention a rather sharp remark by the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. He commented – rather wryly and perhaps a little unfairly – that ‘Generally speaking, bishops are generally speaking’; while another commentator has remarked pointedly, and again perhaps a bit unfairly, that ‘the spectacle of church leaders “speaking out” – often in the House of Lords – on social, economic, moral and political questions on which they have no special expertise is a familiar but extremely peculiar feature of the ecclesiastical landscape’.

These questions about how we live out our faith in a secular environment have been with Christian communities right from the outset. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest piece of writing in the New Testament, dating from around AD 50. It’s particularly interesting for scholars in giving us our first glimpse of a small Christian community, one that is struggling with its identity in a pagan state; a community whose hopes of the early return of Jesus in glory have been dashed and who instead face persecution. How should they live in this ‘in-between time’?

Paul writes to affirm them warmly, using language later in the letter of being like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. But Paul also, if you like, offers them a reality check – yes, he understands their confusion, that their expectations have not been fulfilled, that persecution continues, their members die and there is no return of Christ. But Paul instead points them to the guiding principles of faith, love and steadfast hope – principles that remain no less valid for us today.

Paul talks about the ‘work of faith’ or, as the New English Bible translates it, ‘how your faith has shown itself in action’. For Paul, faith is alive and active, developing and maturing, and constantly working through the problems of life. Faith doesn’t offer us easy solutions but is the basis for living in a world where only provisional answers are possible.

Faith is alive and active, developing and maturing, and constantly working through the problems of life.

And then, turning to our gospel passage, the text about ‘Render to Caesar … and render to God’ is familiar and has been much quoted as one of the guiding statements of Jesus through the centuries as Christians have wrestled with the competing claims of God’s kingdom and the secular state.

Jesus’ statement is a bit more subtle than it appears and it has sometimes been misunderstood, so let me first try to put it in context. Jesus has returned to Jerusalem and to all that awaits him there, with his arrest, trial and execution. In these chapters of Matthew – 21 to 23 – we read of increasingly heightened confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership. This is no meek and mild Jesus: he is angry, and he makes increasingly violent denunciations of the Jewish religious leadership for their refusal to recognise him and God’s claims upon them. Eventually these confrontations lead to the point of total mutual rejection, which can only lead to the elimination of Jesus as a disturber of the peace.

The question that the Pharisees put to Jesus, showing him the coin with the hated image of the emperor on it, is a trick. Recognising Jewish sensitivities, for normal day-to-day use the Romans allowed copper coins to be used without the image; but for paying the annual poll tax – a tax that was much hated as being the primary mark of Jewish political subjection to the imperial power of Rome – the denarius (equivalent to roughly a day’s wage) had to be used. This had the image of Tiberius on it, and the inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the deified Augustus, Chief Priest’ – a red rag to the Jews.

The Pharisees hope to ensnare Jesus. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay the tax he could be accused of being a collaborator with the occupying Roman power; if he said it wasn’t lawful he would be allying himself with the zealots – revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the Romans by force – and would swiftly find himself on the wrong end of Roman justice.

Jesus avoids the trap and throws the question back at his challengers, with his statement about the respective claims of Caesar and God. Yes, we live in a secular state and that state has legitimate claims upon us, says Jesus; but God also has a claim upon us.

What should we make of Jesus’ statement today? It’s important, I think, that we should not regard the two clauses as equal, as if our secular and spiritual lives are two completely separate and independent realms. Rather, the implication of what Jesus says is that while we have obligations to the state, we have a higher obligation to God.

The coin bears Caesar’s image, but humans bear the image of God. As Genesis 1: 26 puts it, ‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”’. And Isaiah speaks of how God has created us: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ (43: 1).

We have that higher calling or loyalty, if you like, and Jesus’ words about rendering ‘to God the things that are God’s’ immediately call to mind the words of the prayers at the Preparation of the Table as we celebrate the Eucharist, when we declare that ‘All things come from you, and of your own do we give you’.

So we shouldn’t be making rigid divisions of our lives into the sacred and secular, with the sacred something we do on Sundays and the secular for the rest of the week. Rather, we need to ensure that the secular finds its proper place within the overriding claims of the sacred.

There is, though, no easy answer or rule-of-thumb about how we apply this principle to the specific situations that confront us as citizens in a democratic society. The messy reality is that the realms of the sacred and secular overlap as we struggle to live by the light of the gospel in a complicated world where the Bible doesn’t provide us with obvious or immediate answers to many of the pressing moral and ethical questions we face today. It doesn’t, for instance, tell us how we should run the NHS!

When we move from church to voting booth, however, we don’t leave our faith behind us. Spiritual values still apply while we are engaged in our secular activities. If, as I believe, we have an opportunity and indeed a responsibility to contribute a distinctive Christian voice in what I’d call the ‘public square’ on issues of public policy, speaking into a society now long adrift from its Christian anchorage and heritage, maybe the way we can be most effective and can contribute to the common good is not by being narrowly ‘preachy’, and certainly not self-righteous. Rather, can we instead seek to identify – from a questioning and enquiring faith – moral principles drawn from biblical insights that may enable us to enter into dialogue with those who have to make really tough decisions on complex issues on our behalf?

So, briefly, for example, a key Christian understanding is about the dignity and worth of human life – in short what it means to be human. Such understandings should help illuminate the complex issues around abortion, stem cell research and assisted dying.

Or we might want to stress the Christian belief in the possibility of redemption and restoration in discussion of criminal-justice policy.

We might want to stress the Christian belief in the possibility of redemption and restoration in discussion of criminal-justice policy.

Or that policies for the vulnerable and marginalised should never be shaped by considerations of how much that constituency contributes materially to society’s prosperity.

But, apart from such moral principles derived from our faith, we also have a good deal of practical, hard-won experience to contribute, ranging from the church’s historic engagement with education to our work in inner-city areas through such agencies as the Church Urban Fund. All this enables us to offer an informed faith-perspective on issues of public policy and the common good.

Let me end by speaking more personally for a moment. Just over a week ago Bishop Michael, our much-loved former diocesan bishop, was buried in the cathedral grounds. For 10 years I had the enormous joy and privilege of working with him as his lay assistant, supporting him in all the demands of that office. It had a transformative effect on me. Michael was absolutely selfless in his witness and faithfulness, rendering himself wholly to the service of the God whom he loved.

He was very active – notably in the House of Lords – in articulating an orthodox Christian stance with great integrity but also with real warmth and compassion on some of the most divisive issues in recent years, especially regarding questions around marriage and the family, and the nature of human sexuality. He was also extremely well informed on the countries in the Great Lakes region of Africa and made many notable interventions about the plight of the Congo and the limited response of the United Nations to the situation there.

He found himself sometimes in a lonely and isolated place on the bishops’ bench in the Lords as he argued and presented his case, offering a perspective informed by much pastoral experience and considerable intellectual depth. He read widely and reflected and prayed deeply. It was not always easy, and it took a good deal of courage to offer moral and ethical insights derived from his Christian faith that often went against the pull of our prevailing secular tide.

Today, as we reflect on that gospel passage, let us also remember with thanksgiving a great servant of this diocese and the wider church, who wholeheartedly lived out that command to ‘render to God the things that are God’s’. Amen.