Sunday, November 16, 2008

Expectations and Demands

The separation of church and state is an ideal that was expressed by Thomas Jefferson in a letter he wrote in 1802 in which he offered his interpretation of the First Amendment, the intent of which he believed was to “build a wall of separation between Church and state”. Contrary to certain opinion, that particular phrase is not used in the US Constitution; rather, it is expressed and implied. It is not clear that Mr. Jefferson intended much more than to express his belief that the government must remain absolutely neutral in matters of religious faith and practice, believing, as he wrote, “that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”

Also contrary to popular opinion, Thomas Jefferson was a diest rather than a Christian. He believed in the morality of Bible, but he did not seem to embrace Christian doctrines of man. He even actually rewrote his own version of the Bible and removed the “miracles” among other things. Long story short, especially since this is not about Thomas Jefferson, not only did he believe that government must stay out of the religion business completely; he also believed that the Church should not expect to use government to enforce its doctrines.

Believing that this nation was founded solely by those seeking religious freedom is not entirely accurate. Oh, there were some who did flee Europe in search of a place in which to be free from religious persecution, but it was not in Puritan Massachussetts where Governor John Winthrop’s ideal of a “shining city upon a hill” was the very essence of religious Intolerance, meaning that it was the Puritan way across the board or no way at all. Even in religious matters among religious people it had become necessary for preacher Roger Williams to flee from THAT religious eutopia for the sake of his very life because he believed that government and religion are not compatible.

The concept of the separation of Church and state is both comforting and problematic. In one sense, it reminds us that the power of our government is constitutionally restricted in several matters, religion being but one. It is comforting to know that we are free to attend the church of our choice without fear. It is problematic in that our religion is our primary source of moral value. We typically “do” or “don’t” because the Bible says so. Our understanding of ethical behavior stems in no small measure from our understanding of what the Lord requires of us. Christians generally do not concern themselves with what Plato or Socrates may have thought or taught.

How can such understandings be problematic on any level? It is much in the same way that some Christians will deny the legitimacy of infant baptism while others will defend it. One will insist that the other is WRONG, refusing to acknowledge that a difference of opinion and understanding exists. And this is just one particular religious doctrine. Imagine some of our social hot-button issues! If we thought partisan politics was a mess, imagine adding religious doctrine to it! In Puritan Massachussetts such disagreements over religious doctrines as a matter of state policy could become a matter of life or death by the decree of a single person. So much for “religious freedom”; just ask Roger Williams! It would be more accurate to express the ideal that one would be “free” only to agree with the prevailing human authority according to that authority’s understanding.

The separation of Church and state is problematic also in that a religious “litmus” test is expressly prohibited by Article VI of the US Constitution. Such a prohibition suggests that we are not supposed to even consider a person’s religion as we determine his or her fitness for office. Well, good luck with that one. Because we do. Measure. A Person’s Value. According to whether that person’s religious point of view is compatible with our own.

When we do begin to apply or even impose our standards of religion in such ways, it is possible that we blur what should be a distinct line of separation not between Church and state but between that which is holy and that which is not and become downright unreasonable in our demands and expectations. So then it is not a matter of secular constitutional requirements. Instead it becomes a matter of actually taking from the Lord and giving over to “Caesar” rather than merely separating one from the other.

The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus into either alienating Himself from the people or from the Roman government, and they mistakenly used the one thing that has absolutely no real value in the kingdom of Heaven. Even still, I don’t think money or taxes were themselves the real issues that the Pharisees were trying to raise with Jesus. The real problem, or the real challenge, for Christians is in making a distinction between that which really does exclusively belong to the secular government and that which is exclusively holy.

The main difference between such separations in what we offer comes down to a difference between that which is given freely and that which is compulsory under threat of law. Would we freely and voluntarily withhold from our income a portion set aside exclusively for the government? The reality is that we must contribute to our society in such a way but the other truth of that reality is that if we DON’T, we could go to prison and/or have our assets and property confiscated. Whether we like it or not, the taxes WILL be paid.

What happens, however, when we withhold from the Lord? And please know that I am not talking exclusively about tithes or money. What happens if we do not go to church? What happens if we do go to church, but we expect to be entertained rather than to come with an open and willing heart, ready to worship? What happens if we withhold our financial support from the Church because we don’t like the music or we don’t like the preacher or we don’t like a particular person or we don’t like the color of the choir robes?

Nothing. In this life and in the moment, absolutely nothing will happen. The world will not stop spinning on its axis, and the stars and moon will remain right where they are. Life will pretty much continue as before. For as long as that life lasts. We will remain wrapped in our own cocoon of self-preservation, and we will live according to our own desires, expectations, and demands. No one will be the richer for our behavior, to be sure, but no one will be any poorer for it.

In that self-sustaining world, however, Love does not exist except the love we might have only toward those things and people who suit us, those things we can actually see and feel or taste and touch. And those things exist solely for the purpose of pleasing us. That is not Love; it is a life sentence.

That which belongs to the Lord God is that which has already been offered and is freely given for no reason other than love. It is that we are consciously aware that such a thing took place some 2000 years ago for no reason other than love. And if any among us are so geared in such a way that the word “love” makes us uncomfortable, then call it a Remarkable Gift. It is a Gift with no strings, no demands, no expecations. Only an offer of Life. There is nothing we have to do before we choose to receive this Remarkable Gift except to believe it possible. After that, the Lord will take care of the rest … IF we are willing.

There is no document that requires the Lord to offer this; there is only His heart. Shall we break that Heart, or shall we fulfill it?

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