Daily Devotions

The Skinny on the Role of Church and State


Every political campaign season, the issue of Church and State comes up in conversation, especially when you are a Pastor. Every four years I feel compelled to consider anew the controversial subject that makes church members lobby to get me to commit to Fox News or MSNBC, and then tell me that whatever I hear I need to keep to myself, or I will be breaking an article of law first uttered by the seventeenth century founder of the First Baptist Church in America.


Warnings to continue political silence are seemingly reinforced by the principle founder of the Declaration of Independence. It was Thomas Jefferson who declared that they should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus "building a wall of separation between Church and State." Unfortunately, people are quick to pick up on the "wall of separation language," and miss the "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" part.


In looking to both understand and explain this complicated, centuries-old concept, I turned to an all-knowing place called Wikipedia. Wikipedia often gets a bad rap because it was developed outside a formal academic process, and could be changed by anyone feeding false information. Through the years, caring people have dedicated themselves to making Wikipedia a consistently stable and accurate reference. Here is what Wikipedia says about the Separation of Church and State: "Three central concepts were derived from the 1st Amendment which became America's doctrine for church-state separation: no coercion in religious matters, no expectation to support a religion against one's will, and religious liberty encompasses all religions. In sum, citizens are free to embrace or reject a faith, any support for religion - financial or physical - must be voluntary, and all religions are equal in the eyes of the law with no special preference or favoritism."


The rationale for the Separation of Church and State affirms religious liberty and no religious favoritism. Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers wanted to make sure the Church did not become one with the state, or that one religious faith is not given beneficial treatment over another religion. This did not mean those in the Church cannot speak to matters of justice and other political matters. I strike it rich again with another quote from Wikipedia: "His 1967 article analyzes the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy: 'Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word 'God' at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension.'" The political realm should not ignore the Church, nor should the Church ignore politics. There are certain boundaries, but striving to speak out for justice and transformative change is a religious imperative, and that type of lasting change can only occur through political systems.


As people of faith, committed to the Christian Church, do not be afraid to have your faith influence your politics. Nor should the Church fail to speak out in matters affecting God's children. Pray for the wisdom to know how to faithfully influence our political system, and our political system to properly address the prophetic voice of the Church.

You Didn't Earn It

"He [the rich man] called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’" (Luke 16:24)

 

This is such a descriptive and painful story to imagine. Lazarus was desperately poor, begging and covered in sores. The rich man passed him at the gate each day, having eaten lavish meals. Upon death poor Lazarus was carried into heaven by the Angels. Meanwhile, the rich man also dies, but finds himself in Hades. Even in Hades, the rich man does not learn humility.

 

Looking up from hell, the rich man apparently sees Lazarus enjoying the good life in heaven. Rather than feeling joy that such a poor, suffering soul on earth gets redemption in heaven, the rich man, while suffering the indignities of hell, still views poor Lazarus as an inferior. The rich man continues to act the superior by requesting Father Abraham to force Lazarus to leave his rightful place in heaven and send him to hell, to meet the rich man's needs. Further, the rich man continues to make demands, by having family members receive special divine intervention in order to save them from a hellacious fate, similar to his own.

 

In this passage Jesus is calling to faithful to heed the parable's warning. The sin is not simply being rich. The sin is in considering oneself superior because one's station in life is more fortunate than someone else's station. The Gospel of Luke, more than the other Gospels, is especially strong in warning the wealthy of their responsibilities and potential pitfalls.

 

In our individualistic society, we are taught to take great pride in our personal success. But there really is not such a thing as a personal success. Having the mental capacity to be successful is by the grace of God and not something you have earned. Having a family system, even a somewhat dysfunctional one, provides enough stability for you to succeed. Again, not something you earned. Being blessed by being born in a country like the United States provides opportunities that are totally impossible to achieve in many other places in this world. Not something you earned! I don't have enough time or space to talk about good health, and good health care, etc., etc. Much of our success is beyond our control.

 

When we see a Lazarus, there are regularly many stories of opportunities denied. God did not put these individuals in our world as objects for our derision, or as beasts to lesson our burden. These individuals remind us of our need to reach out with respect, compassion, and dignity. Since 1980, our economy has continued to grow, but it has grown mainly for the fortunate few at the top of the economic ladder. If we, like the rich man, refuse to look and act upon the Lazarus' of our world with compassion and respect, and with a commitment to making positive change, we may be surprised who God blesses with riches in the heavenly kingdom.

 

Today, pray for God to open our eyes to the needs of this world. Not one of us can make a difference by ourselves, but in prayer ask God to lead you to a place where you can make a small difference in the lives of at least some around you. But charity isn't as important as issues of respect. Ask God to humble you, so you can reach out to those less fortunate with an open mind and heart, treating each person with the respect due them, as children of God, made in that divine image.

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