POLITICS AND RELIGION: A DIVIDE?
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [2 PT 3:11-15. 17-18; PS 90: 2-4, 10, 14, 16; MK 12:13-17 ]
In a world of secularism, there is often the debate concerning the roles of politics versus religion. There is one extreme view that says religion should not be allowed in public space. It should just be confined to a place of worship or in homes, a place where believers are allowed to perform some rituals. They are not allowed to comment on anything that has to do with society, on morality and social norms, anything that affects society and most of all, comment on the policies of the government. In other words, they call for a clear separation between politics and religion. But are we being hypocritical to presume it is possible, as how Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the Herodians who were precisely drawing a demarcation between religion and politics? They sought to flatter Jesus by praising Him as an honest man who was totally impartial before God. But Jesus would not allow Himself to be flattered by them.
The truth is, such a call for complete separation never happens in practice. Governments often engage religions to seek support for their policies by encouraging their congregations to endorse the policies of the government. There are many occasions when the government would lay down rules on how worship can take place in a sacred place. In some instances, religions that have radical teachings that cause disharmony and ill feelings are outlawed. Conversely, some religions make use of politics to further their cause. They use their religious power to control the government by practicing partisan politics so that when they come to power, they would be given special privileges. Hence, this tension between religion and politics does not seem to be able to go away.
In the gospel, the Pharisees and the Herodians approached Jesus for His take on the role of politics and religion. In their minds, it was either politics or religion. Of course, they did not come to Jesus with a sincere motive for finding the truth. They were sly and had ill intentions to get rid of Jesus even though between themselves they were political enemies. So they came together for once to lay a trap for Jesus by asking Him the sensitive question of whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. They knew that if Jesus were to answer in the affirmative, He would lose the support of the Jews because they saw the Romans as their conquerors, whereas for the Jews, only God was their king. They also resented paying taxes to them because it was to finance the luxurious living of the middle class and to build pagan temples. On the other hand, if Jesus were to advise them not to pay taxes, the Herodians who supported the Roman’s rule over Israel as they had political favours from them, would report to Caesar. Jesus would be arrested for mutiny and inciting rebellion.
Thanks to our Lord, He shows us the way to transcend the separation between politics and religion whilst maintaining the distinction. He took a denarius bearing the image of Caesar and his name. The Lord said, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” In other words, there are two distinct autonomies in life; politics and religion. The world of politics is to ensure order and justice in the country and to bring progress, prosperity, and peace for all. It is concerned with temporal order. In the world of religion, the focus is on the spiritual order. Religion is concerned with living a moral and righteous life, right relationship with others, the world, and God. This touches on the person’s soul, mind, and heart. This must be clear. Religion does not get involved in politics insofar as it pertains to the temporal order and governance of the country. Politics must not interfere in the religious beliefs of religions so long as it does not create disharmony.
Yet, in practice, politics and religions often overlap. This is because a human person is one and at the same time, a political, social, moral, and religious being. We cannot compartmentalize a person’s mind and thinking apart from his or her religious beliefs or philosophical approach to life. We all make decisions whether in politics or in economics based on our beliefs in God and moral upbringing of what is right and wrong. We cannot pretend that when it comes to making policies, our religious and moral upbringing does not influence our judgment. In the final analysis, even reason cannot bring about a consensus because if it were possible, then every country and society would have the same laws and rules. How can reason ever come to a consensus when today’s reasoning is based on relativism and not on objective truths? If it is based on relativism, it clearly means that it is not reason but personal preference. The reasoning of the world contradicts its claim to reason!
In the final analysis, religion and politics are not in competition but are complementary to each other. Religion helps politics to carry out the task of restoring order, justice, progress, development, and prosperity. Politics help religions to ensure that there is true justice for all, care for the poor and the marginalized, a better standard of living for all, and that all live in peace and harmony. Religions, therefore, serve the people, since 80% of our peoples have a religion of some sort. They can influence the people for good or for evil. Politics too can serve the people if they use their powers truly for the service of the common good.
Regardless, both religion and politics seek the common good of all. This is where religion and politics meet. St Peter wrote, “What we are waiting for is what he promised: the new heavens and new earth, the place where righteousness will be at home.” Indeed, whether it is politics or religion, our common goal is to build a world where there will be justice, peace, and harmony, where all live in joy, in abundance, a world where there is mutual love and compassion. Everything that politics do is for the common good of the people; whether it is governance in ensuring justice and order; or building infrastructure, the economy, increasing trade, advancing science and technology, or improving the GDP of the country. So, too, this is what religion does in meeting the spiritual hunger of our people, helping them to come into contact with God, encountering His presence, giving them hope for a greater future, nourishing their souls, helping them to live a moral life, of truth and authentic love expressed in mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
What does religion do that politics cannot do? Politics cannot give people hope beyond this life. It can at most promise the people that this life on earth would get better. Yet we know of course that it isn’t true. In spite of the so-called technological progress and advancement, the standard of living in the world might have become better in some places, but the world is more divided than ever. Within each country, people are not happy with each other and with the government. We have demonstrations all over the world against their government, and often these become violent as they are controlled by powers behind the protests. The world is not at peace. Most of all, the earth, as the scripture tells us, is literally burning up because of the abuse of creation, climate change, nuclear weapons, and wars. St Peter said, “The sky will dissolve in flames and the element melt in the heat. You have been warned about this, my friends; be careful not to get carried away by the errors of unprincipled people, from the firm ground that you are standing on.”
However, religion gives more than just a good life on earth. Our Faith promises us that what is waiting for us is “the new heavens and new earth, the place where righteousness will be at home.” More than just technological progress, there will be true righteousness, peace, justice, harmony, love and unity within each person and in the world. We have a world beyond this world. Our hope is in heaven, where our real home is. It is our belief that life goes on beyond this world and that fullness of life is where God is, that we are motivated to begin living this life offered to us at the end of our journey by already “living holy and saintly lives” while we “wait and long for the Day of God to come.” Indeed, for now, we must do our best “to live lives without spot or stain” so that He will find us at peace. We must live every day as if it is the last day so that when the Lord comes, we are found ready. This demands that we “go on growing in the grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” And at the same time, be grateful and conscious that our time on earth is but God’s patience and grace for us to change our lives so that we can be saved when the day of the Lord arrives.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
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