On the Church and Empire – Theological Consistency

Church and State I wrote the following blog in September of 2009, and am reposting it. Obviously, this is a huge subject, but I remain mystified by the silence of certain theologians who tore their clothes almost daily it seemed from 2000-2008 over what they thought was a co-opting of the church by the "Empire." They called for a strong differentiation of church and state.

Those same voices, in 2008, became leading voices arguing for Obama's election, government-run health-care, certain perspectives on immigration reform, etc. The problem isn't with their political perspectives. It is with their theological inconsistency regarding the proper relationship between "Empire" and Church. I'm not trying to "go political," but rather ask some questions about theological integrity, because many of us are so influenced by so many of these voices.

Why now? Well, I read that many of these same voices are now supporting a pro-Democratic rally this weekend in Washington D.C. The New York Times notes:

"The march has been endorsed by the United Church of Christ, the National Baptist Convention and several Jewish organizations, while the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society has endorsed its principles.

“As people of faith, we deeply care about the issues of justice, education and jobs, and we feel those are issues facing society we have to address,” said the Rev. Amy Stapleton, a Methodist minister. “A march like this is something that hasn’t been accomplished since Dr. King brought people together in 1963 around issues of race, war, class and the right to decent pay and good jobs.”

Hmmm…

Those theologians were right to be concerned then. And, they should be concerned now. But they're not.

So, I'm concerned :) 

Denominations actually financially supporting political rallies? Where's the outrage and fear of the Empire?

That's the question I asked in September of last year. I'll ask it again today. Below is the post from last year. Obviously, some of the political issues are now moot. The theological issues…not so much. I welcome your comments.

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Remember when Christian theologians were concerned about an "unholy" alliance of church and "Empire." I do. It was just last year.

From roughly 2004 through the election of 2008, I noticed a surge in articles, conferences, and books (largely academic) that expressed grave concern that America had been co-opted by the Christian right, and that Christianity and "empire" had formed an illegitimate relationship. We were told rightly by some of theology's biggest names and most typically thoughtful practitioners that the church should maintain it's alternative witness in culture and avoid too intimate a relationship with the State (renamed "Empire" for effect).

I wonder, whatever happened to those concerns? Those books have stopped coming off the press, the articles have dried up. They have been replaced with books, articles, conferences, and on-line manifestos articulating support for various government policies for everything from environmental protection to health-care reform.

Now, it's almost en vogue to say what I heard an MSNBC pundit say this morning, "Jesus would be for the public option." Al Gore can use Matthew 25 as a proof-text for why universal health care must happen…the implication being that those that don't might miss out on heaven…and no one says anything.

Ron Carrico (not a theologian) echoes Gore in the San Diego Daily Transcript:

It is amazing that churches are not crying out for universal health care. It should be part of Christian core beliefs. Jesus was the king of empathy for all mankind and he would have insisted on health care for all. When Jesus was asked about conditions to enter the kingdom the bible tells us he replied, "Whatever you neglected to do unto one of the least of these, you neglected to do unto Me! … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew: 25)

In other words, he was saying that if you do not care for the poor it is the same as not caring for Jesus himself. How do believers expect to talk their way into heaven if they do not fight for health care for all?

So now, it's appropriate to use the Bible to shape public policy? "Talk their way into heaven?" Hmmm. So, I am I to believe that since America has never had or supported en masse a universal health-care system, that no American has ever crossed through the pearly gates? Hmmm. And what about the the "in-prison" part of that passage. Are we in danger of hell because we don't have a government run and sponsored prison visitation program? I think it's a decent question…and it's similar to those I've raised in the past whenever the subject of the intersection of government and faith has come up.

My frustration here isn't with bad exegesis by Al Gore. Nor am I being critical of those who support universal health-care reform. I being critical of theologians–for hypocrisy. I'm frustrated with those who cautioned the church about it's relationship with Empire so well until eight months ago who have now gone MIA. Actually, they haven't gone MIA. They've just changed sides.

In mid-August, President Obama spoke to "liberal" (Reuters news' language) religious groups by phone. “The call was sponsored by 40 Days for Health Reform, an umbrella group whose Web site says is led by PICO National Network, Sojourners, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Faith in Public Life and Faithful America,” according to The New York Times. Since then, a lot of those groups have publicly endorsed President Obama's plan. Many of these were the same groups that decried what they saw as the co-opting of Christianity by the Bush White House…and ridiculed religious groups for their support of anti-stem-cell legislation and marriage amendments. The church had been co-opted by Empire, and Empire by the church, we were told. But now, what?

Which is it?

While I personally embrace a strong separation of church and state, I do believe Christians have a moral obligation to support or not support certain things. So, understand here that my point here has nothing to do with views on the health-care debate, environmental issues, etc.. The question I'm asking is, "Does theology have integrity today?" Specifically, is it ethically consistent? Or, do we only practice situational theology? 

To some extent, I believe ethics must be situational (as in Jesus' teachings on Sabbath observance). However, theology is different. Theology is what we believe about God.That shouldn't move as quickly. When I see such rapid change in position and behavior among some of today's leading theologians and academics, I feel an obligation to ask, "Is our theology only good until the next election or bill hits the Senate floor?"

If church and empire need to stay separate for the reasons described in the literature/conference boom of the 2000's (because of who God is and what He has commanded of the church), then it seems to me that applies no matter what bill goes to the Senate floor, or who is in the White House.

Caveat: I've tried to address the issue in blog-length form. This post can't address all the questions raised by the claims I make. I leave that to the discussion. Also, some of the theologians of whom I speak are among my favorites. Hence, my disappointment.

 

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.