Today’s readings: Isaiah 45,1.4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1,1-5; Matthew 22, 15-21.
Religion and politics have never been good bedfellows. Politics, originally meant by Aristotle to bring about virtuous citizenry, often defeats its own aim by seeking to build a world of significance without bothering about questions of transcendence. Religion also distorts its nature when it institutionalises itself and loses its other-worldly dimension.
This perennial debate impinges not only on the true nature of politics but also of the human being. Today’s Scripture readings broaden the perspective to grasp the different roles of religion and politics which, conflictual as they may be, can still complement each other for the common good of humanity.
Unfortunately, petty and partisan interests very often prevail at the expense of the proclamation of the Gospel. We have politicians who quote God’s name but are among the worst politicians, and the current US election campaign is proving to be a case in point of the use and abuse of religion in the political arena.
In today’s first reading, Isaiah refers to Cyrus, king of Persia, as the ‘anointed’. God operates in the history of humanity irrespective of religion, race or political creed. An outsider for Israel, Cyrus did not know God. Yet God “took him by his right hand”, and he proved providential in God’s plan for His people.
In today’s gospel text, St Matthew turns to this conflict between religion and political power and with how that impinges on the earthly commitment of the Christian as a Christian. Jesus is faced with two extremes. On the one hand, those for whom Caesar’s sacred power was absolute, and on the other hand, the religious powers of Israel who acknowledged no other political authority on earth except that divine. From a Gospel perspective these are two wrongs.
As citizens of this world, we all form part of the political community, and in the modern age it was the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that clearly defined the involvement and responsibilities of the Christian and of the Church at large in the political arena and set clear boundaries respecting the autonomous competencies of both politics and religion.
Particularly in the secularised West, we no longer live in confessional countries. Our societies have become pluralistic and cosmopolitan and we need to learn how to respect the rainbow of beliefs, values, and virtues that compose society and characterise social cohesion.
This, of course, does not mean that religion has no role or function in a modern lay nation. Religion still has a role in the public sphere. Denying that would amount to a form of fundamentalism not different from the fundamentalism of those who still believe in a theocratic form of government.
Reading with depth of insight the words of the gospel – “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” – should help us today recover the authentic meaning of the Gospel mandate as to our political involvement as citizens, for the time being, not of heaven but of earth.
Church and religion, in today’s open vision, still have a public role, and that role should largely be envisaged as one of proposition rather than imposition. The Church’s role today is more to be seen in connection with upholding the common good of society, with enhancing the individual conscience, and with proclaiming and defending the dignity of each and every person.
As James K.A. Smith writes in his book How (Not) to be Secular, “Whether we’re proclaiming the faith to the secularised or we’re puzzled that there continue to be people of faith in this day and age”, we need to locate ourselves where we are and what is at stake. Learning as believers to inhabit our secular age would undoubtedly be more sensible than clinging with nostalgia to a past that is no more.
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