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Values, belief, politics

By Greg Clarke
Created 23/02/2006 - 09:17

Well, the religious theme continues on Webdiary. Craig Schwarze organised this article by Greg Clarke, from New College [1] - I might say a very concise, coherent statement of a Christian view of Church and State.

by Greg Clarke

I will be reminding them [Muslim leaders], as I remind all Australians, our common values as Australians transcend any other allegiances or commitments, and I will be talking in practical ways about how these goals might be achieved.

John Howard, reported on SMH website in PM set for radical talks with Muslims [2], 22nd August 2005.

The Australian Prime Minister made this extraordinary comment in August last year in the week of a summit with Australian Islamic leaders to discuss the problem of religious extremism.

I cannot think of many religious believers who would agree with it.

In fact, many would regard it as the ultimate act of blasphemy to suggest that there is a higher allegiance than one’s God. I don’t know how much import to place on the Prime Minister’s remark, which was in the midst of a radio interview, but at the very least it demonstrated the difficulties that today’s secular, and often pluralistic and multicultural states, have with religion.

If the Prime Minister was claiming that there is a kind of natural law which all human beings, by the very nature of the universe, understand and respect, then I can go a fair way down that path with him.

Yes, there are many shared values, morals, and a common conscience. Most religions, cultures and societies agree on many of these things. In his famous essay on the subject, C.S. Lewis claimed that it would be “the abolition of man” (we would say ‘humanity’) to deny this.

However, beyond that it is remarkable how different and distinctive can be the various religions. Christians believe Jesus was the son of God, who died on a cross for our sins and was raised to new life by God as Lord of the Universe. Muslims do not believe this. Muslims believe that Muhammad is Allah’s last prophet; Christians do not. Jews believe in a God who speaks; Buddhists do not. Hindus believe in karma; Christians believe in grace.

We are at a point in Australia where we are wrestling with such issues. How can religions which teach quite obviously different beliefs and approaches to life, both individually and socially, coexist? Is there a kind of secularism where religions have a place, or are they always going to be in conflict with the secular state?

To my mind, one point is clear for the Christian. He or she cannot agree with the Prime Minister’s comment that there is an allegiance that transcends commitment to Christ.

The Bible teaches that Jesus, the Son of God, is the one through whom the world exists, for whom it exists, and by whom it continues. The fullness of God dwelt in him and he is responsible for making peace between God and all things on heaven and earth, through his sacrificial death. He is the human hope for the life to come, because he rose from the grave and is empowered to give that same eternal life to anyone who will believe in him and walk in the Christian way. (I get all this from the Bible, Colossians 1:15-20).

These are no small claims. One’s allegiance to Christ rides above everything—above nation, above community, above family.

But at the same time, allegiance to Christ gives the Christian a whole range of opportunities and responsibilities in nation, community and family.

So, if Christ is Lord of all, how then should a Christian live in the world?

How does faith in Christ work itself out in the polis, in politics?

In my view, there are three stances you might take on this issue:

1. Try to run the place

2. Try to leave the place

3. Try to persuade the place.

The first view is, in my opinion, the stance of many Christian political parties. The reconstructionists in America are here. ‘One nation under God.’ Ideally, they would run the state. They would have power to legislate, and would do so according to Scripture. They would attempt to put into law the Christian way of life. There are some groups among Australian Christian communities who seek this outcome.

I don’t believe Christians are called to this position. It seems to deny the separation of church and state which I see in Scripture.

The second view is, in my opinion, also unbiblical. It is the separationist view, where the church is an alien community with nothing in common with the state. The church looks inward, not outward, and is only concerned to obey God itself, not to bring about godliness in the world.

Many church groups throughout history have reached this point, especially when the ‘world’ or state or polis has seemed particularly sin-ridden and to be involved in it a compromise of the Christian walk.

Stanley Hauerwas, an eminent American ethicist, recently argued that in a human future he believes will be bleak, Christians should be known as "those peculiar people who don't kill their babies [through abortion] or their old people [through euthanasia]."

As attracted as I sometimes am to this view, again it doesn’t pull together the nature of the church in the Bible well enough to convince me.

The third view is that the church and polis are distinct, but in a very particular way. Jesus Christ is the actual ruler of the world, post-resurrection. Therefore, the Church is the greater ‘nation’, and its Christian duty is to tell the state what to do—to restrain it from the evil it is inclined to, and to give it moral guidance.

But it will NOT do this by trying to wrest control. Instead it will “speak truth to power”, as the Quakers put it. In particular, the church will play a role in humbling the state, precisely in reminding it that what the Prime Minister said on the radio last year just won’t wash with Christians, or any genuine religious believer.

We look forward to pursuing the commonality that is the Prime Minister’s goal, but it can’t happen by transcending religious beliefs. For believers, there is nowhere higher.

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