On the fringes of British politics, I’ve discovered curious phenomenon. In those corners of the internet where conspiracy theorists rub shoulders with the paranoid right and the anarchist left, you can find a movement known as “lawful rebellion”. The premise of lawful rebellion is essentially this: that an article of Magna Carta means that it is possible to opt out of the jurisdiction of our legal system by simply writing a letter to the Queen. Non-payment of council tax seems to be the most common way in which these self-styled lawful rebels take their fight to the system. The consequent court cases end predictably.
And so in one example, a boxer in Essex attempted to convince Southend Borough Council that he was a lawful rebel under Magna Carta and therefore he didn’t have to pay his council tax bill. After failing to attend a hearing, he was arrested and sentenced to 25 days in prison, although in the end he was released early after the outstanding bill was paid, allegedly by his mum.
On one level this is all very amusing, but on another level it is very sad. So often these cases are about desperate people in desperate situations believing nonsense they read on the internet, or worse still, paying what little money they have to charlatans who run seminars offering spurious advice. And in consequence they usually get themselves into even worse trouble than they were already in.
In today’s gospel the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus a trick question in an attempt to trap him. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”. If Jesus says no, He will find himself in trouble with the Romans; if Jesus says yes, He will lose street-cred with the Jewish zealots who were attempting to resist Roman rule. No doubt many of these zealots were like today’s self-styled “lawful rebels”, desperate people with little to lose. And no doubt they often found themselves in even worse trouble than they were already in. The Romans after all had rather more direct methods for dealing with these sorts of difficulties than Southend Borough Council.
Jesus’ answer to the question is on the face of it simple and straightforward: just pay the tax. And yet He avoids the trap by refusing to get sucked into the broader question of compliance versus resistance, and instead brings the focus back to God. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Many Christians have seen in this verse a sort of embryonic secularism, a blueprint for the separation of church and state. It seems to suggest two quite distinct areas of activity – one concerned with the state, the other concerned with religion. But this is to rip the verse out of its context. And it is also to fail to do justice to the second half of the verse: give “to God the things that are God’s”. For how can it be that God’s interest in human affairs should end where the political realm begins?
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” These are not two halves of an equation. “Give to God the things that are God’s”; what can we truly say is not God’s? Jesus’ answer suggests a basic duty of obedience to the emperor whilst at the same time showing the much greater extent of our obligation to God. We owe the denarius to the emperor, but to God we owe everything.
Secularism can mean a lot of quite different things. In the first place, at its most minimal level, it is the refusal of the state to impose religious doctrine on its people. I think most of us would happily sign up to that version of secularism. I don’t want non-Christians to have to pay special taxes, and as much as I would like to see more people in church, I would stop well short of wanting to fine or imprison those who choose the Archers Omnibus over my sermons.
Second, it is the institutional separation of church and state. That plays out in different ways in different countries. The French and the Americans, for example, have taken this idea rather further than we have – we after all have an established church. But for most practical purposes there is a level of institutional separation of church and state even in countries with state churches, and there was even in pre-Reformation Europe. The Prince Bishops of some of the cities of the Holy Roman Empire, or the grim theocracy of Calvin’s Geneva, are outliers in western Christendom, which has for the most part respected a certain level of separation between spiritual and temporal power.
But then there is a more extreme form of secularism, one which I have no time for. It used to be found chiefly on the liberal left, particularly in connection with arguments over gay marriage. In this view, it is not enough that the state should not impose religious doctrines on the public, nor is it enough that there should be institutional separation between church and state. Instead, they argue that any political viewpoint which is grounded in religious conviction should be considered inadmissible in public life. But the idea has gained traction on the right as well in recent years, as politicians seeking to crack down on immigration, for example, are irritated by bishops speaking up on behalf of refugees. But as soon as you start to argue that political views derived from religious conviction should have no place in our public life, you are in a very slippery place. The end result would surely be to drive religious people out of public life altogether, since it is impossible for anyone to hermetically seal off their political from their religious convictions whilst remaining sane.
And there is yet another sort of secularism that I have noticed among many Christians, which makes a similar argument in a slightly different way. Christians, they say, should not seek to influence secular society in an organised way. The Christian faith, and Christian ethics more specifically, are matters for the individual human heart. The church should act to make the world a better place not by seeking to influence politics, but by making better individuals. The church is a school of character, the Christian faith forms moral virtues in the human heart, and it is only through the formation of better individuals that the church should seek to influence public life. This is a seductive argument, and yet I think it too is quite wrong, because it seeks to put artificial limits around the ability of the gospel to speak to all areas of human life. Do we really think that God is only interested in the struggle between good and evil within the individual human heart? Do we really think that God has nothing at all to say about injustice at a social, structural or political level? Or to move from the theoretical to the practical level, was it wrong for William Wilberforce, motivated by deep Christian faith, to be the spearhead for organised opposition to slavery? Should he instead have focussed merely on cultivating individual virtue? It is hard to say what use his private growth in virtuousness would have been to those enslaved in the Caribbean, unless it could be turned to practical political organisation.
Political life in western democracies is in a pretty strange place at the moment. For many years now an increasing polarisation of debate has been observed, and the conventional limits of democratic politics appear to be breaking down in an alarming way in more than one country. Fear of the extreme right drives the moderate left into the arms of the hard left; fear of the hard left drives the moderate right into the arms of the extreme right. Uncertainty and fear increases the lure of the strongman. And charlatans offer hope to desperate people in order to further their own interests and careers.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus offers us no political blueprint, and so as Christians we are able to respond with some flexibility to the political systems within which we live. There is no definitive Christian political system, and in consequence Christians can often be found on opposing sides of political debate. But Jesus has much to say about our political life in today’s unsettled and unsettling climate. And Christians individually and collectively should also have much to say.
But if Jesus gives us no blueprint, if there is no single Christian political system, what sorts of things should we be saying? The life and teachings of Jesus must surely be our starting point.
First, Jesus will have nothing to do with the exploitation of desperate people in the pursuit of political power. He offers no false hopes. He makes the cost of discipleship clear. More than that, Jesus’ whole approach is sacrificial. He is not trying to harness the support of others to secure His personal advancement, He is rather giving himself for the sake of others.
Second, Jesus in His life and teaching is deeply concerned with people who are suffering and people who are on the margins of society. Time and again He is found with those that respectable people do not wish to associate with. He responds with deep compassion to the sick and the poor. He is fiercely critical of hypocrisy and injustice.
And finally, Jesus is not afraid to engage with people He disagrees with, even when He can see that they are acting in bad faith. Jesus is often shown in the gospels in debate and argument with His opponents. In today’s gospel Jesus is characteristically robust in His response, and yet He still answers the question put to him. For Jesus there is no retreat into the comforting echo-chamber of the like-minded, and nor should there be for us.