Thursday, November 27, 2008

Belonging to the State


"In the accounts of the Christian martyrs, especially from the Second Century, one repeatedly comes up against one particular moment when Christians are challenged as to whether they will take part in religious veneration of the Emperor. It is the crucial question. The martyrs are the people who say they cannot. But in some of the accounts of martyrdom, there is a little bit more to it than that.One text, which comes from North Africa, in the mid-Second Century, depicts the Christians being tried in court as saying that they were perfectly prepared to pray for the Emperor, but not to him. One of them says, 'We pray for the Emperor. We pay our taxes.' In other words, this Christian was saying, we regard ourselves as loyal to the state and we take part in the processes that make the state work and, what is more, we pray for the good of the state; what we will not do is regard the state as sacred in itself.

This was seen, quite rightly, as an extremely subversive idea. It suggested that individuals, even slaves, could negotiate their relationships with the state, in some degree: they were not obliged to regard it as holy; there was another realm in which decisions might be taken and values and priorities fixed. That tension is reflected in the language that the Church used about itself.The early Christian community called itself an Ecclesia, using for itself the word normally used for an assembly of citizens in an ancient city, the assembly that reflected on public matters and took decisions together, so that, in effect, when the martyrs appear before their Roman judges, they stand for a citizens' assembly over against a Holy Empire.

Although that does not instantly create a new kind of Christian politics, it does create a very unsettling element within Roman society. Here are people claiming that, in some area of their lives, they belong outside the holy boundaries of the state and the Empire.Therefore the state begins to be seen not as a sacred comprehensive system, but as a mechanism for getting things done. The martyrs I referred to a few minutes ago promised to pay their taxes, because that makes society work, but that is the level at which their loyalty is engaged. Their deepest belonging is with the community who are citizens of some other kingdom." - Rowan Williams, Early Christianity & Today: Some Shared Questions, 2008 Gresham College Lecture.

What would it look like today for Christians to assert their identity as being outside the State whilst at the same time sustaining the State? And surely this would differ from country to country: The French Christian struggling under the weight of rigid secularism would have different issues to an American and America's 'Manifest Destiny' or a Chinese Christian where everything is suppressed for the glory of the state, or a Christian in a Muslim country where the whole state is under sharia law. And what if you were a Japanese Christian and had to sing a national anthem that praised the Emperor as a god? Pray for those around the world who live out the reality of this question every day.

3 comments:

byron smith said...

What would it look like today for Christians to assert their identity as being outside the State whilst at the same time sustaining the State?
Perhaps: Not putting national flags in/on churches. Not assuming that the nation's military forces are obviously and necessarily on the side of the angels. Not celebrating the nation's holy days more vigorously than the church's. Not looking to the state for salvation (though being willing to work with it for the common good).

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Yeah - so what do we do with memorials in church that declare the fallen died 'For God and their King/Country'?

byron smith said...

Methinks (sometimes) there are better targets for some iconoclasm than stained-glass windows of gospel stories...