In the first of a series of pieces from back issues of Perspectives, this article from Perspectives 35, winter 2013 by Rev Ian Galloway Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s has been used over the centuries to give authority to the state in ways never imagined by Jesus. But the Church of Scotland, argues Ian Galloway, fiercely maintains its independence from the state, taking action against poverty and injustice.
“When the king is concerned with justice, the nation will be strong, but when he is only concerned with money, he will ruin his country” (Proverbs 29:4)
The king, of course, was the government of the time. Replace “king” with “government” and the statement becomes utterly contemporary. It also demonstrates the non-biblical position of the statement that faith and politics don’t mix. As Desmond Tutu opined – I don’t know what Bible people have been reading when they say such a thing. The relationship between God and Caesar has never been about the encounter of separate spheres of responsibility. In mainstream Christian theology there is no false dualism between sacred and secular. Jesus taught and lived a way of suffering love in this world, and his followers at best emulate his stance.
The current preoccupation of the media’s interest in churches is the area of human sexuality. Within the Christian community – a broad spectrum – there are differences of opinion about Biblical and cultural positions on same sex relationships as they are now, however what few at any point on the theological spectrum would dispute is that Jesus said much more about money than he did about sex. I wonder how many people are as aware of the detailed and sustained campaign against corporate and particularly multinational tax avoidance spearheaded by the churches’ international development arm, Christian Aid?
The specific encounter that gives rise to the God and Caesar tension is significantly related in all three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) and has Jesus being asked the question “Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor?” His eventual answer: “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” has been used and abused over the centuries to give authority to the state in ways that were never imagined by Jesus. In any case, it was a trick question. Say “no” and incur the wrath of the authorities; say “yes” and lose the allegiance of the poor, oppressed, people squeezed by the occupying power at every turn. It was one of a series of encounters in which the ruling religious elite attempted to discredit this man who was so critical of their religious stewardship, largely on the basis of their exploitation of the poor. In the end, of course, they had their way – or did they? But that’s for another time.
Before giving his apparently enigmatic answer to the trick tax question, Jesus asks his opponents “Whose head is on the coin? – show me.” In doing so he at once demonstrates that he himself doesn’t carry the despised Roman coinage, bearing as it does the head of the emperor in a fashion deemed idolatrous by the monotheistic Jews, but that his enemies do. They are thus shown to be collaborators with the hated occupying power.
In the face of the overwhelming might of empire, the teaching of Jesus is greatly focussed on painting a picture of what God’s reign on earth, here and now, would look like if it replaced the priorities of the prevailing emperors and kings, and that remains the task of the community that exists in Jesus’ name. While it is always important to remember that God is not at all limited to working within the institutions set up to worship or articulate faith in God, how does the Church currently articulate the relationship between God and Caesar? To answer that question globally or even regionally would be a task for someone with more information and ability than I have, so what I want to describe now, based on work I am involved in and people I know, is one way in which the church is engaging in society now that might shed some light on the current state of God-Caesar relations.
Today in my small corner of the “global-local” church, which is the Church of Scotland, independence from the state is fiercely maintained, as it has been since the time of the 16th century Reformation. The Church’s income, apart from fees from social services contracting, and a hefty inheritance (pre 2008) of investment income and legacies, comes from its membership and is by offerings – voluntary donation – only. Despite the oft rehearsed decline in numbers of registered members, that giving has steadily increased and some£50 million is currently raised in this way each year. On a recent visit to the Church of Norway I recognised a different model. There the state pays an amount per capita to all faith communities, and since more than 90% of the population is registered as Church of Norway, it is a wealthy institution. Its ministers are effectively employed by a government department, which would be unthinkable here. Church attendance in Norway is even lower than in Scotland, yet as an institution it continues to be funded as a national institution as well as being a faith community.
Distance from the establishment
In Scotland the Church of Scotland in particular is no longer an institution central to society’s self-understanding. Some people are dismayed by this, looking back to the heady days of the early 1950s (when church attendances peaked) as a golden time, however others recognise that for greater integrity to be pursued, a distancing from a perceived role in the establishment may be essential. While it is true that some in pre-devolution days looked to the Church of Scotland as a context for issues to be debated, the Church itself was an active participant in campaigning for a Scottish Parliament, based on a strongly held belief in subsidiarity, argued at the General Assembly on theological principles by Professor Tom Torrance.
On the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s address to the General Assembly in 1988 (dubbed the Sermon on the Mound), the Moderator at the time, James Whyte, presented her with the Church’s reports on housing and poverty, which though understated and polite was tantamount to a rebuke. While the Church has said it won’t take a view for or against independence, it continues to apply its principles to seeking the most effective and accountable government for Scotland’s people, and has strongly advocated the need for social justice to be central to the debate on what kind of society we want to develop. This can be seen in the report of the Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity (2012) set up by the Church in 2010 in the light of the financial crisis. That report said in its introduction: “we bring … a clear and urgent call for action to transform our social and economic life. There are four priorities which we urge upon the Kirk, on Scottish/British society and on our governments in Edinburgh and Westminster: reducing inequality; ending poverty; ensuring sustainability; promoting mutuality.”
The Church promotes its views and policies to both parliaments through the work of the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office (SCPO). While this is hosted and almost entirely paid for by the Church of Scotland, it is directed by a reference group with representatives of eleven churches, and will do its best to communicate both views held by all and different views when these need to be presented separately. It had been initially hoped that the Office would also hold the Parliamentary Officer of the Roman Catholic Church, however in the end they decided to operate separately. Currently, the stated first priority of the SCPO is to influence policy at Holyrood and Westminster in relation to social justice, backed by the agreed policies of the churches.
The Church, though, in relating to wider society and pursuing a political voice, has its own distinct challenges to face. Aside from continuing perception of denominational competitiveness, someone has said that the seven last words of the church are: “We have always done it this way”. There is a ferocious conservatism (small c) in church life. As perhaps nowhere else in society, referring back the way is the default position. Scripture, doctrine (which focuses on clarifying what has historically been problematic), tradition, practice, historic conflict resolution – all of these, in an institution that has been developing, forming and reforming over a two thousand year period thus far, form an intimidating backdrop to substantial change, very often for good reason. It is necessary to go deep in order to challenge something that has been deemed to be of worth through many generations.
Just because we know a lot in our generation does not necessarily make us automatically wiser in how more fully to be human beings than our foremothers and fathers. So even when a significant need for change is discerned and given assent, the process of change itself makes turning a super tanker seem like a fast spin on a jet ski. This sits in stark contrast with the pace of change in our society as a whole, and in the globalising world order that we are caught in the midst of whether we like it or not.
On the other hand, when the Church does come to a firm mind after long impassioned debate over years, as it did on the issue of nuclear weapons, it becomes a leading advocate for its new view. It is now quite ordinary for ministers as well as other church members to be arrested for carrying out acts of civil disobedience at Faslane, for example, and the General Assembly has confirmed that such law-breaking is acceptable as long as those so engaged are willing to suffer the consequences.
Sometimes, though, the very nature of the institution of the Church makes it appear archaic. In May, during the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, I attended a formal dinner at Holyrood Palace, at which the Moderator (of said Assembly) and the Archbishop of Canterbury were guests along with a range of people from across Scottish society including some political party leaders. The hospitality was gracious and assured, and the evening most enjoyable. I did, however, have the sense of being out of time. The same was true in a recent meeting (for research purposes) with representatives of the Orange Order – the cause they espouse might arguably have once had some relevance, but not now. Both God and Caesar, I suspect, have little if any continuing interest in what used to be. If there is a conflict of power, it is firmly in the present and with the future at stake.
Interests of the poorest
So, while it is easy and evidently fashionable to criticise, dismiss, ridicule, ignore, fume at, despair over or despise the church of one denomination or another or indeed all, I would want to argue that the Church does not seek in any way to have the voice in society, but to have a voice, and that that voice is not sought to promote itself but primarily to pursue the interests of the poorest and most marginalised of Scotland’s people. Here’s why I think that:
First I want to say that the Church has identified and committed to significant ways of acting in solidarity with the people who are the poorest and most marginalised in our society. The Church of Scotland has done this very specifically by identifying the most economically disadvantaged local communities in Scotland (by inviting the Urban Studies Department of Glasgow University to crunch the numbers of the Scottish Indices of Multiple Deprivation along with parish postcodes) and agreeing to double the resources it puts there. These additional resources are not to benefit directly the congregations of the church, but to support those local congregations in these places to help in tackling poverty.
To make this happen, other local congregations across the country forego scarce resources in the interests of helping the poorest. This amounts to a strategic decision by the Church to put its money where its mouth is, and to earn the right to speak on these things because local churches are working hard and often sacrificially in the places where poverty and its effects hit you in the face. A decade into this approach there is a range of ways in which local congregations are working in partnership with others to make a difference to people who need it most. They are too many and too varied to go into great detail here, but there are some principles at work which are well worth rehearsing, particularly at a point where government policy seems determined to squeeze resources out of the poorest in society and to maintain income differentials that have seen the gap between the richest and poorest continue to widen alarmingly.
One of these is being willing to work with anyone who shares that priority of tackling poverty. The Church of Scotland is a founding member of the Scottish Living Wage Campaign, for example, and is campaigning for local government to make the payment of the living wage a condition of tendering for public contracts. The Church has also actively backed the STUC’s “There is a Better Way” campaign, and is seeking other ways to co-operate with the trade union movement. The Church of Scotland has also played a leading role in the formation of Faith in Community Scotland (FiCS), which is a coalition of faith communities including the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Independent Christian traditions along with Jewish and Moslem colleagues, aiming to enlist the resources of faith communities to tackle poverty. One of its initiatives is the Poverty Truth Commission, which, with its originally South African strapline “nothing about us without us is for us”, aims to enable the voices of people with direct experience of poverty to help shape society’s decision making and response in this critical area of desperately needed change.
Where I work, in Gorbals, there is a small congregation with a big heart who have allowed me to take risks with their reputation and the little money in their charge. Along with the local Roman Catholic congregation we have worked tirelessly to combat exclusion, and because of our past have also taken seriously the need to rid our society of sectarianism. In the newly regenerated area we are trying to provide a meeting place for the different kinds of people who now find themselves as neighbours. We are there, paid for in large part by the wider Church of Scotland, to serve need by following Jesus’s way of self-giving, suffering love. We are not there to point the finger or claim a place above anyone else.
Famously in scripture, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey surrounded by branch-waving peasants. At the same time, through a gate on the opposite side of the city, Pilate, the Roman Governor, entered in pomp at the head of the legions of Rome. The contrast is deliberately stark. As an image of a power struggle it is ridiculous and laughable. Yet the Roman Empire is history, as is the British Empire and the Soviet Empire, and the economic empire of the USA and Europe is shaking in its foundations. The Church is having to leave its notions of empire behind too as it faces the future. It is being humbled, but it is also being returned to its roots as a marginal community of hope in a suffering world. When Jesus avoided the trick question about paying taxes to the emperor, he had nothing but the clothes he stood up in. He was born poor and stayed poor. That remains the vocation of the church, and maybe in the next phase of its life it is about to rediscover that that is where its soul is too.
From Edinburgh, Ian Galloway was ordained in 1976. He was warden of Iona Abbey from 1983–86. Since 1996 to the present day he has been Minister of Gorbals Parish Church in Glasgow. From 2008–2012 he was Convenor of the Kirk’s influential Church and Nation Committee.