At the Intersection of Church and State

I can’t be the first to write about this junction; a real place. Imagine sermons of the past spoken within the image here, voicing a reference, at the very least, to the steeple’s poignant position on the city map, the theme echoing on-location within the sanctuary confines.

My spouse first drew my attention to the crossing. Perhaps he said something like, “The separation of church and state means these roads should be separated. They should run them parallel so they don’t intersect.” With a mix severity and levity, that’s something he would (and maybe did) say.

In spite of ideally unlinking them, church and state intersect all the time. There are many nodes marking where religious and government institutions cross paths. This is not new.

Luke 20:25 “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Romans 13:1 “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Even to the Romans?? Apparently so.

Take for example, the conflict about to be tucked into the annals of recent history; the dilemma churches face about whether to close fellowship in the midst of pandemic, or not. Before we seal the episode away from us, before we blot it from memory for of the pain of it – not so fast. Cast it in memory, perhaps we will need reference, later.

Some churches took it as a temporary measure to stem the tide of illness. Practical.

Other churches took it as a prompt to uphold ideals. Principle.

Crumbling principles pit against emergent health prevention needs. In the dilemma of practical versus principle, disagreements rage but perhaps the debaters are not really engaged in the same argument. Can we measure victory in a competition when one team plays according to football and the opponent, basketball?

They are both right, really. The passion driving the polarization, however, is fear- motivated.

The principles drive the fear;

That our guaranteed liberties crumble, the directive as evidence of eroding autonomy of faith institutions, of freedom undermined. Of losing more and more opportunities of business, prosperity, growth, learning, and celebration to the awful pandemic. The fear of the unknown – what will we lose next based on the recommendations of public health assessment metrics which are escapingly complex and essentially esoteric; risk conclusions incomprehensible to mostly everyone except the public health specialists. Fear from forced reliance on those unknown experts in near-blind trust.

Practicalities drive the fear;

Of losing vulnerable family members. That hospitals might become so overwhelmed, they could no longer care for the rest of us; not our parent with a heart attack, nor our child with appendicitis. Fear that non-compliance will lengthen the pandemic, increasing the time businesses cannot run, and that children cannot go to school. Fear that my dreams are deferred forever.

I gravitate toward the practical health risk perspective. And yet, court case victories prohibiting stricter limits on churches than on businesses reassure. The principles are important to me, too. Court victories give evidence that, as the long emergency passes, civil liberties stand.

Imagine the public health expert in her lock-down office, thrown onto her dining table last-minute. She crunches numbers into charts while her kindergarten daughter sits next to her, interrupting her every two minutes because she can’t yet read to navigate her school chrome-book. She is constantly diverted to manage her daughter’s convoluted class zoom schedule, with short-notice time changes, and oh, by the way, she needs some random craft or household item for class right now. Perhaps they have said item laying around the home? She starts the equation over. She logs on to work Zoom meetings because they need to publish a press release TODAY on Covid safety measures and risk factors. And then the internet cuts out. She scrambles to get her daughter and herself re-engaged. The interruptions create frustrating and intractable lags in producing direly-needed public health communication throughout the year. Day in and day out her daughter gets sadder, more bored, and more zoned out on the screen. The health specialist cooperates with pandemic measures, believing their necessity, while railing inside at the impossibility of it all, and grieving over her daughter’s losses. She suppresses the rage and carries on because the enemy is a virus and it is deaf. This could have been me. Slightly different career choices and child ages, this IS me.

Romans 13:6-7, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”

Think of the man working in public health, at home, receiving data, running risk assessments and designing countless graphs and health bulletins. He is utterly alone in the first weeks of the pandemic. At last he caves and invites his sister. They are immediate family, but they are not from the same household. It’s only one person, still, he wrestles with the guilt while writing social distance guidelines for the general public. If the world could utterly isolate for three weeks, then in theory the virus could die out. But it is impossible. He couldn’t do it out of pure loneliness. Does this make him a hypocrite? Choose guilt or choose loneliness. Take love and with it, a risk to others.

This is how it was, we will tell our children. Guilt and uncertainty, fear and anger with no clear adversary. Impossible. Devastating.

The practical and principled people hold the same fears. The fear of losing the richness of community and relationships is a shared fear. Which threat is greater? Are our principles at greatest risk, or our very lives and livelihoods? Are they weighted? It can be hard to discern, sometimes. Hard to find the proper balance of truth and priorities that will best guide our decisions. As the pandemic winds down, the intersection of church and state is not over. Many more nodes are to come. At the intersection of church and state, how do we best make decisions?

Christ is; “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” Ephesians 1:21-23.

Jesus has the power, but not us personally. The church must engage with government, and yet; slow down and cast a wide net of perspective. Accept only the highest standards for information. Above all, do not be afraid.

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