huge social media storm kicked off recently as a prominent Christian convention in South India featured political leaders, some even from the right wing, on the stage along with the pastors and Christian leaders. While netizens gave mixed reactions to this development, one thing was clear from the whole narrative—this was not just a courtesy call from either of the parties.
In May 2018, the Church was targeted by the spokespersons of the ruling right-wing party, as Archbishop Anil Couto of the Delhi Archdiocese urged the faithful, through a letter, to pray for the nation ahead of the General Elections in 2019. The right-wingers alleged that the Church is trying to create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among the people in order to influence the elections through religious polarization.
The question of the relationship between the Church and the State has been a prickly topic for most Christians, since ages past, with no clear answer in sight. What should be the relationship between the Church and the State? This debate was at its heights during the US Presidential Election 2016, with many evangelicals siding with the current President, (ironically) feeling they need to do so to preserve the Christian foundations of the nation. It’s ironic because America has been anything but Christian, in terms of its governance and ethos, since its inception as a nation. It is not, and never has been, a theocracy to claim to be a Christian nation. On the other hand, there are many Christians, especially from among the communities that have been historically marginalized and oppressed, who feel that this is nothing but a regressive step into the bigoted past. That this debate continues unabated even today, with the entire American Christianity being divided into two distinct camps (at least on a popular level), is evidence of the fact that the issue of the relationship between the Church and the State isn’t as straightforward as it looks.
If history is an indicator, as is often the case, it can be safely said that the church’s interaction with the State is bound to produce results that are less than desirable.
But is this debate crucial for Indian Christians? With Christians and Christianity been made an issue in the current political debate, many a time unwillingly so, this debate is very much relevant for Indians as well. A cursory glance at the popular news portals will reveal how Christians (along with one other religious group) are blamed for everything in this country—from the state of religious polarization that exists today to influencing the elections to bring results conducive to them—the latter being an undeniably laughable assertion because of the very state of Christianity in India (Christians account for approximately 2.5 percent of the total population)! “Rice Bag Converts” is one of the pejorative terms that’s used for Christians in India, basically meaning that phoren missionaries convert the poor and the vulnerable in the society by giving material gifts to them, inducing them to become Christians. In such circumstances, there is an opinion rising that Indian Christians need to involve themselves in politics, to make their voice heard and presence felt. You will often find political and Christian leaders sharing stages in conferences and conventions, and Christian leaders taking part in debates on national television and as such, it begs the question—is this what the Church is meant to be or meant to do?
If history is an indicator, as is often the case, it can be safely said that the church’s interaction with the State is bound to produce results that are less than desirable, more often than not. When we look at the Global North, historically, the church has always been in a position of influence, barring some three centuries in the beginning and the last 100 years. This position of influence has often brought it in conflict with the State, often leading to disastrous consequences. While a detailed study of the relationship between the Church and the State is outside the scope of this article, it can be clearly understood from history that either the Church was often at loggerheads with the State, especially in places where the Church and the State wielded equal power, or the Church was used as a tool to further imperialism and colonialism—the effects of which are felt in the Global South to this day. Since the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity, this trend can be inevitably seen in the history of the Church. Just a few examples from Church history will suffice to show how the intermingling of the Church and the State was mostly counter-productive.
When Constantine became Christian, he was asked to rule on the issue of the Arian heresy. And while he convened the council at Nicaea to resolve the issue—the issue was not done and dusted at the time. Arian followers and teachings continued to grow throughout the empire, to the point that some emperors after Constantine even favoured it to maintain peace in the empire. Athanasius, the champion of orthodox Trinitarianism (and the council of Nicaea), was exiled five times from Alexandria—once by Constantine himself—for vehemently protesting against Arianism. This clearly shows that the relationship between the Church and the State was that of convenience, and certainly of no substance!
A cursory glance at the Middle Ages section of the history books will reveal images of the fractious association between the Church and the State in Europe. But perhaps the story that highlights this most is both ridiculous and outrageous at the same time. The story of the Corpse Trials at the Cadaver Synod is not known by many today. In a time of political instability in Italy, marked by frequent and rapid change of Pontiffs in the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Stephen VI/VII disinterred the body of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, dressed it up in Papal clothes and tried it for “being unworthy of the pontificate” due to his actions. Whatever may be the details of the trial itself, almost everyone agrees that it was all precipitated by the political actions of Pope Formosus—he invited the Frankish ruler Arnulf, of the Carolingian dynasty, to invade Italy and overthrow Lambert of Spoleto, who was crowned as the co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire by Formosus himself.
When we look at the Global North, historically, the church has always been in a position of influence, barring some three centuries in the beginning and the last 100 years. This position of influence has often brought it in conflict with the State, often leading to disastrous consequences.
The Reformation at the close of the Middle Ages didn’t bring much improvement to the Church–State dynamics! The First and the Second Defenestration (throwing a person out of the window) of Prague is evidence of that—the second of which resulted in one of the most destructive conflicts in human history—the Thirty Years War between the fragmented states in the Holy Roman Empire! In the Second Defenestration, few Catholic regents were thrown out of a window by Protestant representatives, as they carried the letter of the Catholic king revoking the Protestant right to build their churches on royal lands. The Catholics survived the 70-feet fall—protected by angels/Virgin Mary or they fell on a pile of manure—depending on whose version you believe. The common folk who suffered during the war, were not fortunate as such.
Even an event as recent as the Second World War provides an important marker as to the relationship between the Church and the State. Hitler, in his quest for World dominion and decimation of millions, was supported by the German Churches. Only a few like Bonhoeffer opposed it—and those who did, often met horrific ends. In a context that lasts over 2000 years, and in the face of some overwhelming evidence, it would be helpful to refer what the Church-State relationship looked like, prior to Christianity becoming the State religion, and what Christianity looks like in the Global South, where it is as far removed from the State as possible, in most countries. Paul, in 1st Corinthians 4:13, gives an insight into the status of the Church in the world in those days—a Church without any bearings or clout, in worldly terms. Paul rightly identifies himself as “the scum of the earth” and “the garbage of the world”. In 1 Corinthians 1:23, Paul points out that one of the central aspects of the Christian faith—Christ crucified—is a “stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”! He takes this to its natural conclusion in 2nd Corinthians 4:8–12
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
It’s interesting to note that the movement started by Jesus was hardly political, and yet was constantly at odds with the political powers of its day, as is evident throughout the New Testament. They didn’t have much influence or power, but they had rich faith and theology, unlike the later debates over the legality of eating meat during Lent. This is not to say that there was no serious reflection or contribution in the days when the Church wielded greater influence and power, but those are too far and few in between, in comparison.
This is also one of the differentiating aspects between Christianity in the North and the South. The Church in the Global South has multiplied and grown stronger, produced rich theology and theologians, engaged with diverse issues and continued to flourish even while being pressed in the past few decades. The Church in the Global North, however, has continued to decline—with politics taking precedence over theology, and power over passion.
The State—especially the modern secular State—will always toe the line that is most conducive for its survival. Moral or religious rightness will be the least of its priorities and as such if we continue to conveniently ignore it, then we are simultaneously ignoring the truth of the Scripture, and the reality of the world we live in. We have been given the mandate to preach the kingdom of God, which stands in stark contrast to all kinds of earthly systems, kingdoms and ‘isms’, and as such the Church’s dalliance with the State will always remain, by definition, at least an undesirable—if not an unholy—alliance!