In the 21st century we might think that religious wars are a thing of the distant past. Since the 18th century all conflicts have been fought for political, nationalistic or for ideological reasons – though I’m not sure that ‘reasons’ is the right word for such a horrific thing as war. All of a sudden the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York was made in the name of Islam, and since then many terrorist groups have carried out their attacks in the name of that religion. For their own convenience and for publicity reasons, they dub the intervening Western forces as Christian Crusaders despite the simple fact that we don’t fight the terrorists under any religious standard.
Mixing religion and politics is nothing new. Political leaders need an ideological binder that unites their supporters, drives them on and justifies their actions. Sometimes it’s a positive idea, some ideal that people aim at. But convincing people to do good seems to be an uphill task. It seems that it is much easier to attract people, unite them and push them to take action against a well-defined enemy, even if it’s an imaginary one. In Nazi Germany the target enemy group was the Jews, in Revolutionary Russia the rich, and for the jihadists it’s the West. This kind of attitude is not reserved solely to grand political projects; just think about localised protests raised by different groups of people when local government makes almost any decision.
In today’s gospel Jesus faces a trap set by his opponents with a question mixing religion and politics, apparently making him inevitably doomed by whatever he says, or even if he says nothing. The Israel of the time was part of the Roman Empire and hence it was obliged to pay taxes to the central government. It was unpopular among many of the Jews for political reasons. They hated the Roman occupation as well as the Jewish elite for their collaboration with it. Many of them were looking for a leader who would lead them against the status quo, leading ultimately to their independence, and many perceived Jesus as a potential candidate. His clever answer helps him to avoid any political, potentially dangerous, declaration – but it also leaves a lot of room for speculation and interpretation regarding the relationship between the state and religion, between faith and civil rights, and allegiance either to an earthly sovereign or to a ‘higher moral order’.
Examples from history of extreme approaches to this question are not encouraging. Civil laws incorporating particular religious rules have been disastrous in Pakistan with its notorious blasphemy law, but also in Ireland where the results were disastrous when the state delegated many responsibilities to the Church. At the other end of the scale we have active persecution of all believers in the communist regimes, or the more passive but no less effective creeping restrictions introduced into the law of democratic countries. The conflict seems to be inevitable when some people demand greater religious influence in public life while others call for exactly the opposite. I don’t think there’s a simple solution, and probably there is no solution at all to this everlasting tension. But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for ways to accommodate the needs and expectations of as many different valid views as is possible.
We can find some clues in today’s second reading where St Paul praises the Christian community in Thessalonica. The community was formed in the time when Christianity wasn’t recognised as an independent religion: some Jews considered it dangerous as schismatic; Greeks perceived it as a Jewish sect. Christians weren’t protected by the state and – sometimes experiencing quite the opposite – they were persecuted and executed by it. Having ‘shown their faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope’, Christians of that time lived according to their beliefs without imposing them on others who didn’t share their convictions. We are called to do the same.