If I may paraphrase from the Gospel of Matthew today, Repay to Civil Government what belongs to Civil Government, and repay to God what belongs to God.
Actually, nothing really belongs to civil government—for those of faith, it ALL belongs to God! In God’s words from the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah, “I am the Lord and there is no other!” Recall Jesus’ words to Pilate, “You would have no authority, unless it were given you by my heavenly Father.” (Just so, I wouldn’t recommend trying to use this with the IRS or with the Franchise Tax Board, just saying.)
When in history has civil authority not been in tension with religion and people of faith? As a young student following the history of our Catholic Church, I remember thinking “Hooray for our side!” when I read that the Emperor Constantine had converted to Catholicism and, at the First Council of Nicaea, had declared religious tolerance for all Christians. “Finally,” I thought, “an end to all of those horrible and terrifying persecutions!” (right) What I didn’t understand at the time, though, was that Constantine’s emperorship would also mark the beginning of the Church’s fascination with and eventual lust for temporal power. “Render to Caesar” and “Render to God” quickly became blurred and, somewhere in heaven, a voice could be heard, “NO! NO! NO!”
Thus it was and, unfortunately, so it is today. Our United States of America is iconic in trying to keep the lines of authority clean by declaring “separation of church and state.” Of course, what that really means, according to Thomas Jefferson, is that no one religion will ever be declared a state or official religion in our country. In the meantime, we allow all legitimate religions to coexist and people to worship as they choose—freedom of religion. Well, back to Caesar and God.
Some of us will remember that Fr. Ed Benioff recently reminded us that God gave us souls that inherently know right from wrong. For us this means that people of faith, collectively, need to be an effective influence and presence within any nation, state, city, town or village. In a country that practices tolerance, this is how we may live God’s declaration in Isaiah that “I am God and there is no other.” Religion at its best will function as society’s conscience, if you will—society’s soul. Therefore, we need to speak up from time to time: “Don’t mess with our religious freedom!” or “Human life is sacred from natural birth to natural death!”
In our democracy, we actually get close to living “e pluribus unum” (from many, one), but mostly these days we know “grid lock” all too well. Not easy to arrive at consensus, especially when you are talking religion. And yet that is the vocation of believers. Just as our annual Candlelight Walk is a multi-denominational testimony to “Emmanuel, God with us,” we must ever strive to allow the great truth of One God to be our humility and, ultimately, our salvation—sometimes salvation from our errant selves.
Please God, we may know and hold as sacred our soul’s inclination toward God and God’s Divine Mercy. Please God, our currency may never lose its fundamental recognition, IN GOD WE TRUST!