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With feet in both kingdoms

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Posted: Friday, May 7, 2010 2:59 pm

Ever since human beings began to form themselves into communities, the relationship between government and religion has been, well, dicey. On one extreme there is theocracy; governments functioning under religious principles and laws. On the other extreme there is complete separation of church and state. Most of us live somewhere in between.

Historically the results of blending religion and government have been mixed. Constantine's conversion in 312 legitimized Christianity, but it also confined it. The concept of manifest destiny has often led to religious violence. Even within the Bible itself, there seems to be a polemic. On the one hand, hospitality laws mandate welcoming the stranger, on the other, the Book of Joshua tells of faith sanctioned genocide.

In his book, On Secular Authority, Martin Luther wrote of two kingdoms - both ordained by God, but one that is for the secular realm, and one for the sacred. Borrowing the concept from Augustine, Luther likened these kingdoms to the left hand (secular) and right hand (sacred) of God. The problem is that as citizens of faith, we have feet planted in both kingdoms. And while Luther extolled the virtues of good citizenship, he also argued that there may come a point where civil disobedience is necessary if the secular government crosses the often indistinct line into the sacred.

Luther's argument was echoed by other reformers, partly I suspect because it was a good idea, and partly because reforming the church also involved acts of civil disobedience since the line between church and state was not only indistinct, but mostly undetectable. Nonetheless, there has always been a tension for us two-kingdom dwellers. Sometimes we are criticized for inaction; for invoking the left kingdom and deciding not to rock the boat. The early endorsement of and then slow response to the abuses of the Nazi party by Christians is a prime example. At other times, we are criticized for mixing religious values with political realities. The involvement of religious leaders in the Civil Rights movement here and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the point of civil disobedience serve as examples. Our nation's founders supported the idea of two kingdoms. In his letter to the Rev. P.L. Schaeffer on the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone of St. Matthew's Church in New York in 1821, James Madison wrote, "It illustrates the excellence of a system which, by due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations."

With this dilemma in mind, how should people of faith find a balance between the laws of nations and the biblical imperatives to welcome the stranger, care for the outcast, and provide for the needy? How do we as citizens, address the serious problems of drug and human smuggling, while at the same time advocating compassion and hospitality for the stranger in our midst? These are certainly not easy questions. They are also not questions that lend themselves to broad, corporate answers. Each of us, whether secular or religious, must wrestle with our own conscience to come to an ethical course of action. Sadly, the public discourse has reached a level of hostility that makes it difficult to take on that wrestling, and to honor those whose conscience takes them in a different direction. Perhaps a fresh reading of the 12th chapter of Romans would be a good place to start.


Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.


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