April 15, 2007  Skaneateles, NY

Once upon a time... That's the nicest way to start any story. I'd like to tell a story. It's familiar, but it sounds a little different every time you tell it. Once upon a time, many people got together in a city between two rivers. The government proposed to build a skyscraper. This wasn't an ordinary skyscraper. It was going to be a powerful symbol, a tower rising to the sky; a symbol that this was a great people with a magnificent destiny. No it wasn’t the “Freedom Tower.”  They planned to call this skyscraper, "The Gate of God." In their language of the time, Akkadian, the word Bab - ilu meant exactly that, gate of God. 

We'll finish the story in a minute. But this is tax season. Our minister Craig, prescient as always, suggested the topic of Separation of Church and State for our talk today.   He knew we would all be particularly mindful of the influence and power of the state - at least in its ability to levy taxes on the people. Also, I had been doing a little thinking recently on why there are so many religious groups in the world. In Christianity, just in the West, there are scores of major denominations and splinter groups. The Presbyterian Church is just one of the majors. It struck me that the two topics might be related.  So first let's look at a brief history of Church and State in the West, and then see what that implies for the great number of different Christian denominations. 

So let's go back to our story of the skyscraper project in the city between the two rivers ...

The story goes on to tell us the government enlisted all the populace in this task.  Somehow I suspect the local draft boards didn't give deferments easily. And no doubt taxes were heavy. We can sympathize with the Akkadians about the impact of outsized government spending on projects designed to show what a magnificent people we are. The Alternate Minimum Tax probably kicked in at quite a low level at the time of construction of Babilu.

Despite the great work and organization that was going into this skyscraper, God the Creator was not pleased. Not only had He not commissioned the work, He saw it as prideful defiance of his direct orders to go out and populate the earth. And the government was handling implementation, so there’d be no stopping the project. So the Lord said - in effect - to his angels. "Let's get these folks to emphasize their differences to the point they don't even speak the same language. That will get them off their high horse and scattered the way I ordered." 

Years later the Hebrews wrote down this story of the “Gate of God” skyscraper in the Book of Genesis. In Hebrew the word Babel means "confused."  Probably because of the similarity of words - and the Jewish sense of irony - this skyscraper, Babilu, became known as The Tower of Babel.

As we know, the Bible teaches by parable. There very well may have been a historical city there on the Mesopotamian plain, and its Akkadian speaking citizens may very well have engaged in that construction project which resulted in inability to communicate with one another. But every word in scripture does double or triple duty.

Religion and the polis were entwined in the ancient world.
No separation at all.  Gods were believed to establish authorities and kings, and civil authorities worked hard to convince the populace of their divine support. What better way to get "re-elected” than by invoking your divine birth. (I wouldn't be surprised to see that tactic in this campaign season.)  Even in the last century Japan was led by men who at least allowed themselves to be adored as divine. There are benefits to assuming the divine mantle. If not, no-one would do it. It can be very reassuring to a nation to believe their leader is a divinity. It’s a good feeling to be “on God’s team.”  And in terms of law and order, how can you raise your voice against a god? Wrapping government with divine powers can also consolidate the nation's sense of purpose. In a broad sense many nations have, one way or another, tried to construct their own "Gate of God." Leaders have throughout history been quick and firm to invoke divine authority for their position, their authority. And even on occasion, named themselves as the divinity.  Think of the Roman emperors, Napoleon's self-coronation, Hitler's divine Kampf.  Or Bushido warriors, Kamikaze pilots -- modern history's first suicide bombers, or ruling Ayatollahs or Mullahs.  The world is still grappling with the intertwining of state and religion, with theocracy at one extreme and militant atheism at the other.

So, how did religion get intertwined with the State?  Especially Christianity?   In the beginning, Christianity was a marginal religion. Neither Orthodox Jewish nor pagan, it was followed by people on the margin of society.  Early in the 4th Century the ruler of much of the western world, Constantine, had a vision of the Cross and the words, "In this sign you will have victory." Sure enough, at a crucial battle, he had his mostly pagan soldiers put a cross on their shields, and he smashed his enemies. He immediately made Christianity respectable, and even converted himself. Constantine was one very tough and persuasive character and no doubt his citizens thought it might be a good idea if they too became Christians.  Thus began Christianity's entanglement with the State.

There were other reasons Christianity and the State were wrapped together. In the ancient Western world, government was not as "orderly" and literate as it occasionally is today.  The kings and barons always needed an accurate census count for taxation and military conscription - some things never change. And property rolls, marriage certificates, death certificates, etc. were also essential to running a tidy fiefdom. But who would keep the records? Literacy was centered in the Church. And, as any CFO knows, he who controls the pen controls the institution. This gave great de facto control over the citizenry to the Church. And thus through most of European history, the Christian church, almost universally Roman Catholic, had enormous power and control - at least equaling that of the kings. 

This is a contemporary situation as well.  Today we see examples of imposing religious law on a country. Shariah, or Islamic religious Law, decrees dress codes and behavior. The Islamic idea of Shariah extends not only to Islamic government, but to the public everywhere, including here.  In Minneapolis we see test cases over airport calls to prayer and Islamic taxi drivers refusing to transport customers who are carrying alcohol.  France and England are struggling with legal disputes over requiring or forbidding religious dress and the display of religious symbols.

Underlying Issues
Let’s step out of the particular disputes and think about the underlying issues.  One huge issue is that of powerful central control.  Our American founders worried about a too powerful central civic power so they brilliantly constructed checks and balances amongst the branches of government.  They reserved different powers to the state and federal levels.  Not only did the founders reject the idea of a state-endorsed religion, they kept any particular religion out of the civic power stream.  We continue to struggle mightily with boundary and implementation issues, but I’d bet that we are all pretty supportive of the basic idea of separating church and state.  We Americans are very wary of strong central control, of totalitarianism whether civic or religious.  Suppose there were a single world religion, with one authority dictating who, what, and how we all worship.   Scary?  I suspect that God, who knows our human natures only too intimately, would find it worrisome too.  Too much human power corrupts, whether in the realms of civics or religion.

Let’s look back to Europe.  From Constantine to the Middle Ages and through the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church was entwined with the State and exercised enormous control not only over the people, but over the kings themselves. In the era we call the Reformation and Renaissance, a movement to break up the hegemony of the church emerged. In some cases driven by a desire to purify or shake loose of what was seen as a corrupt, centrally controlled "Palace Guard" of the Church Hierarchy. In other cases the movement was fueled by Nationalism. And in all cases, it was fueled by a spread of literacy to the emerging middle classes, professionals and to the people themselves. The Bible became accessible to ordinary people. Worshippers could at last read the scriptures for themselves. The "Magisterium" or traditional church teaching could be challenged by turning to the authority of scripture rather than the authority of the central church. Reformers of the church gained support, but ultimately many broke away from the Roman church. We know this movement as "The Reformation." Or, "The Protestant Reformation."

By the way, even the word “Protestant" needs some explanation. 
We probably think of protests against corruption and theological missteps.  Actually, the root of the word comes from the Latin protestari, which means "to make a solemn declaration". Think of it as "testifying for". The word Protestant was first used in 1529 by a small group of Lutherans who issued a "Protestation" stating that everyone must "stand and give account before God for himself." This is still a fundamental essence of our Presbyterian denomination.

Let's trace how our Presbyterian flavor of Christianity developed. If pressed on a snap quiz, most people would say the father of the Protestant denominations was Martin Luther.  But 100 years earlier in England John Wycliffe laid the foundations of Protestantism.  He asserted that all Christians are "priests", that only Adam and Eve had free will, the rest of us are predestined. Wycliffe also differed with the Catholic view of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He believed, like Luther later, that the presence of Christ was "spiritual, truly, really, effective". Of course, Wycliffe’s most powerful influence was his popular translation of the Bible which, along with the invention of the printing press, opened religion directly to the people.

A royal wedding began the spread of the Reformation. Wycliffe's writings were brought to Czechoslovakia and Jan Hus by Bohemian guests who attended the wedding of Anne of Bohemia and Richard ll in England. In Prague, Jan Hus became a strong follower of Wycliffe. He, too, wrote in the vernacular, he challenged Papal authority, and suggested the church should have no worldly goods. He was burned at the stake in 1415. The Church authority still held strong.  Hus started the Moravian Church which is still in existence, but his greatest legacy was his influence on later reformers, Luther and Calvin.

One hundred years after Hus was burned, Luther tacked his 95 theses on a German door.  Then a Swiss contemporary of Luther's, Ulrich Zwingli, really started a systematic Reformed Church. While he shared the belief in Predestination and the authority of the Bible, probably his biggest difference with Wycliffe and Luther before him was his belief that the Eucharist was symbolic only, a commemoration done in memory of Christ's death. 

Twenty years later, a Frenchman, John Calvin was influenced by Wycliffe, Zwingli and the others.  Calvin was persecuted by the Catholic Church and fled from Paris to Switzerland, where he published the "Institutes of the Christian Religion."  Why Switzerland?  Calvin probably fled to the alps because Switzerland had accepted Zwingli's Reformed Faith. The tables were turned.  In Geneva, in fact, Catholicism was declared a heresy punishable by death. 

One of Calvin's followers in Geneva is the real father of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. John Knox.  Knox was a colorful man who started as a bodyguard to an Evangelical preacher in Scotland, was a galley slave under the French, then preached to English-speakers in Calvin's Geneva.  Knox brought the teachings back to Scotland, where he founded the Presbyterian Church pretty much as it is in Skaneateles today.

That's a quick tour of our Presbyterian history. Wycliffe in England to Hus in Czechoslovakia to Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland to the Frenchman Calvin who fled to Geneva, to John Knox who brought it back to Scotland. What is particularly interesting is a new relationship between Church and State. A specific country is usually identified with each of these movements - Hussites and Moravians in the Czeck Republic, Dutch Reform in Holland, Congregationalism in England, Presbyterianism in Scotland, and of course Lutheranism in Germany. Luther, when challenged by the Catholic Church, successfully appealed to the nationalism of the German princes. Thus the powerful influence of Luther in the Germanic countries. And King Henry Vlll found it convenient to create a purely nationalistic split from the church of Rome founding the Anglican Church. So even as sects broke away from the Roman church, the new religions remained deeply entangled with government, now at the national level.  Except for Switzerland, Roman Catholicism did not wither away in these countries. Instead, Europe turned into a virtual Tower of Confusion, or Babel, as Christianity turned away from the single language of Rome. In effect, each nation had its own religion. “Religious” war after religious war erupted - and lasted - all over Europe.  Maybe it was about religion; but it was also tangled up with plain old xenophobic nationalism.  How noteworthy that the European Church devolution - or evolution depending on your point of view - mirrored the Tower of Babel and scattering of the people on the plain of Susa thousands of years earlier.

Back in America we have a central national identity and more denominations, schisms, splits and sects than any other nation on earth. But we are believers.  Why the religiosity in America? The Dean of the Graduate School at Yale Divinity School, Jonathan Butler, attributes American religiosity to the successive waves of American immigration.
1) Each new immigrant group's presence threatened the current status quo and caused a circling of the religious wagons: 2) The new immigrants had to stick together in the face of native hostility.  So the new American church or community center became the Old Country. The church became the center of ethnicity, community services and social life for young and old. Every community was and still is filled with multiple churches.  And think how often that they started as a French church, a German church, an Irish church.  But there has been a powerful commonality in American belief. What is common to all is a belief in God. The same God for Catholic, Protestant, Jew and, yes, Muslim. There was a song by The Bachelors in 1953 called "I Believe." Enormously popular, it was covered later by everyone, including Frank Sinatra.  It was almost another national Anthem. It didn't so much matter WHAT you believed, but THAT you believed, believed in the same God. This is the common American experience and helps makes America the unique society it is.

The American experiment in government has so far proved to be very successful - even though particular leadership does stupid things from time to time. What bails us out of those bad situations is what makes our government system work. That is, checks and balances. Democracy always has the possibility of turning into mob rule. But, we have checks and balances by our estates of Executive, Legislative, Judicial and a Free Press. The friction of these multiple estates constantly challenges action and over-reaction. Is there an implication for Religion as an institution? We could ask whether God in His Wisdom permits a Babel of multiple denominations as checks and balances to discourage a Babi-lu of One World religion.  This is a heretical thought, but I think the Lord enjoys it when we ask questions like this in sincerity and faith. Would it be better if the whole world were Presbyterian?

The question: Is there a benefit in the scattering and fragmentation of the Church?

Who can know the mind of the Lord?  Jesus’ challenge to us, echoed in Paul's letters, is for each individual to be transformed through faith. Personal faith in and agreement with God's plan for us. Jesus and Paul pointed out that no amount of ritual or adherence to Law will save us. Ritual is valuable. Humans need it. It points us and disciplines us. It is a reliable guide. But we are not "saved" by following one ritual versus another ritual. And we cannot hire a minister or priest to be holy for us. The Shepherd, the pastor, guides the sheep to good pasture. The shepherd cannot eat for the sheep. The sheep - us - have to decide whether we will feed. We have to do it.

Perhaps the friction of multiple branches of Christianity helps us scrub away our clinging false egos, and allow grace to transform us. Maybe God's wisdom calls for the humility of scattered congregations all proclaiming a single Christ. Here in Skaneateles, we can see the shepherds from almost all the local Christian churches meeting together, cooperating in mission work  and holding each other up by name in prayer each week. I am coming to believe this is a glimpse of the coming True Church on earth, made up of a community of individual believers, led and shepherded by Pastors, Rabbis, Ministers, Imams and Priests who appreciate their differences and love their similarities. Maybe this is what Paul in l Corinthians calls The Body of Christ.

Perhaps the one true Church is not a specific physical institution, or organization, or denomination, or sect of Christianity.  Babel is not all bad. God instituted it at the Tower of Bab-ilu. Babel implies a decentralization of human power, a confusion that keeps us from "over-righteous smugness" that we completely possess and understand the mind of God. BabeI may be an antidote to human pride and rationalism. Babel keeps us humble, searching and dependant on the Grace of God in Christ. There are many languages and denominations, but one Christ.

Well, now you can see why I am a Presbyterian and a Catholic and a Congregationalist and an Episcopalian and an Evangelical and a Baptist and a Jew. Because above all and through all and despite many slips and sins, I am a follower of Jesus. As are you. The Church of God is perfect. But it is not fully realized here on earth.



For discussion:




Notes and Points:

Reverend Lindsey has been reading and working on William Easum's  Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Hamburgers. Easum's focus is on the Body of Christ as the defining metaphor for how churches should work and a practical plan for transforming a local church from the sacred cows of command and control to become permission giving. To let go. Perhaps this is a model, not just for local church administration, but for all churches across all denominations.

SECULAR EUROPE TODAY - The irony of course, is that today Europe is building a central government structure - the European Union. The Church in Europe is scattered and weak. Church attendance in England is 3 to 5%, the same in Germany and France – except for Christmas and Easter. There are more American tourists on a Sunday in Notre Dame than French worshippers. The Lutherans are gone from Scandinavia and are worshipping in America. Spain not much better. Italy, the churches are museums. What a change in cycle. In this week’s NY Times and Wall Street Journal, we see reports of “churchlike” meetings of militant atheists in Europe using missionary conversion tactics to rid us of this “religious hocus pocus.”