Do Politics Become the Christian?
Fr. Stanley (Spyridon) Harakas
(With February's Bulletin we continue our offering of monthly articles on Contemporary Moral Issues. Some will derive from a book of the same title -- "Contemporary Moral Issues -- authored by Fr. Stanley Harakas, printed in 1982 by Light and Life Publishing. Fr. Harakas is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, a distinguished teacher of Orthodox theology, and a significant resource in Orthodox ethics. He served as Dean of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and Hellenic College from 1966 until retirement in 1995. The following is edited for space.)
"Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" is a teaching of Christ. From one perspective it means at least that Christ saw the Church as something very different from the State and its methods.
Yet, "Render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar's" is also a command. It seems to imply that there is a responsibility to be exercised toward the State, by the Church, too. How is this to be explained?
While we can think of the Church as official, we also know that the Church is the body of the believers who have been baptized in the Name of the Holy Trinity and who live the sacramental life. When we think of it that way, every Christian helps make up the Church and few of us would agree that it is right for the whole body of the faithful to stay out of politics... The reason for this is that we do have a duty to "render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar's."
Christian Citizenship: Politics is not only voting for candidates for public office. The ancient Greeks understood politics as the art of governing. In a democracy that means that the people share in the governing process. And that means that Christians are of necessity involved in politics. This is the point. Should the Christians who make up the Church help govern the city and country and state and nation in which they live? Or to put it in other words, is there such a thing as Christian citizenship?
Well, the early Christians certainly acted as if there was. The first thing they did was to make sure that they obeyed the laws. The New Testament makes a point of that. They also took advantage of the protection provided by "due process." Saint Paul appealed to the Emperor as a Roman citizen when he felt he had an unfair trial. The early Christian writers, known as the Apologists, wrote letters to the Emperor to express their views on what they felt was an unjust law (the persecution of Christians).
Later on in the Church's history, countless patriarchs, bishops, clergy and laypersons worked in the political system of Byzantium for laws which embodied Christian values. For example, laws regarding the status of women, the protection of infants and children, the improvement of the condition of slaves, and the treatment of the poor, became concerns of the Church.
Involvement Necessary for Christians: In a democracy such as ours, Orthodox Christians are called upon to continue that tradition. Individual Orthodox Christians will study the issues, examine the records of candidates and vote regularly. Some will be convinced that they should support the campaigns of some candidates. Others will run for public office themselves.
The important thing is that we participate in the political enterprise as Christians, as members of the Church. And lest I be misunderstood, let me add that Christians "should not" become involved in politics for self-serving purposes, but in order to serve justice, to enhance citizenship, to do good works before all people and on behalf of all people. If, as some say, "politics is a dirty business," then Christians will seek to clean it up and to help it fulfill its real purpose. (Here it is noteworthy that Orthodox clergy do not typically run for any public office due in part to the ambiguous nature of politics.)
The Church is properly involved in politics when her members participate in the electoral process, write letters of Christian opinion to their elected representatives, join a political party, express their Christian opinion in the public forum and work in groups seeking to improve the condition of public life. Further, they are involved in politics when they pray daily and on Sundays, as we do in the Divine Liturgy, for the civil rulers of our nation, for peace, for the cities in which we live, etc.
In answer to the title question, "Do Politics Become the Christian?" the response is plain. In a society such as ours, in order to render unto Caesar that which is his, Orthodox Christians necessarily will be involved in politics. Being involved in politics is part of what it means to be a Christian.