CHURCH, STATE UNHOLY PARTNERS IN VANUATU

Commentary

By Winston Tarere PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, Dec, 1, 2010) – Recent trends by the ruling and former governments to do whatever they want with public funds and the deep silent response from the church is ironically deafening.

The use of the workers’ retirement funds to bail out the financially stricken Air Vanuatu and the government vote to increase Members of Parliament (MPs) salaries has fallen on deaf ears within the church hierarchies. But when it comes to rubber stamping Memorandum of Understandings and Memorandum of Agreements, new governments, reshuffles, reconciliation ceremonies etc as God’s will, the church is at the front line.

The question of whether the Church should play politics is a very sensitive issue many church leaders have sidestepped without making any definitive stand. With the vacuum, churches have been dressed up by its leaders and members in many different outfits to suit their different agendas.

The term politics has come to acquire a negative connotation associated with corruption and power play.

We no longer see it for what it really is. Politics according to one of its many meanings from the Oxford Dictionary is "principles relating to or inherent in a sphere or activity, especially when concerned with power and status."

In fact all decisions in life can be described as political decisions because they affect an outcome that provides one with leverage of power over their siblings, family, community and others that will enhance their status in society or welfare and livelihood. These improvements can be measured in economic, social and spiritual terms. In this context we can’t say that there should be no politics in churches, schools, health facilities, government, community or even a household because politics is a fundamental part of decision making, development and progress in whatever means or shape.

But perhaps history can teach us about the arguments for the separation of the church from the state or what is religious from secular, because at different points in history, there was no clear demarcation between the affairs of the state and the church.

Church affairs were state affairs and state affairs were church affairs. Whenever the State wanted to exploit and oppress the people, the Church gave it moral justification, and when the Church needed to silence or suppress its opponents, it wielded the power of the sword from the state to persecute and crash any rebellious teachings that were against its doctrines or beliefs.

But before Christianity became accepted as a major religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine, it was a persecuted movement whose leaders beginning with Jesus and the apostles were martyred at the hands of the state. As it became a universal religion within the Roman Empire, the roles were reversed and the church enjoyed the privilege of using the state to suppress what it considered heretic teaching.

In 321 AD faith became a political factor and Constantine used it to enlist Christian support in the East in a crusading war to overcome his Eastern colleague Licinius who was non Christian and gave him total control of the entire Roman Empire.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, the church saw itself as the successor and often entertained the idea that the temporal or secular power was bequeathed to the church. Thus the church emerged in its place as the new "Holy Roman Empire" under the rule of Germanic tribes, beginning with the baptism of Clovis, king of the Franks (the French) in 496 AD.

However, Germanic Kings in their world view were venerated as god’s who were directly descended from their own gods. Therefore upon their conversions to Christianity they saw themselves as God’s divine leaders or sons, chosen to rule over his people. In their hierarchical power structure, authority of power emanates directly from God, to Jesus and then the Germanic Kings. They had three classes of people in their societies. The Kings were the rulers of all who shared these privileges with their Nobles, the church made up of the bishops, monks, priests and the pope are to deal purely with spiritual matters and were subjected to them and the peasants were the workers.

Therefore medieval Europe was embroiled in a power struggle between the Church and the State on who should be subjected to whom.

The state first enjoyed ascendant power with the ideology that the landlord, king or emperor owned the church because he owned all the land in Europe.

The church was at the mercy of the King or the landlord. He had the right to appoint or sack any priest, bishop, arch bishop or even the pope. Under these regimes, Bishops played a dual role of spiritual leader and the King’s emissary and administrator of the different provinces or countries. In the picture, Bishops had no choice because all the land belonged to the Kings. Anyone who questioned the Kings authority or rule was replaced by anyone else the Kings favored. This did not sit well with the church which saw itself as the rightful successor of the empire.

Pope Boniface VIII penned the strongest case for the church based on the superiority of spiritual power and authority over the temporal or political power of the state or world wielded by Kings in a papal decree "Unam Sanctum in 1302." This guaranteed immunity of the clergy from being held accountable by any worldly judicial system.

This concept is based on the doctrine of apostolic succession where God hands all power and authority to Jesus who hands it to Saint Peter to whom he gave the key and called the rock, upon which he would build his church. Peter whose remains is in Rome is the first Pope through whom the divine power and authority is passed down through the succession of Popes to the present.

The state is subordinate to the church and implements or enforces the authority of the church in the temporal world. If the state wants to do something, it must first seek the blessings and the authority of the church. Therefore the state was dispensable by the church which used it in its crusading campaigns against heretics, and the Muslims.

When we consider the fact that any religious leader could get away with murder at that time, then the impetus behind the separation of powers from the two institutions becomes clear.

The Protestant reformation by Luther was founded on this premise. The reformation spawned the movement for freedom and liberation for the common people. Peasants demanded equal rights, better working conditions, better pay, and justice for all – and ensured this by designing in the national constitutions, clear separations of what is religious from secular, or church from state.

These strict protestant separation highly influenced changes which became more entrenched in the French and the American revolutions. However, even with fundamental freedoms and separation of powers from the state and the church, the secular authorities in the name of empire building often overlooked these statutes and what they stood for by allowing slavery often with the blessing of the church and the suppression and oppression of other peoples.

From the late 1800s to the 1900s when the major colonial powers such as France, Britain, Germany, Holland and Spain had carved up the world between them, it was necessary for the Church to play its prophetic role by challenging these empires and condemning their oppression of indigenous populations and the exploitation of their resources to accumulate power and wealth while the natives were inhumanely treated as slaves, remained as aliens without rights and identity in their own lands etc…

In England the Methodist Church and others played an active role in the abolishment of the slave trade from British controlled West Africa which acted as the major supplier of African slaves to the United States. Here in the Pacific, The Presbyterian Church, Anglican Church and other churches were very vocal in exposing the treachery of white traders who stalked the islands looking for human cargo to work in plantations in Australia and Fiji.

France, one of colonial powers still maintains an oppressive presence in the Pacific, with great disregard to the fundamental principles of its revolution which affirmed liberty, equality and fraternity. In the 1900, the French missionary and anthropologist Maurice Leenhardt in his work with the Kanak was instrumental in opposing the French colonial mentality of turning New Caledonia into a country for whites only.

During the struggle for independence, Fr. Lini called politics and the church as two different sides of the same coin. But that spirit of pro-active involvement in the affairs of the state and church has become nostalgic among today’s leaders and churches.

Independence had become the zenith of the church’s active involvement that it now forgets or turns a blind eye to the mountains of oppression, injustice, exploitation of people, power and resources.

They neglect their prophetic duty to challenge the government or any form of power or authority that sponsors and passes legislations such as the Customary Land Tribunal Act that mobilizes customary land and guarantee its future alienation from its indigenous owners; risks the retirement funds of its citizens to solve its financial failures and corrupt practices; passing legislation to increase their pay by allegedly incorporating their MP allocation into their own private salary to avoid public scrutiny on how they spend the money in their constituencies; cost of living continues to increase while government services remain non-existent in the rural areas; commits future generations to a lifetime of servicing national debts through Structural Adjustment Programs such as the Comprehensive Reform Program and penalizes them for their failures and for being born a Ni-Vanuatu; signs trade and bilateral agreements with countries that are responsible for the destruction and robbing of the livelihood of indigenous populations in other countries, resources and systematic suppression and oppression of peoples etc.

So, Should the Church play politics? Yes! Now more than ever, the challenges of globalization, sea level rising, HIV/AIDS, financial meltdowns, terrorism, unfair trading practices, official government corruption etc, all warrant a direct response from the church and all responsible citizens.

The churches must be concerned over how major government policies are going to impact on the daily lives of the people. It must be the voice of the voiceless; champion of accessible and affordable health care; protector of indigenous land and the environment; defender of the rights of the minority, poor and the marginalized; upholder of the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.

The prophet Micah 3:5-7 warns that prophets or church leaders who lead people astray and cry "Peace" when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths, there will be night to them, without vision and darkness. The sun will go down on them and they will cover their lips because God will not answer them.

Vanuatu needs a new cry from the wilderness in the tradition of Isaiah 40:3, challenging or condemning the ruling powers and calling on the people in the jungles, towns, islands and villages to build a new highway for change, lifting up all valleys of oppression and lowering mountains of suppression; leveling of corruption and making plain the aspiration of the ordinary people, the Kanaks, West Papuans, by bringing their voices to the corridors of power in Port Vila and the world to hear.

Winston Tarere is a freelance writer studying Theology at the Pacific Theological College extension program in Vanuatu.

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