State and religion — competing centres of power?


When rulers obsessed with power and addicted to “lording it over us” realise that “organised religion” represents another centre of power , they want a share of it, in fact a big bite of it, want to invade it and take possession of it, “control-freaks” that they are.

By Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

Their approach is quite clever. They don’t wage war against the churches to try and destroy them — they know they can’t — but they take the church in a loving embrace so as to squeeze all life out of it. They try to pretend to be obedient followers of religion so that the religious people are obedient them and their kingdom as well.

Rulers and their henchmen, bodyguards and “praise singers” (disguised as Press officers) like to appear at religious functions and present themselves to the faithful as belonging to them even if they have to put on white gowns to make the point. In case people find this difficult to believe there are always armed guards around to suggest forcefully, “You had better, or else . . .”

In ancient times there were “priest kings” in Egypt and Babylon, and the Roman Emperor was worshipped as a divine being, religion serving as a prop for political power. In our day dictators turn themselves into cult figures, and even elected leaders present themselves carrying Bibles to get the Bible readers’ vote.

During these days after Christmas we are confronted with a very interesting text from the Bible. Some learned scholars arrive in Jerusalem and look for the “newborn King of the Jews” in the palace of King Herod — where else? In fact they find him in Bethlehem in the arms, not of a princess, but of an ordinary girl; her husband is a carpenter, and they have found a roof over their heads in very modest surroundings.

King Herod’s paranoid suspicion causes a bloodbath as he tries to eliminate the baby who threatens his royal throne. As a matter of fact, as a grown man Jesus, though a descendant of King David, will have nothing to do with this kind of kingship. He will call another Herod 30 years later “this fox”.

The prophets before Jesus were no enthusiastic royalists. Samuel warned the people of Israel against having a king. “He will take your sons and daughters as slaves and steal your fields,” he told them ( cf. 1 Samuel 8: 10 ff.). David seemed a good king: at least he repented when he took Bathsheba and had her husband killed. His descendants committed much bigger crimes without repenting.

Jesus did not want to fight the Romans for political power. When they wanted to make him a king “he withdrew again to the mountain alone” (John 6: 15). He taught, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Mark 12 : 17). Caesar’s empire and the kingdom of God are two different things and are ruled by different principles. Caesar must never try and control God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ followers will one day tell the authorities in Jerusalem, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5: 29). Christians are no anarchists (Rom. 13: 1), but in a conflict situation they follow God’s laws. The early Christians paid with their lives for their refusal to worship Caesar. They never forgot that Jesus does not approve of autocrats, “the kings of the Gentiles who lord it over them” (Luke 22: 25). He wants servant leadership, leaders who spend themselves in working for their people and the common good. As he did himself: he never lived in a palace, and he rode on a donkey, not a war horse.

If rulers want to be compared to Jesus they have to make a dramatic U-turn. They have to face the truth, past and present, and learn to heal rather than strike wounds, to reconcile with their enemies rather than indulge in hate speech, and to overcome their addiction to power, indeed, when the time has come, to let go of power altogether.

But let church leaders also be warned: if politicians are not to “co-opt” the church for their purposes, you must not rule as they do either!


  1. This is a well articulated article. It will be good if deferent sects of religious denominations would read and most of all understand. Religion should not be led by desperation. Although politics and religion can intermingle one should not dominate the other.

  2. uuuuummm….it appears you are skirting the issue Fr. There is no competition at all bt confusion. The State is fo the physical n the church fo the spiritual. It is only when the other overlaps its boudary that the percieved competition arises. When Jesus said render unto Ceasar he knew the dangers of mixing the two. However it appears some of Jesus’s followers that is pastors,priests,popes,deacons,prophets,get carried away and meddle in politics of the State. Such a move leaves the State with no choice but to be vindictive and paranoid to the encroachment. Religion also is averse to meddling by the State and can also become paranoid and afraid. Religion must remain within its realm and so must the State. Such a move guarantees no competition but complimentary progress…Icho.

  3. Divine message Father, thank u. Its sad really how our leaders cling to worldly things, if they could only use half of that energy to try and cling to Christ we would be much better off. Father God transform us all into the likeness of your son Jesus, Amen

  4. Do you know that the Bishop if Rome, the Pope is also a Priest-King just as it was in Egypt and Babylon. the pope persecuted and killed millions of Christians during the dark urges.
    Some will call the writer father, but as for me I have the Father who is in heaven for when I pray I say “Our Father who art in heaven…”

  5. Well written piece. Applies to us in the 21st century. Don’t get hung over tittles such as ‘Father’, ‘Priest-King’, ‘Pope’ etc. This is a very much 2014 message for the Zimbabweans, living and breathing now, perhaps with a very short history, 30 or so years that we need reflect on, learn from it, make restoration and improve for the future. This is not so much about crusades or Popes murdering millions. I couldn’t care less whether this piece was written by a Jesuit, Franciscan, a Calvinist, a Jehovah’s Witness, MDC, Zanu, Zapu, Dynamos, Chicago bulls, Gumbura or the United Nations. It is a good piece and let us learn something from it. I couldn’t give monkeys about the author, it is very relevant to our situation and let us open our eyes, ears and mind.

  6. Father you have no issue there you the leaders of the churches you are failing to hear the voice of the lord anymore. The new crop of catholic and other church leaders see nothing other than sex from women both married or unmarried. Now the so called earthly leaders want to put order and humanity you start to cry and want to block them away. Most of the catholic priests have families and children all over but what does your doctrine say who are you fooling look what is happening at Arupe then rewrite your story again. There is a story of the twig and log in the bible I am sure you are the one who can articulate it properly. God bless you father amen

  7. the church has always been playing a role in governance since biblical times. In the OT kings had what they call court prophets e.g Nathan to King David.Their role was to advice Kings, however there is a very thin line between the church and government that in addressing the root cause of church issues the government is blackmailed and it needs leaders who know their roles in government to accept thet challenge. To the man of color be like Nathan when addressing such matters use a parable that makes the denounce themselves without realising they are shoting themselves in the foot. True pieace and progress will only exist when these 2 institutions core-exist because they both need same path(the people to operate).

  8. The priest must factor in the idea, e fact that it’s not only church n state as it looks like from e natural viewpoint but there are other more invisible and much more supernatural forces at work no wonder why e bible says e system of this world is not of God (put to mind e wars,suicides bombers,drug,human trafficking,slavery,organised immorality –prostitution n homosexuality n lesbianism n cettra ).its more spiritual battle than physical so if we try to address it from e physical front we will never gets anywhere nearer e better. We church must pray n pray hard .are we not called by His name Christians for Christ. Remember he said if my people who are called by my name we humble emselves …(2 chro 7:14).Church u are e salt of e earth , are e light of e world (Matt 5:13,14) if u dont chose to be salt e food will be unpalatable as it is tasteless ;job asked can tasteless food eaten without salt , such food makes me ill my soul refuses to touch it. if don’t choose to be light no one will be and e whole world including e church will grope in darkness

  9. As said by parapinda, the state is for the physical and the church for the spiritual. The root problem now lies in the definition of power, as portrayed by the ones in power, both in state and in church.

  10. Churches have been cowed into silence by Mugabe and ZanuPF. Churches are too petrified to speak out on any injustices. Churches have always been used by politicians for their own political ends because they know churches have many gullible, docile blind followers.
    Mugabe is one hell of a hypocrite – he has attended the 2 inaugurations of the new Popes to try and show the world that he is a man of God. The man is mentally unbalanced. Suffers from bipolar disorder. We are told he is a devout Christian but his overall behaviour is anything but. He behaves in the most unchristian manner – he takes no prisoners.

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