“Christians in Parliament,” (an ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’) has recently published a preliminary report about the freedom of Christians in UK public life. Clearing the Ground offers a thoughtful and measured analysis of a variety of experiences and situations encountered by Christians in modern Britain.
Whilst not all of us will agree that Britain ever was a ‘Christian Country’, it is certainly true that we were one of the nations of ‘Christendom.’
Christendom is the name for that monumentally successful brand of Christianity that accepted power when it was offered by the Roman emperor. The result was a thousand year joint reign of church and state, with senior Church leaders thereby becoming senior political leaders. The power of Christendom has slowly diminished in recent years. Bishops, for instance, no longer hold an office that brings the immense power it once did. But for some reason bishops still enjoy a place in the House of Lords. In an increasingly secular age, this is an odd leftover from a bygone era.
Unelected, Lordly Bishops of the Anglican Church, however, are not the only leftovers from the age of Christendom. Whenever Christians believe they have certain ‘rights’ on account of being Christians, whenever they expect privileges because this is meant to be a Christian country, whenever they expect that a Christian voice should be heard for no other reason than that it is Christian, the same brand of Christendom power games remains in force.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Christianity has become a soft target for ridicule. It is widely asserted that Christians are one of the few remaining sectors of society that we can poke fun at with impunity.
When Christians claim that, “people would never ridicule Muslims like this,” it is rightly so. To ridicule Christianity, is to ridicule a religion that has enjoyed (and often abused) immeasurable privilege and power, and as an institution it still does. To ridicule Muslims is a different dynamic, largely because Islam does not have the same history of power in this country. In fact, its history in the UK is almost the very opposite. In our context, ridiculing Muslims is an entirely different social exercise to ridiculing Christians.
The behaviour of Christians, often and sadly, is all-too-worthy of ridicule. The comedian, Ross Noble, makes the point as well as any theologian or journalist. Commenting on one woman’s complaint that she should be allowed to wear her cross as an expression of her faith, Noble suggested an alternative means of expressing Christian faith: “Love thy neighbour; be nice to people; shut … up.” This is extremely close to the sentiment expressed by Jesus himself.
When asked if he was a Christian (well, he was asked whether he was the Christ – which is as close as one could get), Jesus did not reply to John the Baptist’s disciples as many modern Christians might expect. He did not say, “Yes I am the Christ, and I am not ashamed of the fact. You may not believe that I am the Christ, but I reserve the right to express it!”
Instead he simply pointed to the trail of glorious, life-changing, politically-explosive reality he left in his wake: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Jesus didn’t need labels or badges or presume upon his rights. People heard him not because he claimed the right, but because he had a voice worth hearing.
When Christians presume upon ‘Christian rights’, they deserve to be ridiculed. When, on the other hand, their human rights are denied simply because they are Christian (as does happen in the UK), then there is obviously cause for concern. Here the Clearing the Ground report brings insight and perceptive suggestions for practical action.
Ultimately, however, if Christians wasted less energy complaining that their voice isn’t being heard, and invested more in cultivated a voice worth hearing – it might go some way to dismantling the prejudice that often mounts up against them. If we forget about bleating, and get our hands dirty working for economic and ecological justice, offering practical pastoral help to those in our community, and being the body of Christ – we are likely (accidentally) to acquire a voice worth hearing and to find ourselves with valuable and relevant opportunity to speak in the name of Christ.
Published in Baptist Times, 4 May 2012