Sunday, December 05, 2010

Not Ashamed of what?

last week saw the launch by Lord Carey and others of Not Ashamed, a campaign to support the recognition of the Christian heritage of Britain and support Christians who feel they have been discriminated against for their public stance for the Christian faith - you can read more here

i think it is important to remember the positive contribution the Christian faith has made to our culture and help people make the connections between that contribution and things they may well take for granted about it that they too value. I want Christians to be comfortable about expressing their faith both in public and private. I believe just as i have found personal encounter with Christ both personally transforming and visionary for the blessing of all creation others will find this true also and want them to discover that. I am confident that God is at work in all creation bringing fullness of life and the new creation as he has spoke of it through the ages. i am not however confident this campaign actually serves those beliefs. why is that?

firstly i am not sure it has rightly understood the world we are in our the nature of the issue. it is easy to quote the 72% in the last census who said they were christian, but this doesn't mean they support this kind of understanding of what being a christian nation is - indeed the survey evidence is strongly that most who say this see it as a positive statement about loving ones neighbour but also see that as affirming the kind of policies Christian agencies and individuals are clashing with. the reality is that whilst for centuries of Christendom if it was never the case that the majority of British adults went to church often the majority of children went to church or later Sunday school and were raised in that faith. this totally collapsed during the twentieth century. this was indeed a time of great social change - but is this collapse due to the challenge to faith that change brought or due to the failure of the church to engage with that change? either way does a political campaign seeking to reverse supposed marginalisation of Christians on thee basis of our past contribution address either issue? it simply treats cultural change as a political debate and ignores whatever the extent is, and i suspect it is high, that the church has failed to engage with it.

secondly whilst there is much to be proud of in this country's Christian heritage there is actually much of which we should be ashamed. i think we need to wake up to the harsh reality that Christendom, the declaration of Christianity as a political as well as a spiritual reality as a basis for state rule as well as culture, has left a legacy which seems to have little to do with Jesus. firstly it enforced faith on its citizens banning the free expression of belief, i then instituted the spreading of faith on other nations by military conquest. it then made opposing the state religion a treasonable offense often punishable by death usually after torture. christian nations fought over faith and persecuted religious minorities. of this we should be ashamed. and i think the root of the problem is that we forget Jesus teaching that his kingdom was not of this world otherwise an army would come to defend him. and so we created christian armies and christian governments. any political campaign about the political rights of Christians based on our nations Christian heritage thus appears to be a desire to return to that which we should be ashamed. if we are to argue for the civil rights of Christians they are going to have to be argued on a different basis.

because i think both these things are true i fear this campaign far from strengthening the position of Christianity in this country actually serves to marginalise it further. firstly it makes Christians look as bad as they are feared to be by the majority of the population - there may be some wave of anti-political correctness that can be ridden but in the end it all looks like Christians defending their own power and privilege and their right to go against the wishes of society with no consequence. secondly it creates an embattled mentality amongst Christians like that amongst some sections of the Muslim population which risks becoming the breeding ground for religious and political extremism.

the Emperor Constantine who adopted Christianity as the faith of his empire was followed by Julian who is labelled by Christian history as 'the apostate'. he attempted to reverse the fortunes of Christianity and return Paganism as the official religion. many of his policies toward this end involved politics and power but his own recognition was that the real issue was the respect the Christians had in society. the reality was as Julian admitted the Pagans of his day simply did not match this and he exhorted them to do so. the christian community that had no power or privilege was at best ignored and at worst persecuted, was slandered and dismissed against all the odds had so excelled in caring for the poor and the sick, helping the outcast, building communities of care in which all were supported and in loving those who persecuted them as Jesus commanded that in the end even the Roman Empire could not resist its witness.

we can indeed by proud of this heritage, we can also point to those shining examples that have carried it forward, we can also be glad that many still speak well of the individual christian they know. but we then have to accept an uncomfortable reality just as this witness brought Christianity into the centre of Roman power so i fear it corrupted it - the persecuted became the persecutors, the philosophy of roman state religion became the churches philosophy and faith became for many not a matter of conviction and lifestyle but of birth and political dictate. in truth the various reforms and reformations whilst they have inspired some to renewed vision and witness have done little to change this. in the end perhaps though their is much to morn the collapse of Christendom is the only way for the church to find again that calling and that witness?

so let us not seek a political campaign that seeks to restore a christian nation that whilst it has enabled good has also robed the faith of its heart and much of which we should be ashamed. let us instead this Advent hear the call of the Baptist to repent and bear the fruit of repentance rather than look back to ancestors to save us and become again the people whose lives so witness to Christ in the face of whatever opposition may or may not arise, to bless those who oppose, that Gods presence becomes irresistible and no political power or privilege is needed to support faith.