Social media seems increasingly to carry calls to defend the UK as “a Christian country.” A host of organisations – none of which I shall name, but if you’re feeling sufficiently strong of stomach you can go find them yourselves – promote this idea. It seems to find expression in the parading of crosses through streets and proposals to return Christian assemblies to schools alongside opposition to Islam.
Now, you might think I wouldn’t have a problem with this, me being a Christian minister and all that. But I do. It all makes me feel rather uncomfortable. Ah, but you’re just one of those wishy washy, liberal Christians, some will say. Well, if liberal means being tolerant of the views of others, then I’m liberal. If it means having an open mind to the possibility of being informed and enriched by other traditions and ideas, then I’m a liberal. But none of that means I am not very serious indeed in my desire to be a disciple of the carpenter rabbi of Galilee. And that’s why I feel the unease.
You see, in these various organisations, there is little that I recognise as Christian, that is Christ like, very little that reminds me of that carpenter rabbi.
One of these group organises demonstrations on the street. They carry crosses. Crosses are recognisable Christian symbols, sure enough, but the carrying of them does not make the bearers “Christ-like” which is the root meaning of Christian. The new testament portrays Jesus as asking those who would be his disciples (Christians) to take up their cross and follow him. Luke 9:23 Our defenders of Christianity do something like the former part of that invitation without, it seems, understanding the latter.
Take the street demonstrations, for example. The crosses are carried into predominantly Muslim inhabited areas, not as the symbols of sacrificial love and service which they are, but as symbols of power, opposition and threat. That the demonstrations are sometimes accompanied by military style vehicles makes that even more obvious.
It is not crosses alone, but the Bible which is brought into play in support of the views of these groups. Surely, I’d have no objection to that, if their aim is to promote Christianity. Let’s see. A social media post by one particular group has a picture of a “white” Jesus in front of a Union Flag with the legend above, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5”
My brain did a number of cartwheels as I tried to square the various contradictions in the picture. Jesus, the Palestinian (not white), cannot be appropriated by any race as theirs, certainly theirs against others. Most particularly Jesus cannot even be appropriated over against those we deem or are indeed our “enemies.” Let’s go a little further in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from which this organisation quoted for a few more indications of what being a “Christian country” might demand of its inhabitants:
Verse 7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
Verse 10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Let’s go a bit further still, because this really does begin to be quite challenging to the cross bearing, military vehicle travelling “patriots” of this “Christian country.”
Verses 43 – 48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now, I’m not saying that Muslims are the enemies of Christians, although I am sure there are those in the world who see themselves as such, as there are so called Christians in the world who see themselves as enemies of Islam. What I am saying is that if these organisations really want to defend the UK as a Christian country then they really must begin to find out what it means to be Christian, what it means to be Christ-like, to be like the one who died on a cross rather than offer threats to others with one.
By way of further example of the perverse use of Biblical texts by this group, another of its posts sees a return of our white Jesus and carries the legend “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13: 6-7
This quotation from Paul’s great hymn to love in his letter to the church at Corinth could not be more out of place on a time line filled with hatred. One comment beneath the post suggested that everyone who liked the post should go to church that Sunday to show that Britain is still Christian. If they did perhaps they might find someone prepared to tell them that hatred and Christian discipleship cannot go hand in hand. They might read the whole of that particular chapter in Paul’s letter and discover that, in Paul’s eyes, without love we are nothing.
I must confess that at this point I lost the stomach to trawl further, dear reader, into the depths of the lies, selective truth and hate mongering to further illustrate my point.
But this is it: posting Biblical quotes and carrying crosses doesn’t make one a Christian. The only way to be a Christian is to take up that cross of loving and sacrificial service after the example of Jesus.
As to bringing Christian assemblies back to schools, let’s see what that might do. If we did, (although they are not universally absent) and the children “caught” real Christianity in them, rather than merely learning how to say the Lord’s Prayer and recite the order of the Gospels, say, then the first thing they would reject would be the hatred expressed by these groups.
How do I feel about these people and their views? First of all, I am called to love the members and supporters of these groups who may well disagree with everything I’ve said just as much as I am those who agree with me. I feel no animosity towards them as people though I find their misappropriation of the message of Jesus distasteful in the extreme as well as just plain wrong. Love means, however, that I have to try to understand where they are coming from, why they are party to such hateful views. The main emotion I discern behind all the invective is fear, fear of change, fear of difference, fear of what are without doubt some utterly dreadful views and actions from certain “Islamic” militants, and the atrocities committed by the likes of Daesh and Boko Haram. I can understand that, understand it even while choosing to respond differently to it.
And choice is a key word here. How we respond to the events around us is a choice, as individuals, communities, countries, faiths. While hatred is an all too human response, perhaps deep down a mechanism for self-preservation, we are sentient beings with the capacity for rational thought, the ability to move beyond the intuitive, fear driven response. If I might quote some who have been most influential in my life:
Martin Luther King, in an environment where so called Christians carried crosses and burned and hanged black people (often Christians themselves), and in general treated them as less than human, said “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Mahatma Gandhi is credited with saying, “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.”
My late mother used to say, probably as a result of having four squabbling children, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
If someone hates us, we can choose to hate them back or to love them in return. The choice is ours to make as King’s words imply, but to those who would promote a “Christian” Britain there is no choice: to follow Jesus is to love in the face of hate. That this is a practical as well as ethical response is suggested in Gandhi’s words. Hatred for hatred can only result in all being consumed by hatred. There is no possible good end for such a course.
To choose love is, of course, no easy option; being Christian often isn’t (a glance at Methodism’s annual Covenant Service will show that we recognise this) but if we are to be disciples of Jesus then we have to be followers of the way of love and we cannot allow ourselves to become victims of hate, the hate of others or our own hate. Part of the problem of these groups and their use of social media is their constant use of negative images of those they oppose. There are never any positive pictures or stories of Muslims. For example, I trawled in vain for any mention of the good work done by Muslim groups in response to recent flooding. These were often neighbours helping neighbours regardless of religion, but sometimes they were groups of Muslims setting out to do good to strangers, even if some might have been supporters of these various anti-Muslim groups. In so doing they were doing what Paul requires of the Christian: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:20-21 (Again, I am not suggesting that these Muslims saw people in need as enemies, but the point remains and it is a challenge to Christian communities.)
The constant reinforcement of the things that make one fearful and the invitation to others to join you in that fear is destructive of self and community. No wonder the Bible invites us, thus: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Philippians 4:8 We do not have to be blind to the wrongdoing of others, any more than we should be blind to our own, but to constantly dwell on the negative blinds us to truth and renders us incapable of responding rationally to the facts before us.
I end with a longer quote one of the New Testament letters: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” 1 John 4: 17-21
I invite all those who would see Britain a Christian country to join me and help me live the most Christ like life I can, in this world to be “like Jesus,” like the Jesus who made no distinction of race or religion but offered love to all.
And to those who follow another path, be it a faith informed path or not, I would paraphrase and extend (too far, I know, for some who share my faith) John Wesley’s invitation (based on 2 Kings 10:15) “If your heart is as my heart, take my hand.” If you see love not hate as the way to heal our world; join me.