Faith

Martin Turner is a former chair of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. He previously worked with Operation Mobilisation in Belgium, and is a member of Bidford Baptist Church (theBarn).

Why I’m in

Tomorrow, the nation votes.

I’m in.

Why?

It seems to me this is a referendum about what kind of Britain we want to have, and believe we have. There is a vision of Britain which is stronger with many friends, which engages with the world around it, which enjoys a major role in the world’s most sought after club. There’s also a vision of Britain beset on all sides, overrun with immigrants, where there is not enough to go round, and if we don’t pull up the draw-bridge quickly, it will be too late.

I am solidly for the first vision. I have never heard of any nation that was weaker for having allies, nor richer for living in isolation, nor kinder for being more afraid.

Most of the arguments of Leave and Remain do little for me. I accept that we are likely to be damaged economically by leaving. However, if leaving were the right thing to do, I would be willing to accept the economic damage. I also accept that we don’t have as much freedom to do anything we want if we’re part of the club. If staying is the right thing to do, I don’t see why that should be a problem. I can’t think of any regulations that we have adopted from Europe that we wouldn’t have adopted on our own account anyway. Food safety, environmental safety, electrical safety and other forms of protection are what good governments do.

There are some arguments which I don’t and can’t accept.

Britain is not overrun with immigrants, although, to be fair, it is entirely populated by people whose ancestors were, at some point, immigrants. Something like 92%-98% of the UK is not built on (it depends what you count). We have a housing problem in London, but London is the place where residents are most likely to see the benefits of an international, multi-cultural society. As you move away from London, we have whole areas of the country which are less populated than they used to be. The reason that we welcome so many people from other countries is that we have far more work that we want done than people willing to do it. That has always been the reason why we have welcomed immigrants. It has not changed.

The British way of life, and British values, are also not being overrun by foreigners—unless we see small-mindedness and fear of the other as part of our way of life. Culture is changing. Maybe it’s changing for the worse (these things are hard to measure), but the big influences on cultural change are not shops selling Polish sausages, but the influence of American television and the all pervasive power of the world wide web. Not that we should ban the world wide web, which was, after all, a British invention, and probably epitomises the best of our values and way of life: free discussion, the freedom to express opinion, the freedom to put forward new ideas and the make the case for them.

It is the freedom to put forward ideas which is most important to me in this debate. At the moment, I can travel anywhere in the European Union and make the case for my politics, my faith, and even my favourite kind of music. I could open up a pancake house in Bruges, or a shop selling Union Jack t-shirts in Madrid. Naturally, people from elsewhere can do the same thing here, but, somehow, they don’t: the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon are not full of traders selling Spanish flags, nor are the empty shops in Evesham being swallowed up by chains of Czech furniture makers. When people do travel to other countries and start to trade, we all benefit. Their natural inclination is not to. Given the choice, it’s something we should encourage.

I’m a committed Christian, and I spent the first third of my career (so far) as a cross-cultural Christian worker in Belgium, what used to be termed (and for all I know, in some circles, still is), a ‘missionary’. We didn’t have pith helmets, mosquito nets or arduous journeys round Cape Horn to get there, nor did we attempt to educate the locals in the British way of life (though, to be absolutely fair, from Hudson Taylor on, that’s not what traditional missionaries did, notwithstanding the Carry-on film stereotypes). I was there before the EU happened, and afterwards. Before, we found that every minor official who didn’t like the case we were making, or us being there at all, had a thousand ways of holding us back—from mislaying our residence permit applications (someone once told me I had not provided the six photos I needed while she was actually holding them in her hand) to demanding that we show our valid performance permits at a police station three kilometres distance. From 1993, after the EU treaty came in, all of that changed. We were free to move as easily as we would have been in Britain.

I am not asking for any special considerations for Christianity. If you are a Brexiter, and you have been arguing as a non-Christian for more protections for Christians, please do not do so on my account. I believe both passionately and rationally that the New Testament faith is persuasive enough to merely need an opportunity of explanation. I don’t need my ‘British’ Christianity (as if Christianity was British anyway) to be protected from anyone.

If you are a Christian, I’ve recently done a debate with Stephen Green, a prominent Brexiter. You can watch it (for free) on YouTube, here.

I’m also a democrat. As it happens, I’m a Liberal Democrat. People have often told me that Europe is somehow weakening our democracy, and we must therefore leave it.  Two things trouble me about this. First, most of these people were adamantly opposed to our attempt to reform British democracy with a referendum during the last parliament. If democracy really was their main issue, they should have supported us. Second, the European Union is already much more democratic than the UK. True, we have an unelected Commission, but the leaders of the Commission are appointed by our elected leaders, and ratified by the parliament. The function of the Commission is essentially the same as our civil service—except that the Commission is tiny in comparison to ours. Its size compares with a mid-sized city council. The Parliament is fully elected, and is much more democratic in its electoral system than ours is. There are no safe-seats—the bane of our democracy—in the EU parliament. The European Council, which is the third part, is made up of our prime minister and the corresponding positions from other countries. All of them are elected, because non-democratic nations cannot join the EU. The Council is the equivalent of our Cabinet, and it is exactly as democratic in the way it is appointed, and more democratic in the way it operates. What Europe doesn’t have is an unelected House of Lords. I have some very good friends in the House of Lords, and they are fine people, and the House does good work, but it is not democratic.

What I struggle with most when people talk about democracy is my feeling that they don’t mean ‘democratic’ at all. They are secretly fearful that all of the Czechs, Germans and Spanish will gang up on us and vote through a plot to ban British produce, or to eject our football fans from their stadiums. But that is how democracy works. The moment you allow democracy, you create the possibility that a lot of other people will vote for something you don’t like. As a Liberal Democrat, I’m well used to this. Even when we got 24% of the vote in 2010, we still got less than 10% of the seats, and were thus powerless in many cases to stop the Tory agenda, though, as you can see now, what we did stop was well worth stopping. The thing is, the alternative to democracy is some kind of dictatorship (by whatever name) or an oligarchy. The people who run society can still do things you don’t like, but you have no recourse, no matter how many of you there are, to stopping them.

The final thing which troubles me that I often hear is that we are somehow opening the doors to Muslim extremism by allowing Turkey into the EU. This is troubling on many levels.

First, the vast majority of Muslims are not extremists, and even most of those who would seem ‘extreme’ to us are not violent. While I was living in Ghent, Belgium, my wife sent my to pick up a copy of the Qu’ran from a local Turkish mosque. The trouble was, it was a mosque of the sect known as the Grey Wolves, the most fanatical Muslim sect in Turkey, and it was in the middle of the first Gulf War. They were absolutely charming to me, gave me a cup of tea, and engaged me (slightly to my alarm) in an utterly reasonable conversation about Saddam Hussein. These were people who believed passionately in what they believed, but they were not remotely advocating violence. The vast majority of Muslims are non-violent. In today’s world, you are  far more likely to die by falling off a ladder than in a terrorist attack. Our fear of terrorism (which terrorism is designed to create, hence the name) has led us to a completely irrational assessment of the risk.

Second, there is absolutely no likelihood of Turkey joining the EU, now, or ever. As long as Greece as a veto, which it will always do, Turkey cannot continue to occupy part of Cyprus and expect EU membership. What’s more, there are some 35 criteria which Turkey has to meet before it can join. These include things such as human rights and democratic government. I doubt that Turkey will ever meet them, but even if it met half of them, as part of its road map to an eventual application, it would be a country completely transformed. What we have failed to do in eight hundred years of  armed conflict will have been achieved purely through peaceful means.

Third, the idea that we should allow unfounded fear of things which might potentially happen in the future is utterly paralysing, and should never play any part in our national decision-making. If we reason from fear, then there is an infinite variety of terrors ahead of us. Nations have gone to war in the past simply out of the fear that their competitors will do the same. The arms-race which led up to the First World War was fuelled by such fears, as was the complex network of military alliances which turned it from a local to a global conflict. The Cold War was half a century of fear—a twilight era to which we should hope never to return.

I am IN, because I see hope, not fear, as the basis for a better future. I believe in times of plenty we should build a longer table, not a higher wall. I believe that the freedom to go wherever we wish and say whatever we wish is far more valuable than freedom from regulation about the size of eggs.

The Battle for Christmas: Who made it? Who owns it? Does it matter?

It is December, and the battle for Christmas is well underway. There was a marvellously provocative article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph which claimed that all religion is delusion, but that abandoning Christmas is more or less the beginning of the end of life as we know it. I won’t link to it, as I don’t think it really had anything to say. Nonetheless, Christmas as an annual event becomes one of the most hotly disputed topics every year.

Key questions of 2015 include:

  • Aldi versus John Lewis: who wins our hearts and minds on TV (or will it be that German advert?)
  • Happy holidays or Merry Christmas? Does it matter what you say, and does anyone in the UK actually say ‘happy holidays’ anyway?
  • Should we insist that Christmas is a Christian festival, or should we (with a little more knowledge) simply say that it is a pagan festival which was for a while Christianised?
  • Did Coca Cola really invent Santa Claus? Should we stick with a more British ‘Father Christmas?’
  • What is the correct number of Christmas films to be shown per day during December? 15? Or is that substandard these days?
  • Will parents be allowed to take pictures at the Nativity this year?
  • Are we really going to have 30 days of snow and a White Christmas? Or will it just be early winter as usual?
  • Does any of this really matter? Wouldn’t we be better just not over-spending and over-eating this year?
  • And, finally, what does the story of ‘no room at the inn’ and the flight to Egypt have to say about our treatment of refugees today?

A little background: Christmas is not pagan, but it’s not really Christian either

Like probably everyone else, I was taught in junior school that Christmas was originally the pagan festival of the solstice, that the Christian version comes from the Roman Saturnalia, mixed in with the Old English Yule, and all the stuff about robins, Christmas trees, mistletoe, Father Christmas and so on is just paganism. In the mean time, I was taught in Sunday School that the true meaning of Christmas was the baby Jesus, and everything else was pure commercialism.

A few years ago, I decided to look into the matter and get a firm grip on what it all really was.

First, bad news for the neo-pagans, good news for the traditionalists: there was no Roman festival on 25 December, or, at least, none until one was invented centuries into the Christian era, and, even then, there’s no actual evidence it was ever celebrated. The Roman Saturnalia, which did involve giving presents (though lots of festivals across the year did as well) finished on the 23rd of December. The festival of Sol Invictus, which was on 25 December, is first attested in 354 AD1, in a Christian calendar. Not much is known about it, although the cult of Sol Invictus had been established in 274 AD by Aurelian. There was a rather more successful attempt to get the Christians and others to synchronise their dates with the introduction of Sunday as a day of shared worship between Christians and adherents of Sol Invictus2.

As for Yule, we don’t actually know much concrete about the Anglo-Saxon festival of Yule, except that what we call ‘December’ was known as ‘Before Yule’, Ærra Geola, while our January was ‘After Yule’, Æftera Geola. The first real reference (and it’s Norse, not Anglo-Saxon) we have to an exact date comes in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, in the Saga of Hakon the Good, who is credited with moving Yule to the 25th of December to coincide with the Christian Christmas. Whether you believe that it was Hakon who actually did this, it seems evident that Snorri is curating a memory of the change of date of Yule, and giving it a historical explanation (a fairly standard thing for Snorri to do).

It’s Victorian…

Second, good news for the traditionalists, bad news for the ‘Christ-only Christmas’ people: Christmas as we know it isn’t especially Christian either, nor is it especially old. Check the dates on most of the carols we sing, and you will see that they are generally 19th century. Some are older, and a very few, including O Come O Come Immanuel and Personent Hodie, are descendants of medieval hymns. Snow, robins, and songs putting the two together are Victorian. In fact, our endless fascination with a White Christmas largely comes from Victorian illustrations. The turkey (or goose), the stuffing, the trimmings and even the Christmas tree are all Victorian.

A word on Christmas trees. My wife, being Frisian, was taught in school that when Saint Boniface came to Frisia in 716, he chopped down a pagan sacred tree, declared that it was now a Christmas tree, and so began the whole Christmas tree thing. According to a more or less contemporary account, Boniface did indeed chop down a pagan sacred tree, but it was an oak, not a conifer, and no mention was ever made of Christmas trees. They were in fact brought to these shores by Prince Albert, and, as far as we can make out, were something protestant Christians started to use during the reformation, partly to identify their celebrations as distinct from Roman Catholic ones.

Third, the ‘Christian’ Christmas we celebrate is not all that close to the accounts given in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. As most people these days know, the ‘three kings’ weren’t kings, and they weren’t three. The Gospel account is that wise men from the East brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. At what point someone decided that three gifts = three givers, and expensive gifts = kings, is not known, but the carol ‘We three kings of orient are…’ has an awful lot more to do with popular conceptions than the original accounts do. Likewise, there’s no particular reason to believe that the birth of Christ, as described in the Gospels, was in the winter. Even if it was, this was Palestine, not North Yorkshire, and it would not have been ‘bleak’. Christina Rosetti’s wonderful carol ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ contains some lovely sentiment, and some rather good theology in the final verse, but earth would not have stood ‘hard as iron’ nor ‘water like a stone’. Snow, almost certainly, had not fallen ‘snow on snow’.

Our nativity plays make much of Joseph and Mary wandering round Bethlehem being turned away at each inn and finally giving birth in a stable. All the Gospels tell us is: “She [Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”3.

Christmas carols and nativity plays conjure up powerful images of what Christmas meant to the Victorians, and represent a strong imaginative response to ‘what it would have been like if Jesus had been born somewhere near Warwick in 1834’. The people in our nativity plays may have tea-towels round their heads, but what we have is a fundamentally British reimagining.

Not surprisingly, very few of our traditions are shared elsewhere, except in the USA. I was astonished, when I first lived in Belgium (though I am now astonished that I was astonished) to discover that almost nothing of what I thought was ‘traditional’ Christmas existed in the French or Dutch speaking worlds. People did sing carols, but they were largely different carols: Il est né le divine enfant, not Hark the Herald, or Ere Zij God, not Once in Royal David’s City. The festivities were early in December, for Sint Niklaas. Christmas celebrations were held on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. Turkey? No. Stockings? No. Father Christmas? Absolutely not. In fact, I once tried to arrange a bit of Christmas promotion by churches in the city of Ghent using Father Christmas. A number of people took me on one side and told me that this was not appropriate, though I think they were more worried about an Anglo-Saxon invasion than a pagan one.

A British Value?

Aside from queuing and not complaining in shops, Christmas probably qualifies for being one of the only genuinely British contributions to the world. British Christmas, that is: others have their own Christmases, which are quite different, and sometimes on different days. It’s now been amalgamated with American Christmas, which brings in Santa Claus instead of Father Christmas, reflecting Germanic input into that melting pot of nations. Coca Cola is widely credited with inventing the modern version, though all it really did was popularise one colour scheme. There are plenty of Victorian illustrations of Father Christmas aka Santa Claus in red, although he is sometimes seen wearing green and other colours.

British Christmas, though, is a very instructive cultural phenomenon for us to look at. Trees, decorations (frugally saved from year to year), lots of hot, fatty, plentiful and relatively inexpensive food, carol singing from door to door, giving of (originally) inexpensive gifts in bright wrapping, cards (a legacy of the rise of Royal Mail). Our Christmas is the very best of the Victorian age, frozen in time, and upgraded with ever more expensive gifts, dramatic light shows, and the inevitable email round-robin letters. Christmas was a good time to be ‘poor but happy’, though, as often as not, it has transmuted into a time to be substantially less poor, and significantly less happy. Retailers rely on us overspending at Christmas to balance their annual books. Many people will face a financial slump in January. Parents who, for whatever reason, are not able to spend lavishly, feel guilty and worried that they are not doing right by their children.

One piece of good news should allay these rather sombre thoughts. Contrary to popular opinion, suicide rates do not rise particularly at Christmas. On the other hand, Accident and Emergency departments are these days invariably overloaded, and that trend is getting worse, not better.

Time to celebrate Christmas like never before, to recover its original meaning, or to just let it go?

To read the papers (and the Facebook memes), it’s either time to celebrate the quintessentially British Christmas like never before, or else to strip it back to Jesus in the manger (with an indeterminate number of wise men who arrived long after the manger episode was over), or to abandon the whole thing.

Which should we do? Which can we do?

In one of its more infamous interludes, Birmingham City Council announced a few years ago that it was doing Winterval, rather than Christmas. This has been spun and respun by press officers and commentators so many times that many people believe it was an urban myth. However, I was living in Birmingham at the time, remember it well, and can confirm that this really did take place, and it really did cause an outcry — especially when it was put about that this was in order not to offend Muslims and Sikhs. I recall that a group of ethnic minority community leaders wrote to Birmingham CC to point out that they were not offended by Christmas at all, and to request that they were kept out of it. I followed the story for several weeks in the Birmingham Evening Mail (as it then was), the Birmingham Post and on the radio. I’m sure it got spun well above what it was ever meant to be, and Birmingham City Council later stated that it had never been meant to replace Christmas, but merely to brand all of the winter activities together. Nonetheless, the attempt did not go down well.

In a sort of parallel-universe version of this, I’ve been getting memes on Facebook for months now (literally, since September) asking me to ‘Share if you say ‘Merry Christmas’—Don’t give in to ‘Happy Holidays”. To the very best of my knowledge, no one in Britain has ever said to me ‘Happy Holidays’, nor have I ever been criticised for saying ‘Happy Christmas’, though I do remember a fight about corporate Christmas cards once, and what they should say. ‘Happy Holidays’ is an American phenomenon, and reflects the separation of church and state, rather than any take-over by leftists, atheists or people from non-Christian religious backgrounds.

The lesson of this, though, I think is that Christmas is here to stay. Even if the church abandoned it, John Lewis, Lidl, Aldi and the others would keep it going through their ever more elaborate advertisements. What Coca Cola understood years ago (and they are the ones with the ‘Holidays are Coming’ rather than ‘Christmas is coming’ advertisements) is that if you can associate your products with the festive season, the available profits are vast.

Should hard-line Christians, then, go on marches demanding that Christmas® is © Christ, and should no longer be used for any secular purpose? I’ve heard a lot about this from atheists, but relatively little from Christians themselves. Churches are generally madly busy organising carol services, carol singing, Sunday School parties, Christmas collections and street events to have any time to do any protesting. Of course, if anyone does want to have a bit of a rant, there’s usually airspace for them, simply because newspapers need controversy. “Christmas going to be great again, says Vicar,” is hardly going to make the front page.

There’s a rather good meme going around Facebook at the moment, though, sadly, it is barely more accurate than the run-of-mill memes you usually get. It’s about the irony of celebrating two Palestinian refugees trying to find shelter two-thousand years ago, while not doing anything about the refugees on our doorstep today.

It’s factually incorrect: Joseph and Mary weren’t refugees at the time, and, notwithstanding the carols and Nativity plays, there isn’t much about them finding shelter. However, Joseph, Mary and Jesus did go on to become refugees a couple of years later, when they fled to Egypt. The meme could do with a bit of refining, but the underlying premise is sound: it is ironic that we should be celebrating Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Humans while being unwilling to welcome in refugees who are shivering in Calais as winter closes in. This is really not a political point, unless we politicise it ourselves. Notwithstanding the posturings of Donald Trump and others on the American right, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about light in darkness, loving enemies, and undeserved forgiveness.

I love Christmas, and will celebrate it in many different ways this year. Christmas, though, is the beginning but not the end of the Christian hope. One reason why the origins of Christmas as a festival are a little bit obscure is because the early Christians put so much more emphasis on Good Friday and Easter. The baby in the manger is good will and great joy, but it is the man who gives his life for others, defeats death and returns that is the essential, core and unmistakeable centre of Christian belief.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. in the Chronology of Philocalus
  2.  Codex Justinianus 3.12.2
  3. Luke 2:7, New International Version

Good questions, weak answers? A review of the report on the commission on religion and belief in British public life

Living With Difference, the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, gives an excellent overview of the changing shape of faith in the UK, and asks some very pertinent questions. However, the answers it offers are, for the most part, neither particularly new nor particularly radical, and it is difficult to see how much difference they would actually make, if implemented.

These are my conclusions on the report.

I have to say, it’s an enjoyable read and I commend it to anyone who has an hour to spare and wants a nuanced view of the changes in Britain’s religious life and the questions that it throws up. In an area of debate famous for its tub-thumping, Baroness Butler-Sloss’s report consistently steers a middle path. However, in doing so, it fails to offer answers to the questions it asks, and instead provides answers to questions it did not ask.

The conclusions, which cover education, media, (inter-faith) dialogue, (social) action and law, have been at least partially covered in today’s press. Broadening the representation of faith groups in the House of Lords, abolishing the requirement to have an act of worship in schools, introducing a statutory entitlement (whatever that is) to a broad-based belief subject in schools, and in framing counter-terrorism legislation, government should seek to promote rather than limit freedom of enquiry, speech and expression.

However, the 37 recommendations, when taken together, fail to answer some of the key issues raised in the report itself. How do we balance the hierarchy of rights which, according to some contributors, puts religious freedom and conscience at the bottom and, according to others, puts it right at the top? How can religious groups be resourced to engage in all the dialogue that is now mandated on them, given that, by the report’s own admission, numbers and resources are shrinking? What practical steps can be taken in term’s of press literacy or religion (the 7 recommendations here do not really answer the question as the report poses it)?

More importantly—and ever-present between the lines, though rarely emerging into the open—what steps do you take to change societal attitudes as a whole, and what changes should there be?

It seems to me that this is the crunch question which the report introduces, underpins with good research and much dialogue, and then does nothing about.

Let me say that I am not really against any of the 37 recommendations. Abolishing a compulsory act of worship in schools and replacing it with something more inclusive is not going to radically change anything. I would welcome hearing Richard Dawkins occasionally on Thought for the Day. I don’t agree with the House of Lords, but, if we have to have it, having religious representatives from a broader background is, I think, a good thing. Offering non-religious chaplaincy in hospitals, prisons and higher education would seem very reasonable.

And yet, and yet: we could do all these things, and not come up with a society which was any more tolerant of religious difference, any more generally informed about its varying strands of belief, and any better at steering people away from radicalisation and extremism.

Radicalisation and extremism, are, of course, the hidden terms in the report. They are referred to sparsely in the text, though more frequently in the bibliography. On the one hand, we are aware that some people are being drawn into patterns of thought which make them amenable to taking violent action. On the other hand, it is evident that large numbers of people who have no association with extremism, no tendency toward violence and no support for radical groups are being treated by mainstream society with suspicion and even ill-will. The report does discuss the poor use of language in the media which can exacerbate this. But it proposes no suitable remedy, beyond broader awareness among journalists.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the report. It brings together a vast amount of research, gives fairly authoritative access to lots of surveys which are otherwise hard to track down, has clearly been carefully checked (and is therefore a much better place to start a discussion than most online resources) and has been written without even a sliver of axe being ground.

To some extent, I feel it would have been better as an interim report, without the recommendations. Opening up the House of Lords and Thought for the Day may seem radical to some, but for the vast majority of people in this country, they won’t make a great deal of difference. I wonder if, at some points, some very good ideas have been watered down.

 

To me, the most important recommendation, though it doesn’t go nearly far enough, is that of a

“statutory entitlement for all schools within the state system for a subject dealing with religious and non-religious worldviews. They should establish content and learning objectives that can be flexibly applied by teachers, allowing the minimum requirements to be built on differently by different schools. The content should be broad and inclusive in a way that reflects the diversity of religion and belief in the UK, and the subject should have the same status as other humanities subjects.”

I sense that somewhere in there are the remnants of a much bolder and directly applicable proposal.

Let me unpack that for a moment.

I’m a committed Christian, and I went to a notionally Christian secondary school, which also happened, at the time, to be the most academically successful in Britain. However, even as a committed Christian, I found Religious Studies to be deeply dull. It gave me no new insights about my own faith (for which I do not blame my teachers at all), and very little about anybody else’s. I did learn about Ur Naptishun, but I didn’t learn anything about Mohammed. I was entirely in the dark about the Pillars of Islam, about notions of Karma, and about the moral philosophy of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

This is in no way a criticism of my school or my teachers. Having discussed the issue with teachers and pupils over many years, my sense is that this is not particularly unusual. There have been a number of attempts to reform religious education since. However, based on my conversations with Religious Studies teachers over the last couple of years, I sense that the consensus is that they have not yet achieved what they need to.

As written, I’m not sure how much better the recommendation above would be. However, what I think it tries to say, or someone at some point tried to say through it, is that we should be guaranteeing every young person a level of religious literacy similar to their level of ability in English and History. I would personally go beyond that, and say that we should be guaranteeing young people religious and cultural literacy. (I am not using the word ‘culture’ here as a euphemism for ethnicity.)

It seems to me that in today’s world, all non-Muslims need to be given a sympathetic understanding of Islam: not only its theology, but also Islamic cultures, and how they respond to Islam in different ways. In terms of Christianity, I think everyone (and especially people who are from a Christian background, and therefore imagine that they understand it) needs to understand the inter-relation between Christianity and culture in the USA, in Russia, in South America, in sub-Saharn Africa, and in China. For people from a UK Christian background, it is far too easy to assume that Christian=British (while simultaneously mocking Americans for making the same mistake). The same should apply also to Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Judaism and various kinds of humanism.

The purpose in this should not be to study religion, thereby being an expert on it, but rather to be religiously literate in a society which requires us to navigate increasingly complex currents of thinking.

I understand why such an attempt is easy to water down. At opposite ends of the debate, there will be people who insist that Christianity is the dominant religion in Britain, and therefore should get the lion’s share of Religious Studies time, while at the other end there will be people who regard all religion as a form of delusion, and something which should therefore be banned from school premises.

The ultimate conclusion of the report — I think, if I may give my own summary of its summaries — is that Britain is no longer a ‘Christian’ nation (if it ever was, of course), but neither is it a secular nation. We need to develop our structural response to religion and public life in the light of that.

As a conclusion, it is hard to argue with. However, something firmer and further reaching than the report’s recommendations is required. More importantly, someone needs to have the task of taking action. Otherwise, like so many reports, it will fade like the proverbial morning mists.

For Christians: No, Islam is not the enemy

Christian Today, today, came up with this rather inflammatory headline: Christian thinkers accuse politicians, media of failing to name Islam as the real enemy behind terror attacks. It is mainly based on a blog by Ravi Zacharias which is perhaps somewhat more reflective and nuanced than the headline. Nonetheless, Christian Today would not have run the headline if it did not think that it would resonate among its readers.

I’ve seen the same thing, mainly from the USA where the notion ‘Christian=American’ is still strong, frequently on Facebook, and rather less from the UK, mainly because I’ve tended to unfriend the people who are happy to post Britain First memes which make a similar case.

It seems to me that there are two extremes of thought, neither of which does us much good. One is to say ‘all religions are the same, and are religions of peace, therefore it is not Islam’s fault’, and the other is to say ‘these people have one thing in common: they are Muslims, therefore Islam is the enemy’.

Leaving aside the Bible for a moment (if you are not a Christian, but have stumbled onto this article for whatever reason, this should give you some relief), it seems to me self-evident that all religions are not the same, and a desire for peace is not the universal goal of religion.

It is far too contentious to discuss Islam and Christianity at this point, so let’s look at something I know a little about: the AEsir. Norse religion, up to the early middle-ages, is well known to us from TV shows, Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, and, to a much lesser and less popular extent, from extant Old Norse texts, historical accounts and archaeological findings. As someone who has laboured away translating Skirnismal into English, let me try to simplify matters by saying that the Norse religion for which we have evidence was not a religion of peace, but one of war. More exactly, it was a religion in which only death in battle could assure a place in Valhalla (pronounced with a glottal stop for the double ‘l’, in case you wish to be seen as erudite at dinner parties), and where the principal aim of Odin (pronounced ‘O-th-in’, if you’re still worried about the dinner party) was to gather warriors for the final battle.

Religion as such is not intrinsically about peace.

Equally, it seems clear to me that believing the teachings of your religion to be ‘true’ in any worthwhile sense means that you believe that which contradicts them to be ‘untrue’. This would be uncontroversial if we were talking about whether there should be one or two spaces after a full stop (it’s one, actually), or whether the answer to 1 + 3 x 2 – 6 / 3 is 5, or some other number. As it’s religion, even whispering that you think someone else is wrong seems to be desperately illiberal, and rather marks you out as the person causing all the problems in the first place. Perhaps if we chose the words ‘accurate’ and ‘inaccurate’, it might make things a little easier.

Even so, this does not mean we have to fall out.

Disagreeing about whether Jesus is a saviour, a prophet, or an impostor, whether Abraham took Isaac or Ishmael or no one onto the holy mountain, and whether the extent of God’s revelation is the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, both of those and the Qu’ran, or nothing at all, does not require us to be enemies. In fact, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and others have managed to live peacefully in many different sets of circumstances over the last 1400 years. Some of those circumstances were intrinsically unjust, others were not.

When the early Christian missionary Paul arrived in Athens, the book of Acts in the New Testament retells that he was distressed because of its many idols. As a good Jew, brought up as a Pharisee and subsequently a convert to the new faith of Christianity (though not denying his Judaism), Paul was only doing what was culturally native to him by being distressed in this way. However, as Acts records, Paul’s response to this was not to declare a pogrom against idols, or even get up a petition. He went to the Areopagus, and addressed those there in these terms:

“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”

You can (if you like) cast doubt on whether this is really what Paul said in Athens, whether there really was a Paul, and, indeed, whether there really is an Athens, but in as much as the framework of Christian belief is set out in the New Testament, this is what it is.

Paul’s writing, by contemporary standards, is at times quite intemperate. However, his intemporacy is almost always directed at people who describe themselves as Christians but reject (in word or action) whatever it is that Paul was teaching at the time. Neither he nor any of the other New Testament writers ever call for Christians to make the pagans their enemies, to attack their temples, denounce their gods, or do anything else to engage in a war of religion. The notion of a religion as an enemy is fundamentally foreign to the New Testament, Christian perspective.

“Ah”, you might say, “but Paul and his friends did not have to suffer what we are suffering at the hands of Daesh (or ISIS)”.

This is where things really do get interesting.

Up until Constantine, and already in the time of Paul, there were frequent violent, and often fatal, attacks by pagans on Christians. Some of these are recorded in the book of Acts (again, cast doubt if you like), and many others recorded by the Romans themselves. Some had imperial backing, to the point of requiring all copies of the Bible to be destroyed, and the execution of believers. We have a relative luxury of writings from the period. Many questions were raised among theologians, and there were some quite bitter disputes, but these were mainly about the status of Christians who abandoned their faith under persecution and then wanted to return to it. At no point in the first centuries of Christianity did the prevailing mood of the church become ‘treat the pagans as enemies’.

Daesh is clearly causing an enormous amount of suffering in today’s world, but it is not different in kind from the persecutions the early Christians faced. They were not instructed to make other religions their enemies, nor, by and large, did they do so.

The New Testament records Jesus as saying (and Paul, later, as repeating) ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you’. In this sense, individual Muslims, Jews, atheists, or people who do not consider faith or lack of it to be particularly important in their lives, can be our enemies, and we can both love them, and pray for them. The notion of a religion such as Islam being an ‘enemy’, though, is foreign to the New Testament world view.

Let’s fast-forward this to the present day. The kind of people who post on Facebook and encourage me to ‘like and share’ (I don’t) that Islam is the enemy will say that I’m just playing with words here. Surely (they would argue) it is clear that it is Islam which is the unifying factor among our enemies, and that we are deluding ourselves if we do not call it out for being so.

Let me give three responses.

First, anyone claiming to be a Christian (everyone else can skip to the next paragraph) needs to recognise that to be Christian at all means abandoning the right to call other people ‘enemies’. ‘Love your enemies’ has the direct implication that, after a while of loving them, you no longer look on them as enemies. Elsewhere, Paul writes that Christians should do their best to live at peace with those around them, and Peter argues that if we’re going to be persecuted, it’s better to be persecuted for being a Christian than for another reason. Trying to describe Islam as ‘the enemy’ is trying to extend a concept when Jesus Christ is calling us to abandon it altogether.

Second, whether or not Islam is a religion of peace (and, as a non-Muslim, I cannot possibly see how I could be qualified to have an opinion on the subject, and I feel other non-Muslims should exercise the same circumspection), it is clear that the vast majority of Muslims in North Africa, the Near East, the Middle East, South East Asia, former Soviet Central Asia, in the UK and across the rest of the world do not support Daesh or sympathise with them. Even the Sun’s ragged piece of journalism which claimed (in contradiction to the results of the survey) that 1/5 Muslims sympathised with jihadis, would have meant that 4/5 had no sympathy with them (leaving aside the fact that ‘jihad’ doesn’t mean ‘waging war’ but rather ‘exertion’, and is more commonly found in giving to the poor than in fighting battles).

Third, even from an entirely secular point of view, we are slipping back into bad, twentieth century, habits, if we try to identify an ideology and demonise it. “First there was Nazism. Then there was Communism. Now there is Islam.” The rhetoric is easy, but the conclusions are false.

Nazism was a genuinely evil ideology, linked at its roots with the exaltation of the selfishness of one group of people at the expense of the lives of other groups. Very few ideologies in the whole of history have ever been so vile, which is perhaps one reason why it endured for less than a generation. Nazism was not merely a vicious ideology. It was an aggressive one, and we fought a war against it, at great cost. The Nazis genuinely were the enemy.

Soviet Communism was totalitarian, imposed using many of the techniques of Nazism (though also using many techniques invented among the ‘Christian’ Tsars), and existed in a long period of cold enmity towards the West. The ‘continuous revolution’ of Soviet Communism genuinely was a threat to the West, and the language (and equipment) of the Cold War meant that the notion of the Soviet Union as ‘the enemy’ was not too far fetched. However, as the McCarthy witch-hunt trials showed, making communism (and, by extension, any form of socialism, and by extension to that, any disquiet with American capitalism) the enemy resulted in a great deal of injustice which reduced the freedom of Western Society. In making communism the enemy, we became more like the enemy.

We have got used to the idea of having an ideological enemy. With Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia gone, and communist China one of our biggest trading partners, it is all too easy to look around and see Islam as the next big enemy. To do so is sloppy thinking, flies in the face of history, and demonises hundreds of millions of people who have never done us harm, nor wished it.

When war is contemplated, it is usual to attempt to co-opt every part of society into supporting it. Western rulers have all too frequently put crosses on their shields, flags or tanks and tried to claim that ‘x is the enemy of Christianity’.

The truth is that Christianity is a faith entirely based on the notion of forgiveness, of loving one’s enemies, of seeking reconciliation. Co-opting it for war does violence to the faith itself. This is far from saying that Christians should be pacifists. There may come a time when many Christians conclude, from a reasonable perspective based on the New Testament faith, that it is their duty to go to war. But not a war which is ‘Christianity versus Islam’ or ‘Christianity versus Communism’.

If we do go to war in Syria, let it be because it has a realistic, strategic goal of saving lives and putting to an end an injustice which should and must be stopped. As Christians, let us resist to the end all notions of Islam as the enemy, and a war between two faiths. The symbol of the cross—if it is to be co-opted at all—belongs on medicines and food parcels, not on warplanes and munitions.

 

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