I find it difficult to be a Christian in the 21st century. Congratulations if you made it to this second sentence, since I assume a lot of people will have turned off the minute I suggested I might have a faith. But I do – on my mother’s side I come from a long line of church-goers and it’s a tradition I aim to continue, even if I have other family members who don’t share my beliefs. (I’d argue that a lot of Christians don’t share my beliefs, since I’m very much at the liberal end of the spectrum, but we’ll probably get to that.)
I’m usually very open about my religion, so all of my friends have pretty much always known. But despite the fact that I’ve told plenty of people about the volunteering I do for The Salvation Army, I haven’t mentioned to anyone at work that it also happens to be my church. I still don’t really know why, but I think it’s because I’m not completely settled in this job anyway and the last thing I need is everyone assuming I’m some kind of creationist lunatic.
Sad as it may be, that is generally the assumption of most people when they hear the word “Christian”. The Church – and I use that term in both its institutional and congregational senses – comes in for a huge amount of criticism in the press. Often this is because particularly conservative voices have raised objections to what I consider to be fundamental principles of human progress. Increasingly, it’s because some Christian somewhere has dared to voice an opinion on something that happened, rightly or wrongly, and immediately been shouted down because “religion shouldn’t be crossed with politics” or anything else.
With this kind of press coverage, I’ve always felt that the population outside of the Church is given a less than representative picture of what goes on within it, which is why so many people assume that all Christians are fundamentalists. And this casts a particularly interesting light on the controversy sparked by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Lord Williams of Oystermouth, as he is now known, gave a contentious speech at the Edinburgh Literary Festival recently in which he argued that Christians in the West, accused of complaining that they are facing persecution, are being a little melodramatic.
“Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. ‘For goodness sake, grow up,’ I want to say,” he explained, adding that the sense of “being made fun of” which affects Western Christians is nothing compared to the real suffering being felt by believers elsewhere.
A Coalition for Marriage poll earlier this year found that 67% of respondents felt that Christians were a “persecuted minority”. That statistic is being bandied around a lot in relation to the current story, although I haven’t yet seen anyone point out that the people voting in a poll for an anti-gay marriage coalition are more likely to be hyper-conservative anyway. But it does concern me that there seem to be a lot of people who hold that opinion.
I’m not alone in feeling that twinge of discomfort when I talk about my faith, and often it leads to some very lively and interesting discussions. But I certainly couldn’t begin to say I felt persecuted.
I may not be Church of England in background, but I belong to a broader faith which is represented by 12 Lords Spiritual in my country’s highest legislative body. They are there by right, while other religious representatives are fewer in number and put there by appointment. Incidentally, this is despite the fact that they are all male, because the office they hold is still barred to women. I live in a society where despite the fact that church numbers are supposedly falling, there are plenty of people calling themselves “Christian” on the census whether they hold a faith or not. Most importantly, I do not live in a society where I am forced to worship in secret, live in a state of terror, and never talk about how my faith shapes my opinions.
Let’s stay on that last point for a moment. Christians are free to voice their opinions. I’d go further and argue that it’s actually a duty to speak out. After all, the word “prophet” comes from “one who speaks”. Biblical prophets were the people who spoke God’s will to the people – and it’s an important opportunity to open a dialogue about Christian teaching. Critics who insist that Christians should stop commenting on public affairs simply don’t understand Christianity.
Of these Christians some will be right, some will be wrong, and some will be deeply objectionable – just like plenty of other societal groups – and any believer who sticks their neck above the parapet must be prepared for the debate that follows. They will be criticised. That’s not persecution: that’s the nature of the beast.
Speaking of deeply objectionable, take another of the instances in which I see Christians getting bad press – when people with whom I disagree intensely, such as anti-gay marriage activists, do pretty much anything informed by such opinions. They tend to be railing against societal shifts which will, in the name of equality and freedom, inevitably take away some of the advantages that certain Christians have historically enjoyed. For example, when I was a student I was in a church service where the preacher said that he had heard news of “Christians being persecuted”. He was referring to an incident in which a Christian couple had lost their appeal after being castigated in the courts for refusing to allow a gay couple to share a bed in their B&B. That’s not being persecuted: that’s proving that not even Christians are allowed to be intolerant.
I can’t help but think that, in these situations, the views being expounded are not unpopular because they are Christian views, nor should this serve to put other people of faith off voicing their opinion. These attitudes are unpopular because they’re unpopular, plain and simple, and atheists would get exactly the same reception. The only difference is that by claiming God backs up your socially conditioned prejudices, you give the rest of us a bad name and make our lives much harder.
Much of the debate over “persecution” in the West boils down to similar principles. A lot of conservative Christians, who have held a place of honour in the Western hegemony ever since the Emperor Constantine converted, are so used to their position of privilege that they take it for granted. When society shifts so that those privileges start to look incongruous with the modern world, conservatives freak out. To an extent, that’s understandable, but there does come a point where reality has to kick in.
I was taken in by the Catholic Herald’s coverage of the issue. In a blog post for the publication Father Alexander Lucie-Smith says that while it is true that Christians in Sudan suffer more than those in Britain, for example, “You ought not to justify being rude to your wife, because the man next door beats his wife black and blue”. He also points out that the UK’s history is built on religious division and claims that Lord Williams must be careful not to stir further tension (he omits the fact that Catholics did a fair bit of the persecuting, although of course very few groups were blameless).
“It is really not helpful if Lord Williams’ words are taken to mean that complaints of religious discrimination in this country are largely groundless,” he adds. In that he’s right, but there is a difference between discrimination and persecution. Where there is evidence of genuine discrimination – cases of Christian staff forbidden from wearing crosses, for example, when it is clear that members of other religious groups are allowed to wear symbols of their faith – they must be pointed out and taken seriously. But in this context, Christians need to see themselves as one of many different groups instead of being some kind of sacred cow (if you’ll excuse a metaphor from another faith).
And in the end, I think readjusting to a new world order where they no longer have such privileges will be good for Christians in the West. As Bryony Clarke points out in The Independent, the Church was born in the context of hardship, suffering and victimisation. Interestingly, some of the periods when Christianity has grown quickest have been times of persecution. It’s a faith founded on the notion of the suffering servant – and I’m sure Jesus said something about taking up a cross if you’re going to follow Him. If you ask me (and you might not), it will be a good opportunity for us to reconnect with the roots of our faith.