Carey, culture wars and the quest for civility

Christians are vilified in the UK, they are subject to hounding and persecution. They are targeted by aggressive campaigners. At least this is how former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey sees things.

There’s just a small problem with this, in fact, three. Firstly it’s simply not true, Christians in the UK are not persecuted. They do not risk their lives to worship, they are not imprisoned for converting and they are not banning from preaching. And to suggest as much leads to the second problem: it minimises and trivialises the very real suffering that Christians in places such as Iran, Nigeria and North Korea experience.

Those two should be reason enough to ward Christians off from using such intemperate language. But there is a bigger and harder to define problem, talking and writing in this way ostracises Christians from the world around them. It erects barriers and it defines the relationship between church and society as one based on conflict rather than reconciliation. It fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather than attempting to build one more akin to the ‘I-thou’ spoke of by Martin Buber.

It is planting the seeds and nurturing the saplings of a culture war. And it’s not like we don’t know where this leads. It leads to law suits and protests, and ad campaigns and vitriolic journalistic exposes. Maybe we’re a lot closer to this than we thought.

The adverts planned and then banned from Christian organisations mimicking and opposing those plastered on buses across London by gay rights group Stonewall are the latest volley in this escalating environment. I doubt it was planned this way, but if they expected them to be vetoed then the whole thing is straight out of the culture war play book: do something, it gets banned, then sue for the right to do it.

I think the actions of some Christians do the credibility of Christian public witness a great deal of harm. Sometimes the retort is that Christians should be expected to be ridiculed and marginalised, and that we are called to not be ashamed of the gospel. And we will and we are. I’m just not sure that it’s always the gospel that is being paraded so publicly and unashamedly, and for which we are being ridiculed.

There will always be an element of friction between the Church and its surrounding culture. I believe that there are aspects of the world around us about which Church is to have a role in standing for truth and righteousness: a signal to how things should be and how they one day will be. And sometimes this means that the church will have controversial things to say. Sometimes these things will be completely contrary to the dominant view in society.

I don’t think it’s easy to speculate as to what Jesus might have plastered on the side of a fishing boat as it crossed the Sea of Galilee. I don’t think he’d have ran the ads proposed this week, but nor do I think he’d have run ads calling on people to feed the hungry. The thing about Jesus was that he was a man of action, he fed the hungry, he healed the sick; people followed him because his words and actions came together. He engaged them in conversation and eschewed megaphone politics.

There are two outcomes to the bus ad farce, for many people it has perpetuated the idea that Christians don’t like gay people (which should not be true). And for some Christians it has reinforced their notion that they are being discriminated against (which in the UK is rarely true). Stuff like this just doesn’t work, it exacerbates the problem.

The words and actions of Christians complaining of persecution are not representative of the church in the UK, but they are powerful. They feed into a mindset that recognises martyrdom as an affirmation of authentic belief, so when Christians are being oppressed it is a sign that we are doing something right. This means that for those purporting to stand up for Christians there is a groove already set of what this looks like in practise. And unfortunately dog whistle campaigning works.

Because while I feel better placed to critique the actions of Christians they are far from the only ones culpable of inculcating this culture war. For Christians who hold to a orthodox Christian understanding of sexuality, where sexual relationships should only take place within the context of marriage between a man and a woman, it is easy to view much of the world around them as hostile to their beliefs. While I do not consider such sexual ethics as central to the gospel, it is a part of my belief system. And I chose to live, or at least I try to live, in a way that honours God and this means that I and other Christians act in a way that is sometimes at odds with the world around them. It is becoming increasingly difficult to publicly defend and promote such views without being branded as intolerant and homophobic. So while Christians are not persecuted, there is a pressure placed on them to conform to views other than those rooted in their faith.

I do not seek to, in many cases I cannot, justify the way in which Christians have sometimes promoted and defended their views on sexuality. But I think it is vital in order to develop a society that is civil and tolerant of difference that Christians are able to say things that are unpopular.

Now whether they should do so, and certainly how they do so, is a different matter, I don’t think the kingdom of god is advanced by the proposed bus adverts. I think God sent his son to earth to bring reconciliation, the crowds wanted him at the head of a revolution, but he let himself be taken and killed for the rebellion of the rest of us. He died so the curtain could be torn, we shouldn’t be trying to brick up the hole sheered by his death.

The church needs to lead the way in finding a better way to cope with our differences. I believe there is a way and I believe in Jesus we have both the way to reconciliation and the model for that reconciliation.