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Sabbatical, Day 75: Re-Imagining Persecution; Funeral Music

Two different blog posts today show how two different communities wrongly thought they were victims of persecution. Firstly, Michael Spencer shows convincingly that evangelicals were not killed for their faith by the two teenage gunmen at Columbine. Nor was it about video game nasties, atheism or the occult. The information has been seeping out for years, he says, but a major piece in USA Today has put it all together. Yet because many of the victims were related to local churches, a quick assumption was made. A mythology grew up, books were published, songs were recorded.

Secondly, there has been outrage in recent days over the removal of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books from Amazon’s best-seller list. Search for #amazonfail on Twitter and you’ll find thousands of upset tweeters. But today comes the news that it wasn’t the consequence of anti-gay policies. It was a technological error. Clay Shirky, himself strongly in favour of gay rights, reports the truth in detail.

Here, then, is an issue where the evangelical community and the gay community (if both are truly communities, but that’s another issue) have something in common. Both have reasons for presupposing that opposition is persecution. Evangelicals are fuelled by church history and parts of the Bible; gay people have very recent history that predisposes them to the assumption.

To speak personally about this, I remember a few weeks after the Columbine shootings seeing a report on BBC television’s Newsnight which cast doubt on the martyrdom theory. At the time, I just assumed it was simply the BBC’s liberal bias against conservative Christians and dismissed it. I found the testimony of Cassie Bernall‘s family to her faith as a reason for her killing as more persuasive. I am not remotely suggesting they were insincere or dishonest at all, but now it seems I have to admit the BBC was right. They were modelling good reporting rather than showing bias. 

Isn’t it true, though, that Christians – even in the West – are facing more opposition? Yes, it is, and I have argued frequently that our best posture for shaping our witness today is that of exile. It is a view eloquently given biblical and historical precedent in Patrick Whitworth‘s book ‘Prepare for Exile‘. However, there is a vast difference between that posture and that adopted by the wider Christian community in the wake of Columbine. Exile requires humility. It embraces the fact of being a minority in a ‘Babylonian’ culture. In contrast, according to Spencer, American evangelicals interpreted Columbine as part of the disastrous ‘culture war’. That meant taking a stance from a position of power, not of weakness. Ordinary people in society often have little sympathy for those in power.

And power seems to have been one of the mistakes in the pro-gay protests against the Amazon error, according to Shirky. Amazon is now seen as a large corporation and thus not worthy of sympathy. 

Of course, it’s ironic to suggest evangelical Christians and gay people are or have been in similar positions. There is mutual suspicion, if not worse, between the groups, although Tony Blair thinks that situation is softening with younger evangelicals. It may even be the traditional Christian position on sexuality that helps send the church into exile, given recent trends in legislation. I’m thinking about laws that prevent discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and the way they have affected organisations such as Catholic adoption agencies. Not that all Christians are agreed on this matter, as we know so painfully. I still hold the traditional conviction, much as I would sometimes like to believe differently, because it would ease my tensions with today’s society. However, quite a few friends who read this blog disagree with me. That is just a microcosm of the bigger picture. 

What, then, if there is opposition? One thing’s for sure: a ‘culture war’ power play is just not the way to react. Whitworth suggests new attitudes, spirituality and approaches to mission in his book that I cited above. With regard to attitudes, he cites the Beatitudes and Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon as decisive for Christians. That means humility, the acceptance of persecution and a willingness to hunker down for the long haul (contrary to certain prophecies of revival, I wonder?).

Might we have a more Christlike witness if we took this approach?

…………

Co-Operative Funeralcare have done another survey on popular music and hymn choices at  – er, funerals. Church Mouse has the chart rundowns and some commentary. This would be the excuse opportunity for me to re-run my favourite funeral music story.

About ten years ago, a woman asked to have Celine Dion’s (hideous) ‘My heart will go on’ played as we brought her mother’s coffin into the crematorium chapel. When the undertaker, pallbearers and I were ready outside the chapel doors, I gave the nod to the crematorium attendant.

The music began. It was Celine Dion. It was ‘My heart will go on.’ Only trouble was, it was the dance remix.

As drums thumped all over the melodramatic Canadian warbling, one pallbearer looked at me and said, “Do we have to take the coffin in at that tempo?”

“No,” said another, “It’s the deceased knocking, wanting to get out!”

How I remained calm and dignified to take the service, I’ll never know. It was all I could do to suppress laughter.

The next day the bereaved woman kindly phoned me to thank me for the service. I thought I ought to raise the issue of the music delicately. “Did you notice it wasn’t the normal version of the song but the dance remix?”

“No.”

“I just thought I ought to mention it in case anybody was upset by what happened.”

“Oh no,” she said, “it wasn’t a problem. Besides, my mum was a bit of a goer, and she’d have loved it!”

Sabbatical, Day 6

I haven’t really done any sabbatical work today. Friday is usually my day off, and I’ve kept it much like that. I think it’s good to keep the rhythm. So after taking the children to school, I stayed on, because on Friday mornings I do twenty minutes’ reading with a group of Year 1 children.

Late morning, Debbie and I headed into town. We needed some more bargain school uniform for the monkeys and struck gold at Marks and Spencer. Yes, really. Then we continued our recent habit of having a cheap lunch out together. Yates’s Wine Lodge (why do they put that extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe?) had a two-for-£7.95 deal, and it was good for the price. The downside was the company at the next table. Two young women with a pre-school boy. One was his mother, poor lad. All sorts of unsavoury conversation that youngsters shouldn’t hear. Debbie swears one of them got him to drink a mouthful of her shot. Some kids don’t have a chance.

Meanwhile, I have been following all week the case of Caroline Petrie, the Christian nurse who was suspended for offering to pray with a patient. She offered prayer, the patient declined, Mrs Petrie did not pray. The patient was not offended, but told someone else she thought it was strange. Next thing, Mrs Petrie is under investigation. She has previously been disciplined for offering prayer cards. The Daily Mail reported this on Monday,as did the Daily Telegraph. On Tuesday, the Mail reported support for her case from the Royal College of Nursing and the Christian Medical Fellowship. Today, the Mail reports her reinstatement, but – along with the Telegraph – also quotes a further potentially sinister development. The Department of Health published a document last month in which it warned that doctors or nurses who attempted to preach to patients or other staff would be treated as having committed harassment or intimidation under disciplinary procedures.

Furthermore, I have received a press release today from the Evangelical Alliance in which Hazel Blears, the Government’s Communities Secretary, told faith groups that if they accept money from the state, they must not use it to proselytise. They may speak about their faith if spoken to, she says, but clearly taking the initiative to mention it would be forbidden under a forthcoming ‘charter of excellence’. She then says she doesn’t want to strip away the very reason why faith groups show compassion! The Alliance’s Director of Public Policy, R David Muir, responded:

“The Government wants the social action and welfare that faith groups provide, but there is a danger that they also want faith groups to leave their beliefs at the door.

“Our faith is what equips us as Christians to provide support and compassion to those who are spiritually and emotionally damaged by debt.

“But we are glad that the Government recognises how integral our faith is to the services we provide, and is open to discussion on this critical issue. We look forward to working with them.”

All round, then, seem to be threats against Christians making the first move in sharing their faith and using it to offer comfort and hope to people. Here are a few random reflections:

1. None of this should surprise us. Whatever the faith of Blair first and now Brown, the Labour Party runs these days on a fundamentally secular humanist creed. Let’s here none of that ‘the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism’ mantra. It may have been true in the past. It isn’t today. Christians should expect such opposition.

2. Nevertheless, none of that should stop us crying ‘foul’. All these cases are about discrimination against the freedom of religion the Government supposedly signed up to when it ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. And while part of me is wary of the secular philosophies behind that document, the Government clearly doesn’t want to accept that sauce for the goose is a tasty accompaniment for the gander as well.

3. We also need to reflect upon ourselves. How much of this might we have brought upon ourselves through insensitive ‘witnessing’? Please note, I’m not saying Mrs Petrie was. I don’t know her, and the fact that she didn’t press on with a prayer for her elderly patient when the offer was declined suggests that while she is upfront with her faith, she is probably not the aggressive sort. Nevertheless, most of us know Christians whose demeanour in faith-sharing makes us cringe, let alone what the non-Christians feel.

4. However, an attempt to prevent us from taking the initiative is effectively a tactic to shut us up. I believe we have to earn the right to speak by loving, holy, just action, but that does not mean we cannot speak first or simultaneously as well.

5. The ‘public money’ argument is specious. It’s not Government money, it’s taxpayers’ money. And while we elect officials to use it, they are stewards, not owners. Do they think Christians should not pay their taxes? This kind of argument amounts to an attempt to strip us of our democratic voice.

6. There is a huge case of historical amnesia here. As today’s Mail article rightly points out, many of our hospitals were explicitly Christian foundations in their origin. In the church we would want to say more than that, in crediting the rise of the infirmaries and more recently the hospices to Christian vision. So to tell a nurse her faith must come second forgets the origin of much health care in this country.

7. Furthermore, no Christian can put her faith second. I am fond of telling the story of an elderly Local Preacher from my home circuit. He was interviewed for the post of Secretary to the local Co-Operative Society. “Where will you put the Co-Op in your loyalties?” the panel asked him. “Second,” he replied, “to the church of Jesus Christ.” I don’t think he meant that all his time would be spent at church, I think he meant that his faith would determine his life. He got the job, and did it well.

8. Nevertheless, putting our faith second puts us under suspicion in society. There is huge historical precedent for this. It’s what Daniel did, praying towards Jerusalem while serving faithfully in Babylon. It’s the centuries-long suspicion of Catholic loyalty to the Vatican. In the name of what is currently calle ‘community cohesion’, authorities call people together to a common loyalty that is effectively a secular creed. Hence other phenomena in our society today, such as the opposition to faith schools, or the legislation that has made it increasingly difficult to have organisations that are exclusively staffed by Christians. Do we cave in? The biblical answer seems to me to be ‘no’. However, that means accepting the consequences. We’re not remotely near the situation Christians found themselves in when communism ruled eastern Europe, but there it was well known that people of faith would not get on well with their careers and would suffer economically for their beliefs. Might we be seeing the thinnest end of that wedge here, or is that alarmist?

I think that’s enough from me. What are your thoughts?

Carol Service Address: Who Is Christmas For?

Luke 2:1-20

Poverty
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.

Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.

In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?

I think it does.

Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers.  Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.

However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.

Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.

And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.

What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.

The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.

So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.

Exclusion
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.

But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.

But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.

Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.

We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.

Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.

Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.

And …
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).

Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.

Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?

I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.

Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!

The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.

Why? Because politicians can’t deliver peace on earth. Augustus couldn’t. Obama won’t. It will be just as The Who sang, ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’

Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.

What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.

The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.

May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.