Saturday 12 December 2015

Sorting the sheep from the goats

Until relatively recently most Christians in Europe thought that their beliefs could be imposed on others. There were religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in order to do this. At times the law said I had to practice Christianity in this way, at times it said I had to practice it in that way. There were fanatics who were willing to burn at the stake someone who disagreed with them over matters which today seem trivial. What does it really matter if there are bishops or if there are not? What does it matter how you interpret a clause in the Nicene Creed, given that the whole matter is impossible to determine one way or another?

Imagine if there were in the world, once more, Christian fanatics, who wished to impose their religious views on other people. Imagine if they described ordinary Christians like me as being apostates for failing to live up to the true ideals of Christianity. Imagine if they wanted to rule Britain such that everyone had to follow their way of living a Christian life and wished to persecute those they disagreed with. They might, for instance, argue that homosexuals had to be punished. They might consider that adultery should lead to prison or worse. They might think that women should be condemned for dressing immodestly or not having their head covered in church. This is not so very far-fetched. The vast majority of Christians thought like this only a few centuries ago. Most Christians until very recently favoured some form of theocracy. They thought that everyone should more or less be compelled to go to church and that the law should reflect their interpretation of Christianity and this should be imposed on everybody.  

How would I as a Christian respond to such people if they existed today? I would respond in exactly the same way as I respond to the existence of Christian fanatics in the past. I would say that they have misunderstood the Gospels. The Christian Kingdom is not of this world. To try to impose it is simply to misunderstand it. Christianity is not a religion of law. Christ came to this world to break the law. He did so frequently and for this reason he was killed. Christian faith is a matter of choice. It has nothing to do with numbers. It matters not one little bit if only one person believes the truth. Truth, after all, is not democratic.

But imagine if somewhere in the world today there were a country that had a medieval, fanatical view of Christianity. Imagine if that country wished to expand and spread its version of Christianity. Imagine if it were called the Christian State. How would I as a Christian respond?

If this Christian State were willing to remain within its own borders, if it were no threat whatsoever to my way of life, or the life of my friends and allies, I might be inclined to leave it alone. But what if the Christian State used its fanatical version of Christianity in order to take over other countries? What if it used this form of Christianity to do great evil both in its own country and elsewhere? What if it encouraged moderate Christians all around the world to be fanatics? What would I do then?

Imagine if virtually every terrorist act around the world was done in the name of Christianity by people who thought of themselves as Christian to the highest degree possible. Would I as a Christian say that this has nothing to do with Christianity? No, for that would be to deny that a problem exists and that this problem concerns me? If Christianity is not about truth, then what is it about? Instead of living in denial I would instead use Christianity as my weapon of choice to attack those who misrepresent the Gospels. But above all else I would no more deny that these fanatics were Christians than I would deny Tomás de Torquemada was a Christian or that Rodrigo Borgia was a Pope.

How would I respond to this Christian State that exported terrorism.  I would firstly recognise that the Christian State was Christian. I would not try to come up with ways of disguising this fact, because I would recognise that facing up to facts no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable was the only way to address the problem.  To deny that the Christian State was Christian would mean that I would logically have to deny that Spain, or Britain or France had been Christian during the Middle Ages when they too at times had behaved in barbarous ways. Only by understanding that the Christian State is Christian, could I point out that it is a version of Christianity that I despise. How can I persuade a Christian that he has misunderstood the Gospels if I deny that he is a Christian?

How would I respond if a certain proportion of Christians living in the UK were fanatics who wanted the Christian State to succeed in bringing theocracy to Britain?  Well obviously I would try to find out who they were, I would then try to persuade them of their error and convince, or even compel, them to cease. I would do this precisely because I am a Christian.

What if things became so bad in the Christian State that millions of people living there wanted to escape? I would naturally be concerned for their welfare. I would try to help, but I would also be very careful. The conditions that gave rise to the Christian State were that the people living there were at an historical stage which led to Christian fanaticism. After all, we burned heretics in Britain because that was how people in Britain thought at that point in history.  They thought burning was the correct response to heresy. It took centuries of historical development before we learned not to think in this way. Well imagine if there were a Christian State today where there was burning of heretics. What if millions of people wanted to escape that Christian State and live here? Should we let them all come? This is our problem however. We know that some people in the Christian State support fanaticism.  No doubt most do not, but some do. The people of the Christian State, in general, would be at an historical stage which still saw burning at the stake and theocracy as the way to respond to differences of opinion on religious matters. After all, those Protestants who fled persecution during the reign of Mary Tudor, thought it correct to burn Catholics in response during the reign of Elizabeth the First. It was the intolerance of people in general whether Catholic or Protestant that placed the wood around the stake. 

It would therefore be the historical stage of the people as a whole that gave rise to the Christian State.  It wouldn't just happen accidently. But then how are we supposed to tell who is the fanatic and who is not? What if five or perhaps even ten percent were fanatics and we allowed one million refugees from the Christian State to come here? Would that make our country safer or more dangerous? I think we would quite rightly, very carefully, scrutinise everyone who wanted to come and for our own safety we would set strict limits, even though we felt compassion and also wanted to help. The Christian State would be desperate to export its fanatical version of Christianity around the world. Above all, we would not want to help them to do this.  

If the Christian State became a threat to the way of life of people of all faiths living in Britain how would I respond? Would I decide that it was wrong to fight against other Christians? Well we have in the past been more than willing to fight against other Christians. Germany, after all, was a Christian country and we fought a world war against them twice in one century. If an ideology is wrong or if it does great evil, it matters not one little bit to me that the people who follow that ideology are Christians. What if it became necessary for Britain and other countries to fight the Christian State? This might happen because people were carrying out acts of Christian terrorism in the name of Christianity. If that were to happen I wouldn't try to hide behind words like "militant", nor would I turn Christian into "Christianism" as if that in any way changed either the meaning or the reality. It might also be necessary to fight if ever more Christians in Britain were travelling to the Christian State in order to learn how to kill and maim. Would I as a Christian oppose such military action? No of course not. I would be grateful that something was being done against these fanatics who had so misunderstood the Gospels.

My fight would not, of course, be against ordinary Christians who follow Christianity in the way that I think it ought to be followed. I believe Christianity is a religion of peace, but what to do about those Christians who disagree? What to do about those Christians who think Christianity is about fanaticism, terrorism, intolerance and theocracy. Against those Christians I would fight.  I would not be fighting against Christianity as it ought to be understood. If that were the case I would be fighting against myself.  I would rather be making a clear distinction between the sheep and the goats. In this way I would be very clear with my fellow Christians, that theocracy, persecution and terrorism were wrong. Fanaticism and intolerance puts you amongst the goats. If that’s what you want, then you are my enemy.  I would want to fight against you and your kind everywhere in the name of Christianity. What's more I would do so precisely because I am a Christian.