“… Upon this charge, cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!” (Henry V)
For centuries England has been a Christian nation. By that I mean that our Kings & Queens have been Christians, the state church has been Christian and our government has privileged the Christian religion. Whether England ever was a truly Christian nation (beyond mere nominalism) is doubtful, but it certainly isn’t anymore.
Therefore it was interesting to feel what it is like to live as a Christian in a non-Christian country. There are strong nationalistic drives to equate being Indian with being Hindu and similarly being Buddhist is seen to be synonymous with being Sri Lankan, well Sinhala really. So I took careful note and asked many questions about what it is like to live as a Christian minority within such environments. Both countries claim freedom of religious expression but there are many ways that society and government can marginalise minorities if they so choose.
There is so much we can learn from these South Asian Christians who have been living under these conditions for many years. Here in the UK we take the privileged status of the church for granted. Such political power is fading fast, if it hasn’t gone already. We must stop bleating and whining about privileges that are being removed from us (which other religions never had in the first place) and learn to live as a faithful minority within a pluralistic society.
What I saw in India and Sri Lanka was a very healthy view of society and human government. There was respect and support. For example I took part in a Christian celebration of Independence Day in India. These Christians were very proud of their country and keen to live as responsible citizens with their nation. However, they were not impressed by political power, nor afraid of it. In Hikkaduwa the church was rather phlegmatic about future attacks – ‘if they set our church on fire again, let them, we will carry on the same, regardless.’
Three Biblical passages are worth reflecting upon:
1. Romans 13: 1-7
Human governments are a gift from God to society. They restrain evil and Christians should seek to be responsible citizens, paying their taxes even. Therefore churches should adopt the same attitude. The local council is for our good, we should want to support them in managing our borough well. Christians do not withdraw from society, we get stuck in!
2. John 3: 16 (John’s gospel in general)
The word translated ‘world’ in John’s gospel does not refer to the physical planet on which we all live. Instead it is the summation of human society and civilisation which is opposed to God. It is impossible to read John’s gospel without realising both how much God loves the world, but also that the default position of the world is against God. Therefore a truly Christian view of society is that it needs redeeming by Jesus. If all Christians do is make society better and more efficient, then we merely succeed in making it better at rejecting God.
3. Revelation 13: 1-10
In John’s apocalyptic vision he views human government as seeking to usurp God as the rightful ruler of the world. Sometimes, as I saw in Sri Lanka and India, human opposition to God overflows into the direct persecution of God’s people. When that happens Christians are called to stand up against the evil state but to do so without violence. “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity they will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword they will be killed.” Currently the press is full of articles trying to understand the worldview that produces terrorists for Islamic State. Most conclude that the problem happens when people become alienated from society. However, Christians are also called to be citizens of heaven – we too do not feel at home in this world. BUT the huge difference is that Jesus calls us to non-violent means. We do not force anyone to accept our worldview, rather we accept that holding to our beliefs may mean our captivity or worse.
Putting those three passages together we need to rethink our identity as Christians in London today. While there are obviously aspects to the analogy that I want to avoid I like the famous slogan of Millwall FC from the 1970s – “No one likes us. We don’t care.” I reject the violence that led to that image in the first place. (Mostly no one liked them because they were hooligans.) But I do like the strong sense of a minority identity that they created. If I can stretch the analogy – Millwall were happy to remain full citizens within the English FA league, but they were secure enough in their identity that they didn’t care if they were popular or not. Far too many Christians are concerned about being ‘respectable’. The irony is that the first Baptists left the state church because they saw how corrupt being ‘respectable’ can be; they were dissenters precisely because they chose Christ over respectability.
We need to grow that sense of identity as Christians in the 21st century. We want to bless our society and so we get involved. But if people mis-read our motives or marginalise us we are “not bovvered!” We just get on with it. I support the work of the Christian Institute and others who campaign on behalf of Christian influence in the UK. In a democratic society Christians have just as much right as anyone to put forward their views. However, we do this with gentleness and respect. There is far too much whinging and special pleading by Christians today. Outraged that we are being treated like everyone else. Once more this is about attitude most of all. For example, if local schools ever try to force Karen out of ‘Christian’ assemblies we will certainly protest and plead our case. But we ask, we do not bully. We request from a position of weakness, not one of power. We are secure in our identity in Christ and that does not change depending on how popular we are in the eyes of society.
In the words of the much underrated philosophers of the last century, Mel & Kim, “Like us, hate us, but you’ll never change us, we ain’t never gonna be respectable!”
If you feel unable to really put your heart into Millwall as a metaphor then maybe Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy for non-violent civil disobedience is something you might relate to more easily. I suspect that it will become increasingly useful to Christians in the UK.
(BTW That is Lopez in front of Gandhi’s statue on Marina Beech, Chennai.)