There’s been a lot of talk recently about ‘Christianity under attack’. How urgently true this statement feels will depend partly on where you live. Attacks on Christianity play out one way in the UK, and another way in parts of Nigeria. The current issue here is the rumpus over Council prayers. Increasingly I’m hearing the phrase, Christians have rights too.
Whenever I hear this kind of talk I can hear alarm bells ringing. Standing up for our rights is a perilous business, and is not the same as a proper and necessary challenging of what we consider to be wrong thinking (that atheism is somehow neutral while faith is not; that science and faith are mutually exclusive; that religious belief is inherently harmful). What worries me is the thought that in standing up for our rights as Christians we are losing sight of an important theological truth. While I have certain human rights that are properly enshrined in law; when I stand before God, I have no rights at all. This is why I think it is a perilous business, this standing up for our rights. All too easily it shades over into self-assertion and promoting our own agenda, whilst congratulating ourselves we are doing kingdom work.
The problem is that fighting for our rights just slips too easily along the grooves and the grain of human nature. We are, to our core, instinctive self-asserters. The other day I was walking through WH Smith’s to get to the Post Office, where I knew I’d be in for a long wait. I spotted someone else heading in the same direction, so I picked up speed, overtook her and beat her to the end of the queue. Nice. A lifetime of patient work by the Spirit, and I’m still cutting up old ladies in the race for the Post Office queue.
This drives me back to Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians to ponder what it means to have the mind of Christ, who didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped. Recently I read Karl Barth’s commentary — which is a bit of a minority sport, I know. He has this to say: “[Christ] is so much God’s Equal that he does not… have to make of his equality with God a thing to be asserted tooth and nail… When we are absolutely certain of a thing, we have no need to lay hold of it in the robber-like fashion described.”
We need to be watchful that in ‘standing up for our rights as Christians’ we are not simply engaging in this world’s debates on this world’s terms with this world’s weapons. How are we to be ‘be blameless and innocent, God’s children without any faults among a crooked and perverse generation’? How are we to ‘shine like stars in the world’? Light appears in the darkness, says Barth, ‘Where men can no longer join in the game of self-esteem… By their complete lack of self-glorification, by living by grace in fear and trembling, [Christians] represent — without any special intention of doing so — the order of God amid the disorders into which the unhumbled man daily falls… They are the breakwaters in the flood not by their Christian activity, propaganda, agitation and mission, but by their Christian existence.’
One of the things I currently like about the supermarket Lidl is the fact that they are still not stocking Easter products. I expect the eggs will be on their shelves next week, once Valentine’s Day has been and gone. I’m really not sure why the eggs and bunnies appear so early in the other supermarkets. Unless they quite rightly believe that at least some of us will buy now, then have some kind of emotional crisis that urgently requires confectionery, and have to go and replace what we eat.
Last weekend I was languishing in a small slough of despond while hunting through the many cupboards of the chancellery to find bubble wrap for a friend who was packing up and moving house. And lo! I came upon a bag of Lidl marzipan Easter eggs left over from last year. I humbly offer this to you as a small sermon illustration, perhaps of the kingdom of God. Like a woman stumbling upon forgotten confectionery, and eating the lot, rejoicing, before her family return home and demand a share. Hmm. Maybe scratch that last bit.
Of course, I’m waiting to see if any of our local supermarkets stock SNUBBED Easter eggs. These are Fair Trade Easter eggs with a Christian theme, which have been SNUBBED by supermarkets, according to the Mail headline. The article, when I read it, clarified that by SNUBBED, the Mail means ‘two of the supermarket chains that have not yet made a decision said they were not opposed in principle.’ This appears to be an example of the knee-jerk rallying cry of CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK! Basically, your average supermarket will stock products it believes the public want. If there is a growing market for specifically Christian Easter eggs, in time the big chains will jump on the bandwagon. This is what we saw happen with Fair Trade products — and with Halloween merchandise.
Close Encounters — Bird Life on the Close
Last week’s cold spell brought a huge flock of fieldfares to our back garden. They took up residence in our walnut tree, then flew down in shifts to a large berry tree in our neighbour’s garden. I watched them through my study window. Over the course of a day-and-a-half they stripped the tree of its berries, starting at the top and working methodically down. At one point the top half was bare, but the bottom half still laden. It made a very good spectator sport, and offered some light relief as General Synod ground through its agenda.