Christianity versus ‘the church of power’

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
1 Aug 2009

In the past, when it came to engaging with politics and society, some Christians in the UK (not least evangelical ones) were often accused of "being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use". This was the charge of disconnected personal pietism and individual acts of charity which failed to take the social order seriously – and as a result passed the buck on social justice.

These days a different problem obtains. These same Christians have lost their shyness when it comes to acting politically, but all too often they do so in ways that look more like ‘protecting the tribe’ or trying to force others into their chosen mould, rather than demonstrating a positively different or constructively 'alternative' way of living.

In a world crying out for less selfishness, the danger is that some Christians have now become far too ‘worldly’ (in the sense of temporally self-interested) to be any earthly use.

That surely is what we see in ferocious attempts to defend inherited or new ‘Christian’ privileges in British society. These range from Establishment (an attenuated version of the one state church) right through to unelected male bishops from one denomination in an undemocratic House of Lords, special tax concessions for propagating religion, unfair discrimination by faith groups in employment, and the sponsoring of publicly-funded schools which demand the ‘right’ to exclude ‘non-church’ people on the basis of religion or belief.

Ekklesia, as a think-tank and news briefing service, has continued to make a strong Christian case against such policies, alongside an equally strong case (we hope) for churches which seek to live by example, not by enforced prestige and to work towards change in the wider social order through advocacy and cooperation rather than by imperious fiat or decree.

Our concern is therefore to promote vibrant, attractive, transformative and viable Christian actions, words and communities within society – and to tackle the obstructions to such developments. These obstructions include the mistaken pouring of ecclesial resources into defending a ‘Christendom’ understanding of church and faith mortgaged on a collusive alliance with governing authority, rather than a reliance on the life given freely and without coercion by God.

The approach we are seeking to develop, in other words, is neither a Christian gloss on a non-theologically derived secularism nor an attempt to revive ‘established religion’, but something quite distinct and different from both – namely, a recovery of the non- and anti-imperial heart of the Christian message in the midst of a plural world, in a way which emphasises and exemplifies its socially subversive, just and peaceful expression.

It is worth re-stating this, because it is frequently not understood. In some quarters, I find myself and Ekklesia accused (or lauded!) for ‘promoting secularism’, for instance. There is indeed some consonance between what we say about ‘the church of power’ and what some secularists say. But our rationale – being theologically rooted and argued – is very different. There are disagreements too (notably when secularism becomes over-proscriptive or negative), and we believe that the aim of public policy should not be to limit differences of belief but to enable them to find ways of engaging one another without coercion or privilege.

Similar distinctions arise when Ekklesia is accused of promoting or defending ‘religion’ per se. That is not true either. We are clear that there are positive and negative forms of religiosity and spirituality. Faith can be life-affirming but it can also be death-dealing. Ideological approaches which seek either to justify or denigrate ‘religion’ per se are simply refusing to face the facts about the observable difference and diversity within religion, as well as between those who hold to what is called ‘a religious worldview’ of a particular kind (it is always particular) and those who do not.

Equally, it is a misconstrual simply to conflate the defence or advocacy of Christianity (understood as an attempt to live out what we re-learn about God, the world and each other through the example, death and unrestricted life of Jesus Christ), with the defence or advocacy of a historically limited set of Christian institutions based on particular hegemonic settlements and privileges.

The difficulty is that the vast majority of public discourse about Christianity today (whatever its source) mistakenly assumes the overwhelming identity of these two things. Our starting point is that, in fact, they are often in conflict. The dynamic of ‘the Jesus movement’ in originating Christian experience and in diverse, dissenting movements like Anabaptism and liberation theology, is in direct tension with the ideology of ‘the church of power’.

That this is so, explains a good deal about the confusions which arise when people seek to talk about how ‘religion’ is to be understood, responded to, elicited, ‘managed’ or ‘handled’ in the public sphere.

As a result of this conflation of Christianity with its more domineering forms, attempts to question top-down ‘establishment’ and culturally privileged Christianity (the ideology of ‘the Christian nation’, which dangerously conflates two quite different polities into one) are frequently heard as anti-religion by some. Others see it as ‘justifying religion’ (because we are seeking its redemption not its containment or abolition).

Similarly, those in the hierarchy or bureaucracy of the Church of England (and some other institutional churches) seem flummoxed by the idea that their current relationship to money, power, education and social privilege could be anything other than benign and reasonable. Mostly, in fact, they seek to deny that this relationship exists at all. Their current top-down form and location is seen by them as ‘natural’ and in that sense unarguable. So those who say that this is not so are ‘naturally’ seen as ‘the awkward squad’, as ‘nay-sayers’.

Suggestions that historic privileges, unjust investments, discriminatory schools and the entrapments of Establishment are neither practically necessary, defensible on grounds of fairness, nor theologically beneficial to the church’s true vocation, are received with astonishment, swept aside or simply not understood.

The upholders of the status quo truly believe that the only alternative to their grasp on power is chaos, sectarianism, fundamentalism or irreversible decline. That this is not so can be seen by the living example of millions of Christian people and organisations worldwide, but frequently the aura of Christendom blinds its defenders to the dynamic, exciting (and authentically Christian) possibilities which arise as that Christendom order passes away.

In other words, a civically-constructed rather than a Gospel-fed understanding of ‘church’, a failure to take Christ’s primary refusal of overbearing power seriously, a spiritually (and intellectually) disabling fear of loss of worldly advantage and a belief that moving away from privilege amounts to ‘persecution’ has become commonplace in inherited church institutions and para-church groups. And it is not helping anybody.

A further malicious twist is added by zealous but misguided campaigning groups who are using the term ‘Christianophobia’ to excite anxiety, resentment and anger towards public policies on equality, to encourage Christians to complain that they are being ‘persecuted’ (when often the tensions arising around faith in the workplace can perfectly reasonably be mediated). They create a confrontational narrative which views religion and secular polity as being on an apocalyptic collision course.

Ironically, this plays into the hands of some hard-line anti-religionists who want to argue that all faith is unreasonable or inherently privilege-demanding or who want to pursue an exclusionary kind of secularism which tries to ‘privatise’ all aspects of religion and belief so as to eliminate them as far as possible from the public square.

Both ideological positions, though theoretically opposed, actually tend towards a common anti-pluralism. Instead of seeking ways of enabling people of different beliefs and life-stances (religious or otherwise) to cooperate, accommodate, disagree constructively, or at least allow space for each other (within an overall framework seeking equality), hard-line ‘secularists’ and ‘religionists’ try to argue that only their hegemonic version of religion or their hegemonic version of secularism can form a basis for public policy.

Obviously these competing (but reinforcing) positions are not tenable if, on the one hand, a genuinely open and plural society is to be maintained; and, on the other hand, religion or belief – including non-religious belief systems – are to be invited to share and develop their vision of ‘the good life’.

Likewise, the maintenance of a privileged, Established Church serves neither of these goals in the long run. From a plural, democratic viewpoint it is simply unfair. From a theological viewpoint, it is a form of institutionalism based on a functionalist (glue-like) rather than a prophetic (disturbing, alternative-generating, inviting) view of the Christian message.

In the face of the logjams created by establishment religion, angry or rejectionist types of faith and eliminative types of secularism, there is an alternative – or, rather, alternatives (plural).

In Christian terms, that means embracing post-Christendom forms of believing, behaving and belonging which are ancient-new (rather than just stuck-in-the-past or frivolously trendy) and which are based on living towards each other by example rather than seeking dominance over each other. This, we would argue, is what ‘the way of Christ’ truly means.

In wider social terms, it means seeking to build social spaces, legal frameworks, political processes and economic policies which refuse the idea that the welfare of some (the rich, or people of a particular belief-system or ‘type’) should be embedded at the expense of others (the marginal, the disadvantaged, the planet).

For my own part, I am quite clear that the Christian tradition, Christian scriptures, Christian theological thought and Christian practices (of prayer, worship, service, peace-building and social action) can all be authentically pointed in the direction of a positive vision of post-Christendom – though not without a significant amount of difficulty, disagreement and disturbance, since those sources also embody historic Christianity’s argument with the life and words of Jesus.

This is because Christ is not the founder of Christianity as a religion of power; he is the embodiment of sacrificial love which is killed by the religion (and politics) of aggressively defensive power... but the unrestricted life he shows us keeps coming back in spite of attempts to suffocate it in oppressive forms of religiosity. Because it is God's gift, not our striving.

In this sense, Ekklesia argues that the antidote to oppressive Christianity is the challenge for Christians to be more Christian, not less (as some liberals suppose).

As for those of other faith or of ‘good faith’ (which includes very many secular humanists and atheists), it is up to them to respond in their own way to the kind of argument set out here from within one tradition (the Christian one) and then to marshall and demonstrate their own resources for pluralism, peace and public benefit.

Together, we have an awful lot to gain. Apart, there could be hell to pay. If the world continues to fracture and divide, the latter is a very real possibility. Christianity is always apocalyptic, in the sense that it does not deny ‘the end’ of things, of people, of institutions and so on, but believes they are ‘held’ within a final embrace which is about naked love, not naked power.

In that sense, and not out of self-regard, self-righteousness, denial or defensiveness, Christians are invited by the Gospel message to engage in the task of building church as ‘alternative community’ and of promoting life and transformation for all in a wounded but glorious world.

----

© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. With experience in both politics and media, he has worked as an adviser in adult theological education for the Church of England and was formerly assistant general secretary and global mission secretary for the official ecumenical body, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. He is on the council of the London Mennonite Centre, and his latest book is Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change (http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/product_info.php?products_id=2255), 2008.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.