Why the Pope is - and isn't - the issue in broadcasting politics

Why the Pope is - and isn't - the issue in broadcasting politics

Some people seem to have got the idea that Ekklesia objects to the BBC broadcasting a Christmas message from the Pope. We don't. We simply think that the BBC ban on non-religious and some minority religious people sharing their reflections in the same 'Thought for the Day' slot should be ended. Giving an immensely powerful individual (and head of state) access to airwaves denied to those he attacked when he was last in Britain also raises wider questions which should not be ducked.

But let's take a step back. The particular message that Benedict XVI read out this morning, Christmas Eve, would have aroused barely an eyebrow had it come from any other religious leader. Indeed, it echoed some solid Christian themes about the incarnation of divine freedom and love in Jesus Christ, for which many of us will be grateful.

For me, two phrases stood out which illustrate why the Pope is (and isn't) the issue when it comes to concerns around the BBC's broadcasting agenda about religion and the 'Thought for the Day' feature in particular.

First, the pontiff said that the liberation Christ brought for all, not just for his own time and place (an important distinction) was "not a political liberation... achieved through military means: rather, Christ destroyed death for ever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the Cross."

That disavowal of violence is to be thoroughly welcomed. Peace churches and others have argued for some time that a refusal of arms needs to be a key identity-marker for followers of Christ in a divided, brutal world where killing has often been blasphemously adopted in God's name.

But what about the "political" bit? Jesus refused to grab power, to side with elites or to back particular religious-political interest groups, for sure. But he was deeply "political" in his siding with the marginalised and outcast, challenging the status quo, affirming women (among others), and arguing against religious and political leaders who manipulated their position to put ordinary people down. Indeed, Jesus was put to death as a subversive.

By contrast, the present Pope, whatever his personal qualities, holds and wields the political power of a City State, heads up an institution of fabulous wealth, uses theological weapons against those who speak out on such concerns, and exists in a culture of privilege which excludes a great many people - including women seeking to serve the church in ministry.

Christmas messages aside, it is important that public bodies like the BBC should hold powerful individuals and groups to account, whether they are religious or otherwise.

Likewise, it is important and legitimate for good Christians and good Catholics to ask the deepest questions about this disparity between the dynamic Jesus unleashed in the world and what is done in his name today, especially when it embodies the profound contradictions of the whole top-down 'Christendom' model of church, and cries out for radical reformation.

None of that means that the Pope should not be heard. What it does is to raise the issue of the exclusion of others - and also, for the BBC and related public bodies, the question of when and whether it is appropriate for a head of state to pick up and drop that mantle when it suits (or doesn't).

One thing is clear, though. Pretending that the Vatican is free of politics is as untenable as claiming that Jesus is - though sometimes (often?) in remarkably different ways.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Ekklesia's report Thought for the Day’: Beyond the god-of-the-slots (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/thought_for_the_day/main_report) was published in July 2010.

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