Simon Barrow

Reform, persecution and future church

By Simon Barrow
January 1, 2011

"The greatest persecution of the church does not come from enemies on  the outside but is born from the sin within the church." Those are the words of Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on the continual disclosures in  2010 of the deep sexual abuse crises within the Church over the past five or six decades.

In spite of the continued institutional failings of the Vatican in regard to these crises - problems which arise from a culture of secrecy and unaccountability within its structures, hierarchy and ideology - the Pontiff's analysis about the true nature of the challenge to the Western church, in particular, is, we would say colloquially, 'spot on'.

As the Epistle of Peter puts it, "Judgement begins with the household of God" - that is, with those who profess and seek to enact the life-giving of God shown in Christ and who are accountable to the standards of the Gospel. It does not begin by casting stones or ready  accusations at others.

Of course there will be particular moments in specific contexts when "those who are not with you are against you", sometimes in extremely harsh and unyielding ways. The plight of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is more than testimony to this. Amnesty and other organisations regularly document such abuses of human and religious dignity.

But more often, especially in Europe and other parts of the world where there is freedom of expression, we ought to be perfectly able to work on the basis that (to employ the alternate aphorism of Jesus, the two occurring in Matthew and Mark's accounts), "those who are not against us are for us."

The Christian task in any era and setting is (bearing in mind the specificities of culture and social formation) to live, speak and act with authenticity from the standpoint of seeking to be the reconciled and reconciling Body of Christ for this time and place.

That means (among other things) looking out the good for and in others, opposing injustice, being peacemakers and demonstrating our conviction that the world gifted by God is receptive to what is true, beautiful and fruitful, in spite of the brokenness, decay, wrongdoing and death-dealing that continually mars it. Part of this, as the Quakers put it, is "seeking the light" everywhere and in everyone.

This approach contrasts significantly with the self-focused victim mentality which is being perpetuated by those who see discrimination and persecution against Christians in every corner of British life, now that the previous imposition of established religious ideas and institutions (Christendom) is being eroded. 

This loss of power over others is being interpreted by some as darkness and threat. But as the Pope intimates, in spite of his own concomitant tendency to blame secularism and other belief systems for the predicament of the church, it is in fact our own failings as Christian communities that are being so painfully exposed in a cultural climate where (some of us would add) deference to religious codes and bodies is disappearing, and those outside the church see so much within its deepest fabric that is deplorable - division, acrimony, prejudice, self-righteousness, meaness of spirit, judgmentalism and lack of consistency between words and deeds.

At the heart of the Christian message is not abstract proposition or written prescription (as 'religion' is usually taken to involve) but a living person who, fully inhabiting and yet always transcending (exceeding the limits of) the here-and-now, encodes within the flesh and the heart a picture of who God is and what God is truly like - giving, loving, forgiving, reconciling and justice-creating.

This way, truth and life disclosed in Jesus Christ is massively demanding, of course. It highlights our own significant shortcomings as well as the gaping wounds given and taken in the world around us, but it also provides us with the resources and disposition to tackle these problems, both internal and external.

The Gospel does this by pointing us towards the need for location in a community and a narrative capable of nurturing the attributes of Christlikeness in practical action, peaceableness, neighbourly solidarity and political orientation towards those pushed to the margins. This inherently requires the attitudes of wisdom, humility, perspective, gratitude and attentiveness brought about by learning, prayer and worship.

In this sense, as Stanley Hauerwas and others ranging from Anabaptists to Catholics have said, the church rightly understood does not "have" a social ethic (something imported from outside for utility's sake). Rather, it is, a social ethic, and for that matter a political reality, in the sense outlined above. The difficulty is that 'church' has been hijacked over the years for many ideological purposes, has been distorted or abused by controlling elites or degenerated traditions, and has "covered a multitude of sins" (as Benedict might have put it).

None of these opportunities and problems is adequately addressed by the 'Not Ashamed' campaign launched in the UK by Christian Concern and others. The rhetoric of this initiative appears to be aimed at generating pride and defensiveness (neither of them qualities that create positive ecclesial regeneration) towards a mythologised notion of 'the Christian nation' (the classic Christendom trope) residing in certain legal and constitutional privileges which put Christians in a determinative position and make them exempt from the prevailing standards of non-prejudicial justice that others who are not Christian are required to observe.

Indeed, the vocal and accusatory demand for the 'right' to be able to exclude LGBT people (especially) from equal access to those public goods and services provided wholly or partly through Christian agencies in a mixed 'welfare economy' strikes many outside the church not so much as a desire to be treated fairly themselves, but rather as a wish to be allowed by common law to treat others unfavourably.

This is, to many people not persuaded by the ideology of the campaign, plainly unChristian as well as non-humanitarian in its ethos and impact, assuming (as we should on good theological, let alone 'secular', grounds) that treating others, regardless of their condition or standing, with justice is a clear requirement of the Gospel.

The question of what moral standards and behaviours should be upheld within specifically Christian communities is not one which should be - or needs to be - confused or conflated with the law of the land or with the rules required to mediate access and goods fairly in a plural society. Those Christians or others who are unwilling to receive or serve certain groups of people in sections of the public square are free to choose other employment or to use their own funds rather than seek recourse to public ones in pursuit of their aims - whatever we may think of them.

To make this distinction in no way amounts to discrimination or persecution, and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise, or contradictorily to suggest (as some appear to be doing) that it is "discriminatory" to be told that you should not publicly discriminate on religious grounds! This is a distortion of language and values which enables one group of people to treat another group in ways which they would (rightly) object to if they were subject to such treatment themselves.

Once again, the requirement is for Christians first to consider their own sins and the impact and character if those failings, before railing at those around them who are seeking to live by their own values and without the political dominance of any one creed. Indeed, history teaches us that just as there are emancipatory heroes (ranging from Bartholeme de la Casas through to Desmond Tutu) who personify and  exemplify the liberative dynamic the Christian message can offer the whole of humanity (when it is absorbed by goodwill rather than consumed by grievance), so many mobilisations for change outside or on the margins of the church - the environmental and women's movements, for example - have enabled Christians to clarify, rectify or rediscover liberating elements of their own inheritance which have been lost or sidelined by the "church of power".

This double trajectory of repentance and learning, combined with a renewal of service, prayer and political action alongside "the wretched of the earth" (Franz Fanon), is what constitutes the challenge of radical reformation for the church today.

Pope Benedict, undoubtedly, sits atop an ecclesial tree which, along with Christian communities of all kinds, shapes and histories, stands  in need of the tough but necessary 'shaking process' (Bishop Colin Winter, echoing the Letter to the Hebrews) we are experiencing along the path to a post-Christendom remaking of the church in the pattern of God's domination-free kingdom. Even so, we can hear in the pontiff's words regarding the roots of the current church's dilemmas a deeper echo of the future than is often expressed by its present institutional reality and response.

My own hope and prayer for 2011 is that more and more Christians, however small in number overall, will act on the impulses of reformation in the spirit of the peace churches and the emergent  strand within global Christianity, rather than heed the siren voices of fear and reaction.


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

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