Discriminating Christian confusions

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
12 Mar 2011

Trying to respond to the arguments of the 'Christians are being discriminated against' lobby in the UK is a bit like trying to get to grips with a lumpy balloon. Smooth it down in one place, and it simply pokes out in another.

Take some recent comments by Andrew Sibley, who accuses Ekklesia of 'double standards' over the Johns' fostering judgement and related issues. As Lord Justice Munby and Justice Beatson declared in response to the Johns' counsel's skeleton argument: “It is hard to know where to start with this travesty of the reality."

Ekklesia "seem to prefer minority groups if they are of the right sort," apparently. The right sort being "liberal-socialist" favoured ones, he says. Well, no actually - neither by ideology nor procedure. As should be clear from looking at what we have said and done over the past few years, we stand up for minorities whether we agree with them or not - whether they're Christian, Muslim, atheist, conservative, liberal, or any other belief brand, for example. This is because neighbourliness in the Gospel tradition is not bound to self-interest or self-assertion, but self-giving. "Having no favourites" in the dispensation of justice is also central to the Hebrew prophetic tradition upon which it builds. Temporal politics comes into it, but most definitely not as the final determinant. Our core convictions are Anabaptist-shaped and radically ecclesial, not "woolly liberal".

So why don't we stand in solidarity with socially conservative UK Christians in their repeated claims over discrimination and persecution, then? Because, quite simply, we think such claims are (to quote again the High Court judges) "wrong as to the factual premises on which they are based and at best tendentious." When the evidence is assessed in courts of law, they lose. And rightly so.

Inter alia, it should be observed that when it suits their arguments, the 'discrimination lobby' claim that Christians (by which they mean 'Christians like us') are a threatened minority. But when advocating that the law of the land should inherently privilege their particular disposition and interests, they justify this by wheeling out census results indicating that 72 per cent of the population is nominally Christian (though not 'like us', and in most cases not active adherents). Trying to have it both ways simultaneously is of the essence of all the contradictions that flow from this position. The reality is more interesting and complex.

But back to Mr Sibley. In response to my comment that what is effectively being argued by groups like CLC or Christian Concern is that "theirs is the only Christian view and should be backed up by law, irrespective of the dignity and rights of others", he simply ducks the issue altogether. First, by assuming that what is at stake is "the traditional Christian view" (in fact Mrs Johns "put herself well beyond what either the Church of England or the Church of Rome are prepared to say on the matter of [sexual] orientation," as Bishop Alan Wilson and others have pointed out), and secondly by flinging out a series of non sequiturs. So he writes: "I would respond by asking whether traditional Christian views are of such a wicked character that they should not be respected by the law? Should only one view prevail?"

The answer to the former is that (thankfully) it is not the role of the law to make value judgments about alleged 'Christian views' or any other kind of religious or philosophical view, except insofar as particular beliefs - whatever their provenance or claims to normativeness within a particular tradition - impact the well-being and entitlements of others that the law is there to protect in a case and fact-sensitive (rather than a generalised) way. The answer to the latter is that the law isn't about the prevailing of worldviews, but the protection of citizens, whatever their worldview. (What is being asked by the lobbyists, by the way, is not respect for certain beliefs, but the enforcement of limiting prejudices as the law of land.)

As for "the interpretation that Jesus placed upon the Law of Moses... as outlined by St Paul", which Mr Sibley wants as the basis of "a solid legal code" for the nation - not just the church. Well, first, the Gospel is about grace shaping Law (rather than the other way round). Second, Jesus and Paul's family values are rather difficult to reconcile with much modern day Christian conservatism. Third, "how correct Jesus was when he taught that wise people settle on the way to court – only fools use the law for grandstanding" (Bishop Alan Wilson again). Fourth, the rules of conduct adopted by a particular faith community on the basis of its core convictions cannot and should not be imposed by force on others through the state. And fifth, the proper alternative to the Christendom alliance of church and state is not some relativist "popularism" (sic), but in the ecclesial sphere, a church refusing the blandishments of overbearing power; and in the civil realm, a framework of evolving legal provisions for a mixed-belief society based on the presumption that, to quote Lord Justice Munby and Justice Beatson, "everyone is equal: equal before the law and equal as a human being endowed with reason and entitled to dignity and respect."

This is why, as I said in response to the Johns judgment, it is not right that "discriminatory actions justified on religious grounds should provide immunity from fulfilling legal requirements over equality and justice towards others in the public sphere." Andrew Sibley appears to disagree with this. He seems to think that Christian beliefs (or at least, those beliefs that he holds to be Christian) should provide such immunity (though I imagine he would not be saying that if the proposed dominant juridical tradition was Muslim!) because he disputes the notions of equality and justice. Or at least, he asks what Ekklesia means by them, and then, without stopping to find out, engages in a confused quasi-theological argument, the upshot of which is that humanly-derived rights are said to "go beyond a true understanding of the human condition" in Christian terms.

Well, what Ekklesia means by 'equality and justice' in the civil context is non-preferential, evidential and humane treatment within a legal system which seeks to protect religious people from unjustified and illegitimate discrimination in exactly the same way as it protects people - religious and otherwise - on other grounds like race, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation.

On the matter of whether "rights discourses" that such a framework presupposes are really adequate to who and what we are as human beings, the brief theological answer is that, far from superseding or subverting a Christian vision of humanity healed, rightly understood they may be seen as pointing towards it. This is why Christians have, at their best, played a significant role in advancing rights for all.

In his posthumously-published text Ethics, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (no "liberal-socialist", by the way!) holds the two perspectives and horizons together in a helpful and creative fashion. The "incursion of a new world ... in Christ", he says, "renders ancient goods uncouth", and "modern goods" also, we might add. Yet "for sake of the ultimate we must speak of the penultimate.” And act for it, too, as groups like Amnesty, Liberty, Justice, Human Rights Watch and others consistently do - and not just for one sectional interest, as with the current socially conservative Christian lobby.

So "rights-based discourses" may well be imperfect, incomplete, contested and less universal than some might wish to claim. They may be insufficient in terms of the need for a radical reformation of human persons and communities. But they can still be constructed and shared (from the Christian perspective, as from others) as genuine and vital signs of hope, as an essential "intermediary good", and as necessary ways of holding power to account.

To deny this, to start to disparage the vision of the general law in open societies, or to demand that it should privilege one religious worldview above all other interests, is extremely dangerous for everybody. The proper distinction of religious polity from state polity is not an arcane or unimportant one.

Yet in his article on 'Why the Johns case will not be appealed', counsel for Mr and Mrs Johns writes that "the law is now prejudiced, irrational and partial" and says that "the absurd ‘human rights’ agenda needs to be re-visited including the Human Rights Act."

That should make all of us, not least Christians concerned with their neighbours alongside themselves, shudder.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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