'Discrimination', symbols and idolatry

By Jill Segger
April 18, 2011

It was with a slight sense of weariness that I heard the news of the Christian van driver in Wakefield who has cited's his employer's policy of prohibiting employees from displaying personal items in their vehicles, as evidence of anti-Christian discrimination.

Colin Atkinson, an electrician with Wakefield and District Housing (WDH), has been prevented from putting a palm cross on the dashboard of his company van. He has refused to comply with this ruling and WDH has begun an investigation which, they say, may lead to disciplinary action. We may be reasonably certain that Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre will take up this incident as further evidence of the 'persecution' of Christians in this country. A good deal of heat will be generated at the expense of light and a considerable sum of money will be wasted.

Ekklesia's stance on the privileging of Christianity in the public square of a plural society is well known. I do not intend to repeat what has already been cogently argued elsewhere (Shameful claims and alternative Christian living, Christians and humanists criticise false 'discrimination' claims, and Discriminating Christian confusions) but rather to reflect upon the mindset of a style of Christianity which focuses so intently on physical objects as essential components of faith.

The desire to display badges or symbols is common. It may have utility in some situations where ease of identification of an individual's role or function is important. We will all have worn a badge at some stage in our lives – to protest, to raise a smile, to make an affiliation public, knowing full well that the belief is not undermined when the badge is removed.

What we do in our non-work environments must also be distinguished from our responsibilities at work and this is an area in which it is necessary to exercise common sense. If I were a school teacher, to enter a classroom wearing buttons proclaiming my allegiance to the Religious Society of Friends and the Labour Party, would not be acceptable. To discuss either of these affiliations under certain conditions of learning and investigation, would be.

The difference is in the context. One says “look at me – I am telling you, from a position of protected authority, what I believe”. The other is saying “let us explore this together, so we both may learn”. The living of a belief - religious or non-religious – has far greater meaning than the display of a symbol. “Let your lives speak” is the saying amongst Friends. And Colin Atkinson's life could surely speak more eloquently in the manner in which he interacts with his customers and employers than by making himself part of a victim narrative.

The traditions which make use of symbolism within their liturgy do not teach any obligation to either display or defend those symbols in everyday situations, therefore there can be no claim of discrimination where the work environment excludes them. In that sense, Mr Atkinson's palm cross is no different from a Wakefield Trinity scarf and his employers are not discriminating against his Christian faith in requiring that their corporate livery is not associated with the semiology of any other grouping.

To invest significance beyond the personal and private in religious symbols is a form of idolatry. A palm cross, a crucifix or a Mogen David can at best be only reminders of identity and faith. If they are permitted to carry more than that, they may become dangerous totems – thus the warning against graven images which, with varying degrees of subtlety, may shift the heart away from quiet attentiveness to the still small voice.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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