Letting our lives speak, not our jewellery

Yesterday (15 January 2013) the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) handed down its judgements on four cases in which Christians have claimed to have been made subject to unlawful discrimination.The only claim upheld was that of Nadia Eweida, a member of British Airways check-in staff who had been prevented from wearing a cross on her uniform under a no jewellery policy subsequently modified by the company.

When all the legal arguments have been made and all the stridency about 'persecution' has decreased in volume, a question remains: why should some who follow the Poor Man of Nazareth make such an issue of wearing expensively wrought pieces of jewellery which represent his gibbet?

There is no doctrinal requirement for Christians to wear this symbol. That some may wish to do so is, in cases where it does not present a danger to those with whom they work, seems entirely reasonable. But it is hard to see this as something central to freedom of religion.

Jesus was an observant Jew and would presumably have adhered to the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Whatever his personal views on this stricture, it certainly does not appear to bear in any way upon his teaching. He did, however, have quite a lot to say about those who permitted religious fomularies to become matters of central importance. Where these outward forms take on undue significance, the “heart right” - the wellspring of merciful action – beats less strongly.

Identifiers have obvious practical utility. The travelling public seeking to check in at Heathrow need to be able to recognise staff like Ms Eweida. Employees in public service, from NHS surgeons to Local Authority receptionists wear name badges. But beyond this functionality, there is a widespread desire to wear or display items which indicate allegiance. Football scarves, car stickers and lapel badges all serve this function. But they might, without disrespect to those who bear them, be considered peripheral to genuine freedoms.

Nadia Eweida claimed that she wore her cross because "It is important to wear it to express my faith so that other people will know that Jesus loves them." Without for one moment doubting the sincerity of her statement, its application in reality is dubious. The cross is a standard piece of jewellery among many people who would not call themselves Christians. It has been, and doubtless will be again, a celebrity fashion adornment unrelated to belief - remember David Beckham's phase of wearing an enormous rosary round his neck? But even where a cross is worn by a person of devout faith, just seeing it is vanishingly unlikely to convince anyone that “Jesus loves them”.

The Christian organisations which gave the financial and legal backing for Ms Eweida to take her case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights might legitimately be asked whether such enormous sums of money could not have been spent more wisely. People of faith frequently come in conflict with the law when they seek to act as peacemakers or oppose the manufacture and proliferation of arms. They may be supported by their faith bodies but I never heard of a member of Christian CND or of the Society of Friends being supported by the institutions who have championed the cases on which the EctHR has just ruled. Those who put the Sermon on the Mount before their 'rights', by and large have to shift for themselves.

There is a danger of falling into idolatry towards symbols. The cross may be a potent icon of sacrifice for many but Jesus felt it important to remind his followers: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” It is our lives which should speak, not our jewellery.

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© 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, Reform 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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