Responding to the BNP over 'What Would Jesus Do?'

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
31 Mar 2009

NB This article builds on the work set out in the book Faith and Politics After Christendom (2006, Paternoster). See also the end of this article for a list of Ekklesia research papers and articles relating to the issue

There was an interesting response to the BNP’s new adverts featuring a picture of Jesus Christ, from the Archbishop of York’s press office yesterday.

The far-Right party will use the advert which features a bible verse quoting (and taking out of context) Jesus' words about persecution, in the run up to the European Elections in June.

The advert features a picture of Jesus Christ on the cross and quotes a part of a verse from John's Gospel (John 15:20) in which Jesus says: "If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you". The verse comes in the context of Jesus' teaching about love, which is of course a long way from the BNP's perspective.

I found myself up against the BNP's vice-chair yesterday in a radio interview, in which he tried to claim that the BNP was a Christian Party. So I asked him if his party stood by the passage they were quoting from and followed Jesus teachings about loving those they 'might find a bit difficult' such as Muslims. "No" came the rather embarrassed reply.

The advert asks: "What would Jesus do?". Of course the BNP don't have a clue about the answer, but the answer from John Sentamu’s office, as recorded by the Daily Telegraph seems to be that perhaps Jesus wouldn’t say anything. “A spokesmen for the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu and for the Church of England refused to comment saying the BNP was mounting a ‘publicity stunt’ designed to give the party the 'oxygen of publicity'" the paper said.

This is a little surprising as the Archbishop has actually been behind adverts condemning the BNP. Indeed he has been forthright in making a stand. (As he has on many things. We have over 200 articles on the site about much of the Archbishop's good work here). The Church also recently propelled the racist party into the headlines when it banned clergy from joining the BNP at its General Synod last month. At the beginning of the month the Archbishop of Canterbury caused a stir by saying the recession could bring the far-Right support.

Silence certainly hasn't been the response of other churches. The Methodists. Baptists and United Reformed Church all put out a statement condemning the adverts. Indeed, Christian denominations and church groups have been making strident denouncations of the BNP ahead of the impending elections. On the same day as the BNP launched its advert, the major church denominations in West Yorkshire issued a press release announcing resources to combat the threat from the British National Party at the 4 June European elections. In fact there isn't a church to my knowledge that has failed to condemn the BNP.

So what is really behind the Archbishop of York’s reticence to be quoted (which many in the Church of England might mischievously suggest is a rarity!)

There is a tactic employed by many, to try and freeze the BNP out in the hope that they will be marginalised. This is what the Archbishop's office was perhaps attempting to do. But such tactics don't seem to be working as Hazel Blears amongst others has recently suggested.

And there is another dimension to this issue which makes it increasingly hard for the church to engage in the way that it has done previously - and that is that the BNP has put the Archbishop and many others within the Church of England in a rather awkward position. The BNP is now using exactly the same rhetoric about ‘persecution’ and defending ‘Christian Britain’, that John Sentamu and others within the Church have been using.

Ekklesia has been monitoring and warning about this development for a number of years. Included on the recently leaked BNP membership list, there were a number of people who attended bible studies, ran Christian bookshops or were Lay Readers in churches. Clearly Christians, amongst others, are being taken in. It is something that needs to be addressed head on.

During the last European elections, I was taking part in a BBC phone-in on political extremism when the BNP's press officer called the programme. Not only was the BNP a Christian party, he claimed, but his party would defend 'Christian' British culture.

Since then there have been two noticeable changes. First, the BNP has stepped up its religious rhetoric. In recent local elections, the party's literature included copies of the controversial Mohammed cartoons. It also helped establish a 'Christian Council of Britain' (which it later turned out had a membership of one). The goal is apparently to appeal to those in the population who identify with Christianity, but feel panicked both by 'liberal secularism' and the growth of Islam.

At the same time, leading figures within the Church of England have become far more vocal in their calls to stem the tide of secularism and to defend the predominant 'Christian culture' of Britain. The uncomfortable fact is that this puts some in the Church into the position of arguing the same political point about national identity as the BNP.

The following appeared in the Daily Mail on 13 February of this year:

"Christianity has been at the heart of the history of this nation. British history, customs and ethos have been gradually shaped by Christianity.

"A recent correspondent suggested that, like it or not, Britishness is rooted in the Christian religion.

"Consider our national anthem beginning with the word 'God'; consider the English flag: designed using the Christian cross.

"Christianity is the tapestry upon which our country's heritage was woven. All of this is lost to those who would deny Christianity any place in our nation today."

"...the message is clear: wake up, Christian England!"

The BNP's press officer? Actually no, it was the Archbishop of York. (These are just some of the quotes. You can read the full article here.)

Of course the rationales of their messages are very different. The agenda behind the BNP's claims is essentially a cultural one - partly in opposition to what they claim is a 'liberal elite', and partly in an attempt to whip up fear of minority faiths. In contrast, no one would seriously question the commitment of the Church of England, or the Archbishop of York, to combating racism. But the time has come to face the fact that when it uses 'Christian nation' rhetoric, the Church risks encouraging support for right-wing extremists.

It may be no coincidence that it is the Church's two most senior black leaders, Archbishop Sentamu and Bishop Nazir Ali, who have made the most prominent pronouncements against 'the secular tide'. The Church must surely be aware of the dangers of its arguments. But it is doubtful that this will limit the damage, with the BNP also now claiming (no doubt disingenuously) some non-white members.

It is likely that these problems will cause further discomfort. The BNP now has several dozen councillors in the UK and church schools could face BNP representatives appointed to their governing bodies. Local authorities, after all, have a duty to nominate some governors from different local political parties. If this happens, they may find BNP governors advancing a strategy of social division by vigourously endorsing the admissions policy - run by many church chools - of favouring Christians over others in the local community.

But the terrain is changing. A recent Tearfund survey found that just 53% of the population identified in some way with Christianity. That is a colossal drop compared to the last national census, when 72% did so.

This is tough news for a Church that wants to rely on 'cultural capital'. But there is another way. Instead of adopting a defensive stance which pleases those seeking to make political capital out of civic 'de-Christianization', the Church has an opportunity to refocus on the vocation of Jesus - which means costly discipleship, not cultural dominance.

The Archbishop of York himself knows what costly discipleship means. He has paid a heavy price personally, indeed he continues to do so, receiving regular hatemail. When it comes to discipleship he has set an example for others to follow.

But for much of the Church it is easier to claim to speak for the sentiments of an (albeit dwindling) majority of the population. It is far harder to mount a practical stand for justice and base one's political authority on the quality of one's actions in the here and now.

In an increasingly plural society, it will be the quality of contemporary political witness, not appeals to a bygone age, which will sort the sheep from the old goats. It is time to ditch the rhetoric of 'Christian Britain' and replace it with a new discourse.

What would Jesus do? He would probably not remain silent.

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Related research papers, and books from Ekklesia:

Faith and Politics After Christendom (2006, Paternoster).

'Contrasting church attitudes on human rights for all' Research Paper by Ekklesia associate Savi Hensman (2009) http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8492

'When the Saints Go Marching Out: Redefining St George for a new era' Ekklesia research paper (2007) http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5083

'A new discourse on race and faith politics' covers Ekklesia's work with the New Generation Network (2007) http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/010107discrourse

'Are immigration controls moral?' Research Paper by Ekklesia associate Vaughan Jones (2005) http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/280405immigration

'Toward the abolition of the nation state?' Research Paper by Canon Richard Franklin, published jointly with Sarum College (2004) http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/060604nationstate

There are also another 70 articles, comment pieces, features and news briefings relating specifically to the BNP, including our analysis of the BNP's membership list here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/1872

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