Across the world today, countless millions of people are persecuted (systematically mistreated as a group by another group or by oppressive governments), harassed, threatened, imprisoned and even killed. These people include Dalits, Roma (gypsies and travelling people), immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, women, disabled people, sexual minorities, non-religious people, and very many ethnic and religious groups (Jews, Baha'is, Christians, Muslims and more).
Churchgoers in Britain are not among them.
Yet many of those associating themselves with the 1 December 2010 'Not Ashamed Day' (http://www.notashamed.org.uk/ ) imply or claim that they are – equating, for example, attempts to get Christian organisations to comply with legal requirements for equal treatment in the public sphere, with "persecution".
Among other things, this is a tremendous insult and disservice to people who really are suffering across the globe, including those Christians and other minority communities in Iraq who have faced murder and mayhem in recent weeks, for example.
Using language that mixes up the inconveniences and challenges of living in a mixed society with the terror of living in a disintegrating or dictatorial one is something those involved in spreading the “British Christians are persecuted” meme should most definitely be ashamed of.
I say that as someone married into a family whose descendants, Mennonites and other Anabaptists, have a genuine and awful history of martyrdom (at the hands of both sides during the Reformation) on account of their refusal of violence, coercion and state religion. This is something they rightly never forget.
Such people have more reason than most to fear "marginalisation", certainly more than comfortable, middle-class Christians in the UK. But instead they have sought to transform fate into destiny by developing outward-looking ministries of reconciliation, peace and social witness. They start, ecclesially and well as humanly, from the liberating perspective of being creative minorities rather than hegemonic majorities.
That is the way for Christians to go: investing themselves in experiments of hope – rather than perpetuating an ideological 'church of power', developing narratives of victimhood and resentment, becoming yet another competing interest group, demonising others, falling prey to self-referential delusions, and continuing to align Christianity with governing authority.
Thankfully, while some noisy lobby groups and former church leaders (including one who has claimed that migrants "threaten the very ethos or DNA of our nation") are willing to accommodate to exaggerated or false claims about the status of Christians in Britain, many thousands of others (the majority, in fact) are not.
This week, the Methodist Church in Britain is rightfully turning our attention towards the 300 million Dalits (victims of caste-based discrimination) across the world. Last week, an Anglican organisation hosted an important lecture in London on the Armenian Genocide and the need for contemporary truth, justice and healing in response to it.
Meanwhile, in rural Britain, a creative community group, with church involvement, is replacing its annual energy-burning Christmas Lights with a showing in the High Street in Hoylake, Wirrall, of Pasolin's radical 1964 film about the life of Christ, ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’.
In a similarly positive vein, the newly-elected leader of the 75 million-strong Lutheran World Federation has called upon his fellow Lutherans to be open and engaged in their dealings with wider society, and has warned them about the dangers of turning in upon themselves. (Jesus reminded his followers once that those who seek to save themselves will lose their desperate hold on life. Only those who are prepared to let go and take risks for the sake of a greater good will discover what true life – gift, not possession – is.)
So we need to be theologically clear amidst the siren voices of alarm. That Christians do not rule others in the way they once did, in the fading Christendom era, does not amount to "persecution". Rather, it is an invitation, in the midst of some pain and adjustment no doubt, to rediscover patterns of church life in a plural society which show the heart of the Christian message to be about embracing others, not isolating ourselves; multiplying hope, not spreading fear; developing peaceableness, not resorting to aggression; and advancing compassion, rather than retreating into defensiveness.
(Those values-in-practice need to inhabit the difficult current debates about sectarianism in Scotland and Ireland, too; places where 'religion' translated into popular prejudice and tribalism has been, and is, very much part of the problem, and where religious humility is therefore essential.)
That's a tough 'alternative Christian vocation'. But it's definitely one worth having – unlike a misplaced persecution complex.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.