This is our truth, tell us yours
One of the perpetual battle cries of the right is that the UK is a “Christian country” and that this theocratic nation state is in some way shaken by any provisions or accommodations for those with other faiths, or indeed none. The theocracy they claim to want is a strange one. I have never heard any argue that they wish to return to the republic of Cromwell (a time when we can be said to have lived under a religious government). Nor do many espouse a return to a divine right of kings (although perhaps Starkey would approve of this).
Instead their Christian country seems to be one without any trappings of actual religious law, but rather a cultural christianity. This report in the Independent today highlights exactly how many issues this raises. It seems that those tasked with policing our borders have decided that it is adherence to this cultural christianity which qualifies an asylum seeker to refugee status, rather than their actual religious beliefs.
Questions such as the “what colour is the bible” or indeed, “what are the 10 commandments” come from the very English (and I chose that word with care) attitude towards religious observance, an attitude of being as unreligious, unemotional, and undemonstrative as possible. Religion is a cultural artifact within this mindset, you send christmas cards, buy Easter eggs, and involve the Church (capital C as expected of the CoE) in the big three: hatching, matching and dispatching. You are Christian because it is the default, and because what else would you be when you have a baptismal certificate in the drawer.
The Reverend quoted in the Independent piece highlights the problem of trying to make windows into men’s (and women’s) souls.
The asylum assessors have a real challenge on their hands,” he said. “If you’ve come to faith in an underground house church, where you’ve been able to borrow a New Testament for a week and have encountered the risen Lord Jesus, you’re not going to know when the date of Pentecost is
An interesting conversation that can be had around cultural versus practicing Christianity is the form communion should take. For many people raised within the church of England communion is simple, it is a white, tasteless wafer, received during a church service. For Catholics it is the actual body of Christ transformed by transubstantiation. For low church adherents its not uncommon however for communion to be ordinary bread, a stottie or a bread bun. Its even not uncommon now for communion to be a gluten free loaf, to ensure that all who chose to can partake.
What though if your staple is not bread? There is a deep theological importance to the breaking and sharing of bread as a communal activity. Christ commanded us to partake in our daily bread, not something special, or separate from the food the congregation usually take. Some congregations therefore take communion of rice, or cassava. or other staples of their diet. How would someone explain, whilst under the threatening, and no doubt frightening eye of the official who thinks Christianity is a checklist, that their service consisted of passing around a banana leaf with rice on it?
The Reverend Miller also mentions the situation of those who have to worship in secret. Having met both Chinese and Iranian Christians the idea they would even have a bible would be funny, if they did not in fact have to endure extreme anxiety, and often danger to practice their faith. Faith is the important word here. Christianity might be a cultural artefact to some, a way of showing they are doing the right thing, meeting the right requirements of respectability. However that doesnt make them christian. A religious belief is exactly that, a belief, not a set of actions, or boxes you can tick. The problem with a belief is that it is not a provable fact, since it is predicated on how someone feels. As Elizabeth I said, and I misquoted already, the only way to know if a belief is sincere is to make windows into men’s souls.
Given the impossibility of soul windows, is there a solution? There is, but it is not one those on the right will like. Currently we deem some migrants as somehow more acceptable than others, this acceptability is superficial, and doesnt extend to genuine support.We draw lines across the map, saying on this side you can have safety, on that side lie drone attacks and suffering. We will watch as your children drown, unless you pass our arbitrary criteria for persecution, and then we will constantly move the goal posts.
We could actually attempt to be a Christian country, to remember those most important words:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Only when we are willing to invite the stranger in, when people matter more than national boundaries, will the term a Christian country have any meaning.