The downside of wishing the end of Christendom
An increasingly secular Britain is fast approaching the end of Christendom that many post-modern Christian thinkers longingly wish for. Many post modern Christian ideologues wait impatiently for such an era, and romanticize about the church finally being able to live on the edges and rediscover its pre-Constantinian grass roots radicalism. But do they know what they wish for?
The recent riots in the UK give us an insight into a society where the Christian voice and influence is banished from the public space and the resulting moral and ethical vacuum gives rise to unintended consequences. The cause of the riots are debatable, and there are many theories. The British Prime Minister has spoken of a slow moral decline. Some of the crimes committed during the riots have sickened the nation and led to searching questions about the moral and ethical climate that many Britons live in. One thing is sure, the moral compass that a Judeo-Christian society once provided is a thing of the past. In a secularized society there is no basis of morality that is universally accepted, and for many, little concept of morals or ethics.
3 Shining examples
In the chaos and the stories that have emerged, there were three particular moral decisions that were made that stood out to me. The first was that of a brave Muslim father, Tariq Jaham whose 21 year old son was mown down by a driver who is now under police arrest. His rage and anger at the senseless (and potentially racially motivated) death of his son would have been understandable, if not forgivable. But rather than stoking the already dangerous fires of chaos and hatred, he chose to make a stand and call people of all races to peace. This was in many commentators view the pivotal point of the riots, where the tide turned and began to recede, and order began to be restored. This last Sunday Tariq appeared and spoke at a peace rally in Birmingham, once again appealing for unity. As a man of faith Tariq’s decision was not merely moral but spiritual. Who would have thought that it took a Muslim man to rise up and be the difference in a situation that was looking to get out of hand and spread throughout the country? It upsets all the apple carts and blows apart many stereotypes of both Muslims and also of people of faith. In a secular Britain, with the instruments of State at hand, it took a man of faith to stand in the gap.
The second story that leaped out at me was that of Adrienne Ives, who made the courageous decision (along with her husband) to report her 18 year old daughter to police after seeing footage of her participating in the riot and attacking a police car. Knowing the serious consequences for her daughter she nevertheless felt that it was important to make the gut wrenching decision, “I love my daughter, any parent that loves their child should find the courage to do what we’ve done. It’s not easy, you have to. It’s our job as parents to do it.” It’s hard to imagine the moral courage that her decision took, and then the difficulty of following through on that decision. In a society where parenting skills are almost absent for many young people Adrienne made a stand that was a great example to many other parents, particularly those whose children had participated in the troubles.
The third story that made an impression on me was that of University graduate Natasha Reid, 24, who came from a comfortable family home and has just finished studying at university and was hoping to become a social worker. She was on her way to McDonalds and passed by a shop being looted and made a split second decision to steal a plasma tv. She wasn’t able to sleep all through Saturday night as she wrestled with guilt. On Sunday morning she presented herself to a police station with tv in hand, and was arrested and charged. She already had a 27inch tv in her bedroom and is at a loss as to why she made the decision she did. The consequences for her from this baffling decision are serious, both in the short and long term as she will now have a criminal record.
Hastening in the end game of Christendom
It’s one thing to wish for an end to an era in the church when the artificial propping up of Christendom is finally brought to an end and the church can contend for the Gospel without the dilution that such structures bring and the false reliance on the State for its existence. It’s entirely another to wish upon a society an age where Christians cannot contend for the kingdom of God in the public space and where the church cannot extend the sheer breadth of community care and compassion that it currently does in concert with governments at a local, and state level. Imagine a society where the likes of Tariq Jahan are pushed to the side and whose voice is silenced. In a truly secular society people of faith are objects of ridicule. Imagine a society where the likes of Adrienne Ives are a rare commodity, and where directive parenting with notions such as guilt, responsibility and culpability are regarded as harsh, judgmental religious dogma?
Already there are no shortage of voices seeking to explain away the riots as purely the blame of budget cuts to community services, policing and student benefits. Imagine a society where Natasha Reid could have slept soundly on Saturday night safe in the knowledge that the stealing of her new tv (which she didn’t need) wasn’t anything to feel guilty about?
Imagine a society where the church no longer collaborated with government in the provision of education, healthcare & hospitals, medical research, respite, community centres, community services, elderly care, etc? You are imagining a society which is all the more poorer.
The British Prime Minister was right when he said that ‘pockets’ of British society were ‘sick’. Surely the marginalization of the voice of the church in British society has contributed towards the moral vacuum that so many live in?
Don’t bother the heathen with Jesus’ values?
Many Christians believe its pointless trying to preach a Christian morality to people who do not follow Jesus. That is in essence to say that the moral and ethical values associated with the kingdom of God have no value outside of belief in God. In other words, unless you are a card carrying believer there’s no value in listening to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, no value in the Ten Commandments, or any other value that Scripture promotes for the good of human behaviour.
We can all agree that taking Jesus out of the heart of Christian ethics reduced the full impact and meaning, but we don’t agree that there is no value at all in promoting the values of the kingdom to a secular audience. Do we really want to remain silent on issues of justice, fairness, compassion, care, advocacy, fidelity, honesty, etc just because people don’t sign up for the whole deal?
Why would we need to ever remove Christ from the heart of ethics in any case? To the people who I journey with who walk on the other side of the road to me belief and behaviour wise, I still engage them on the pattern of life Christ would have them adopt. To the friend who struggles with alcohol I don’t preach temperance, I preach Christ and his capacity to liberate and heal. To the sexual deviant I don’t preach chastity, I preach Christ and his capacity to give meaning and purpose to a selfish life where others are used as a utility. To my friend trapped in anger I don’t just teach heavy breathing exercises but the liberating power of forgiveness. Whatever the problem, I address the issues and examine the outcomes but all in the context of the life of potential they could have in Christ rather than a moral code stripped of its centrepriece and raison d’etre. I feel no shame in talking to the world about Christ or promoting his teaching or principles especially in critical ethical issues. (There is of course much difference of opinion amongst Christians on key ethical issues and we are all like the Apostle Paul in that this side of heaven we can only ‘see through a glass dimly’.
Tether your ship to this anchor
Western society needs churches not just to have a presence when needed by needy people but to promote the Gospel and the values of the kingdom in an age where all secularism can produce is a bowdlerised version of ethics, a list of what you can’t do (driven by idealogy) without any reference to why. In a fluid ethical and spiritual landscape we must provide people with an anchorage point and an alternative to the emptiness of post-God thinking. The end of Christendom will make this task extremely difficult as the marginalization of the Christian voice will ensure that critical contributions in the public arena will no longer be able to be made. We don’t need to be one with the State, but we can continue to work in entrepreneurial collaboration with aspects of the State to produce outcomes that benefit people in a range of contexts.
Church & State in collaboration rather than joined at the hip
Sure the propagation of the Gospel does not need the apparatus of State. However, the entrepreneurial engagement by the State of the church in matters of care in the community produces much-needed outcomes. This occurs not only here in Australia but also in 3rd world contexts through support by the Australian government of mission agencies that are bringing much needed expertise in agriculture, clean water, health, education, etc.
Churches and para-church organisations in the UK in the areas affected by the riots have been very busy caring for victims, providing shelter and counseling for those who lost their homes, and also providing outreach to youth who have very little life horizons. They haven’t made the papers but they are being noticed by the community (as they always have been). The secular zealots at council and government level would do well to engage with the church as they address the aftermath of what has been called Britain’s first recreational riots. Helping hopeless communities rediscover hope and purpose will never be achieved with more police and more table tennis tables and better fiscal policies. Bring the hope givers in from the cold.
We cannot shrink back from continuing to hold up Christ and his kingdom to a world that proves time and time again that despite monumental advances in technology, the human condition is as afflicted as it ever was by sin and alienation from God.