Radical christianity and tolerance

[n.b. I had this prepared prior to the events in France last week. If anything I think it is more pertinent now when discussing the backgrounds of the perpetrators of the violence witnessed and some media commentators have used the word ‘radical’ in what I believe to be a misguided sense]

During the Christmas holidays, I found myself (as one does) watching repeats of debates in the House of Lords on BBC Parliament. One that caught my attention was from the 27th of November, entitled the role of religion  in British public life. The comments varied in quality, though it was mostly positive and civilised. Standing out though was this statement by Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, reflecting on the modern tendency to misuse the word ‘radical’:

I am very grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing this vital debate. This has been a difficult week, in which we had the report on the activities of Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, and the radicalism, as the Home Secretary referred to it, of their lives, which brought about the tragic and evil death of Lee Rigby.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to do two things. First, I want to recapture the word radical—and radicalism—from being seen as negative. It enters the lexicon of common understanding as something we despise. As a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that the lifestyle he promoted and spoke of was radical. People criticised him for being associated with those who society despised. He made it clear that if you want to find life you must choose to give it away. He made it clear that the obsession of our day, which is the relentless pursuit of materialism, ought to be focused on the pursuit of the kingdom of God. These are radical truths, and if radicalism is to be seen as a negative and religion is to become known—and if I dare say so particularly Church of England Christianity, of which I am very grateful to be at times a member—for its tolerance and its mediocrity, then we have lost something profoundly essential. The very nature of faith allegiance, belief, and the love relationship that followers have with the one they follow requires radical living.

Radicalism, in our modern society, is seen as extreme. If you hold strong views—if you believe distinctly in certain values—that puts you on the edge of unreasonableness. However, that is exactly what would have been said of Jesus, and many of us are happy to line up with him. That radicalism is the pursuit of justice, the sharing of the commitment of one’s life, and the giving away of oneself. That is the radicalism that we need to discover in our century.

When I think of radical people I am delighted to mention two people who live in the noble and right reverend Lord’s own area of Oxford: two very dear friends of mine, Tom and Jane Benyon. In the last three years, these two people—one in their 60s, one in their mid-70s—have walked 1,500 miles to raise £2 million for the poorest people of the broken communities of Zimbabwe. Why does a former Conservative MP from another place choose to commit himself to the task of walking around England when he needs a hip replacement, in order to raise money for the people of Zimbabwe, for which he gets no gratitude from the British Government, let alone the Zimbabwean Government? It is because of his radical pursuit of the conviction that he says Jesus has placed on him and on his wife—the founder of the first food bank in Oxford, now a network of food banks; it is because the radical pursuit of Jesus, of belief, of conviction, leads you to defined and distinct actions.

The embrace of people on the outside is not about a tolerant place in which we can all feel easily comfortable, it has to be about a radical place in which we make distinct decisions to help those on the margins, to choose to act with justice, to receive those who have little and to give to them, even from our little. The Economist, just a few weeks ago, had an amazing report on the growth of the church in China—fascinating: 300 million committed believers, followers of Jesus, in China. It is amazing—almost more people than the population of the United States. However, the Economist concluded with a very interesting reflection: what, it asked, would kill this church dead? The answer was: if it becomes institutionalised, if it becomes a state-accepted church. In that case it will accept the tolerance required by the state and the system; it will lose its edge; it will give way to being simply an accepted mediocrity. It will no longer challenge its society. And so it will die. Let us get radicalism back into the agenda of our faith.

It is worth noting a later comment from Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve on the matter of toleration, whose views are more similar to my own:

I want to make three points. First, this right [freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as stated in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights] is the successor to the great traditions that established the importance of religious toleration in north-western Europe, above all in Britain and the Low Countries in and following the Reformation. Today, toleration is often interpreted in a tepid way as no more than a matter of putting up with something, so as to demand no more than mere indifference. Unlike my noble friend Lord Hastings I take a more radical and classical view of toleration. Nothing could have been further from the view of the early protagonists of religious toleration than the thought that it was something tepid or mere indifference. They thought of it as a profoundly, excruciatingly difficult virtue—a duty not to repress belief or to persecute others, even when their beliefs were taken to be profoundly wrong and subversive.

When Oliver Cromwell famously wrote in 1650 to the Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland with the words:

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”,

he was acknowledging that tolerating others’ beliefs can be enormously hard because we may find it impossible to imagine that our own beliefs could be mistaken. Toleration became central to the history of Europe and, subsequently, of human rights, not because it was a matter of indifference but because it was profoundly difficult and yet a duty.

I was pleasantly surprised to see such informed comments on matters of religion be uttered in Parliament. You may find the full debate in the Parliamentary record, Hansard, here (scroll down to 11:53am).

One of the offshoots of this is a question that’s troubled me for some time. We often hear that the fastest growing church in the world is the Chinese, as testified to above, but I never hear of any Chinese school of thought in theology. Are they producing a generation of theologians to inform their congregations and the servant leadership? If not, from where do they draw their theology? If you know what shape the answer may take, then please let me know.

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