The Fourth Sunday in Lent

The letter is from a 2016 claim for asylum here in the UK. The letter denied asylum to the claimant. The Home Office letter to this Iranian Christian disputed the claimant’s assertion that she/he became a convert to Christianity because it was a ‘peaceful’ faith. The Home Office wrote that such an assertion was ‘inconsistent’ with passages from the Bible (in Leviticus, Revelation and Jesus’ words about bringing ‘a sword’) and thus is ‘filled with imagery of revenge, destruction, death and violence’. Consequently “these examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion, as opposed to Islam which contains violence, rage, and revenge”.

There has been quite a furore about this letter and the Home Office has issued a statement part of which says, “This letter is not in accordance with our policy approach to claims based on religious persecution, including conversions to a particular faith”. I am pleased the letter is being reviewed. I hope the claim for asylum is also being reviewed. But we should not be surprised that in a world of increasing religious illiteracy such things could happen in a bureaucracy – particularly if there is a hostile element present.

Nevertheless Christianity can’t be faux shocked about this allegation of violence. We only have to look around and look at history to see that Christians have been violent and vengeful. Conversely I know Muslims who would take issue with the association of Islam with violence, rage, and revenge because such behaviour is not true to the Islam of peace they know. And it is a strange world as I nod at the National Secular Society’s criticism of the Home Office’s action. “Decisions on the merits of an asylum appeal should be based on an assessment of the facts at hand – and not on the state’s interpretation of any given religion. It’s not the role of the Home Office to play theologian.”

How should a religion be assessed? By looking at the big picture it presents – the story of the divine and the human – and what that leads its followers to do. And in all such lofty thoughts we, as individuals, encounter other individuals and I think a religion might ‘boil down’ to how one behaves towards another person – the person who is next to us – not the person we’d prefer to be next to us – and why. How did the claimant feel receiving the letter? (How do we think he/she felt? How would we feel in such a situation?)

Jesus would tell his followers a few days before violence descended on him, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it (fed, gave drink, clothed, welcomed, visited) to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40 ESV). As Christians we say that the Biblical story is about God’s grace reaching us sinners and our faith is active in love. Our Gospel today reminds us that God is very much interested in the individual – the one sheep lost, the one coin to be found, and two sons who are outside home and in both cases the father goes out to them. Jesus’ death is for all but it specifically is for you. You. Individual you. That’s a picture of God that one might personally treasure – that God in Christ – comes to me – yes, even me. GS