The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Earlier in July the British Government hosted the Global Freedom of Religion or Belief Ministerial Meeting for government officials from more than 30 countries plus representatives from international organisations, academia, church groups, interfaith groups, and civil society. Even though Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this right includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance’ the reality can be very different for many people who do not have such or much freedom.

I was talking with other church representatives (via Churches Together in England meetings) and the issues here in the UK where we do not have persecution of Christians as it exists in other parts of the world (see the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] Support for Persecuted Christians, June 2019 – ) is about how to share the hope we have in Jesus without imposing it and the boundaries of being a disciple when words and actions are deemed to be offensive or oppressive by others but not by the disciple. Who sets the boundaries?

Secularism has taken the view that only it can be tolerant and that religion, by its nature, is divisive and so should be pushed from the ‘public square’. If religions are intolerant then it is a no-brainer that at best they should be private things and society can flourish with law and reason and tolerance and yet this last decade has seen more tension, factions, cynicism, claims of false / fake news (truth) and an increasing intolerance of difference regarding all manner of things. It seems to me that there is no longer agreement on what is good and true and noble and honourable – and practising such things can seem a distant past. Religion provides a framework for an agreed reality because with a deity you have meaning and purpose whereas with secularism there is no agreed reality which seems to lead to chaos and nihilism. 

I’m not suggesting that all religions are equal or that they don’t have their problems and their histories of power and abuse but that if everyone in a society accepts enough of the ‘big story’ that what emerges can be more tolerance not less tolerance. And I see Christianity as offering the best possibility for tolerance because it doesn’t need a theocracy to exist nor is one its goal. In fact until Constantine legalised Christianity in the 4th century, Christians had to learn to live as aliens in a foreign land. They were law abiding most of the time (and resisted laws that made them disobey God) but their goal was not to rule on Earth but to live with Jesus where he placed them serving others. Yes, their personal ethics were different in terms of life, marriage, and sex to society but their goal was to follow Jesus (in communities) and share their hope in him. Of course, our society today has been shaped by Christianity having power and influence for over a millennia which have shaped our laws (including Article 18), culture, art, literature, science and so on and it has provided the foundations for such things as truth, honesty, faithfulness, sacrifice, service as the real things that bind and build a society.

I see in Christianity and in being a Christian clear truths about reality, about humanity, about what life is about and how a good life might be lived. I see discipleship not as seeking to dominate others but in service to others based on these truths. All this is easy to write! It is in the living our faith among others – Christians and non Christians – that it becomes hard but that’s when we are encouraged that we are not alone for Jesus is with us. Jesus’ truth will never be destroyed or eliminated – he is risen indeed! – and Jesus still draws people to himself so that we can life with freedom (Galatians 5:1) – and the freedom we have is to speak the truth in love and to serve sacrificially.