At, perhaps, more than slight risk of hijacking this blog for my own ends and meandering beyond the academic into the ecclesial, I want to use it this morning to tackle a rather contentious but to me highly significant issue for British Christianity recently – the issue of the alleged persecution of the church in the West.
Let me first go on the record as saying that I find it deeply and sharply offensive that the Western church can even begin to compare the occasional minor inconvenience it has to endure to the suffering of Christians in minority communities throughout the world. A few days ago, we were told that over 200 (possibly as many as 300) Assyrian Christians had been kidnapped by ISIS and were facing a terrible fate (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-militants-kidnap-150-assyrians-as-activists-warn-attack-could-mark-end-of-christian-presence-in-middle-east-10068650.html – see also http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/isis-kidnaps-90-christians-in-syria). As I write, the dreadful rumour is that many of them are to be publicly executed, for nothing more than their faith (http://nypost.com/2015/03/01/slaughter-of-major-proportions-feared-after-isis-kidnaps-300-christians/). The concern – expressed also by a wide variety of groups and individuals elsewhere, including HRH Prince Charles – is that such opposition and persecution could lead to the end of Christianity in the Middle East. And (according to Open Doors), the situation in the Middle East even now is not as serious as that in North Korea (http://www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution/worldwatch/north_korea.php). Even in Pakistan, one of the UK’s allies in its troubled region, it is not unusual for Christians to be arraigned on trumped-up charges of blasphemy. It is not only Christians who suffer either — in Saudi Arabia, secularist journalists can be sentenced to 1,000 lashes simply for expressing their beliefs. That is religious persecution. Being wished ‘Happy Holidays’ in the US is not. The accidental blocking of the name of Jesus Christ by M&S’s online ordering system so it cannot be used as a swear word is not (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Society/article1525516.ece). When we claim otherwise, we mock the sacrifice of Christians and others who truly suffer for their faith worldwide.
Furthermore, the M&S case highlights how ready the mainstream as well as Christian media are to wilfully misunderstand and misinterpret. That misinterpretation, however, has been escalated by some church leaders, advocacy groups and bloggers who should know rather better. I want to suggest that a bit of fact-checking would not go amiss in many Christian circles. We are too ready to latch onto the headlines and not read behind them or think about their significance. This is little more than gossip and is just as harmful. So I plead to any readers of this post — please avoid both traps like the plague. Check stories out – think through their implications – ponder their significance. And then, when you are clear on the facts, feel free to speak out, but don’t be deluded into thinking that there’s some malicious secularist agenda behind every single technical flaw on a website.
What has this got to do with megachurch? Perhaps not a huge amount, but, it could easily be argued that megachurches are increasingly benefitting the public profile of Christianity in the UK. Their appearances on TV are more often welcomed than scorned these days. I believe there has been a sea change in the last 5-10 years which means that discussion of issues of religion is now welcomed in the public sphere, and politicians and policymakers appreciate and benefit from the input of key church leaders. Sarah Dunlop’s post previous to mine highlights the role of the church nationally in advocating social justice. My plea to the British Church is – don’t mess this up by offering foolish, ill-informed pronouncements that unduly magnify issues, misunderstand and misrepresent them. By all means speak up, but speak thoughtfully, insightfully and wisely. And get your facts right – otherwise you will deservedly lose the influence you have.