THERE is a lot of talk today about Britain as “a Christian country”. We are urged to take pride in this identity, to fly the flag of a system of beliefs and values which have made us what we are. The word Christian is seen as a noun, a set of virtues, an identity to protect and declare.
So why does this make me cringe, especially in the mouths of politicians?
Let me first of all declare my hand. I often tell people I am a Christian. Why? Because I try to be one. But beyond the memories of hymns in the Welsh valley of my boyhood or of the gospel choir where I sang when I worked as a scientist in the US, what does it mean?
What do you have to do to be a Christian, and what do you get for it? Some would say the essence of Christianity is belief in a set of creeds and performance of particularly sacred rituals. Others that you only have to “let Jesus into your heart”. For that you get eventually to live forever with God in heaven. It sounds like a good deal.
So let’s ask what they used to call the $64,000 question. Will God know that you are a Christian if you do this? Will he like it and give you the benefits?
The people selling God – and there are a lot of these – will tell you the answer is yes. But we had better be careful of our definitions, of being sure God is on our side. Even our own sacred texts may say the opposite. Take this one: “I am full of burnt offerings ...it is an abomination to me sayeth the Lord. Your new moons and your appointed seasons, my soul hateth.”
The God of Isaiah, at least, is repelled by ritual and observance if it is missing justice, compassion and sincerity. In fact the great prophets of every religion, including Jesus, made it abundantly clear that to God it was what was in our heart and mind, rather in our appearance, that mattered.
Time and again the prophets turned expectation on its head; it was practically a job description and it often went down badly. Jesus had little time for the overtly religious, the legalistically pious or the philanthropist who gave with status in mind rather than actually doing good. Instead he honoured the Samaritan who tended the wounds of a stranger, those who fed the hungry or visited the prisoner. He preferred the widow’s private gift to the ostentatious donation.
His condemnation of self-righteous pomp was devastating, just as it had been with the prophets before him. There was only one measure of how much a man loved and honoured his God. It had to show in how he treated his brothers and sisters, his neighbour. The standard was high – love your neighbour as yourself. As who was that neighbour – everyone, even the person who abused you.
Suddenly being a Christian gets more challenging. Jesus (who was, of course, a Jew) said you must think like this: “Our Father which art in Heaven Hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
This is the big one. We repeat these words often, but we can completely overlook their message. It is not enough to leave God’s will for Heaven – it has to be visible on Earth. He wants love in action. Religion not as a noun but as an adjective, a verb.
On Easter Morning, I was thinking about the dead and dying. Would they see God in Heaven if they are Christians? And what if they weren’t? What could any of this mean in our battered world? In churches across our supposedly-Christian nation, voices proclaimed Christ is risen, that death had been overcome. But what of us? What makes that story of resurrection so important?
Our media commentators mock the jihadist’s view of paradise, but what is our alternative? What is this promised eternal life? A poetic myth, a release from pain and suffering? Or as some of our church altarpieces portray, is our reward that we will we sing hymns in the presence of God?
For me, in my sweet world, what does that mean? Damn little, because I can hold those I love in my arms, and be with them to eat and drink, to laugh and feel their love for me. What more could there be than that? What could any heaven offer me compared to that?
Is our nation Christian? Is any? Only when loving actions make it so. It is a big ask, but it does not require an Act of Parliament or the blessing of a bishop (or rabbi or imam). If you are seeking the kingdom of heaven, the message is simple: start where you are.
We have such a lot to learn, such a long way to go, none of us should wave our religion as a flag. It is not by our cathedrals or hymns or traditions that we will be known. Christian is as Christian does. Let’s leave the assessment to God, and hope for a mercy we do not deserve.
Professor Sir Keith Burnett is vice chancellor of the University of Sheffield.