Peter's Blog

The heart of Christianity?

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Faith and politics make uneasy bedfellows at the best of times (though, I would argue, that they must inform each other), but no more so than during Holy Week as we approach Easter. In an article with Premier Christianity magazine David Cameron gave us an Easter message that ends thus:

I hope everyone can share in the belief of trying to lift people up rather than count people out. Those values and principles are not the exclusive preserve of one faith or religion. They are something I hope everyone in our country believes.

    That after all is the heart of the Christian message. It’s the principle around which the Easter celebration is built. Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children. And today, that message matters more than ever. 

Much of what Cameron says is pretty inoffensive, talking about how we should support one another and trying to make the case that the policies the Conservatives have been pursuing do that (while acknowledging that many do not agree with that view). Yet it is when Cameron more overtly describes the Easter message that things start to get rather strange and well-meaningly (I have to give him the benefit of the doubt) Orwellian. For the leader of our government to be talking about the nature of the cross and the Easter message in such inoffensive and platitudinous terms certainly led me to pause for thought. The cross was, is and should be utterly offensive. The events of Holy Week, both in Jesus' taunting of the authorities and powers of government; the dreadful fickleness of the crowd (democracy at its worst?) chanting songs of welcome and joy in one moment and then baying for blood in the next; and ultimately the politics and intrigue that led to Golgotha, the cross and the tomb do not speak of 'taking responsibility for your life' as Cameron seems to suggest.

An editorial in the Guardian skewers Cameron for his article:

Jesus did not really preach hard work, responsibility, or family values. He told his followers to consider the lilies of the field, to have no thought for the morrow, and to leave their father and mother to follow him. He came not to bring peace, but revolt. The Easter story makes even democracy look like an instrument of evil. It is the crowd who demand that Jesus be crucified and Pilate who goes along with them.

    What Christianity brought into the world wasn’t compassion, kindness, decency, hard work, or any of the other respectable virtues, real and necessary though they are. It was the extraordinary idea that people have worth in themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, regardless even of their moral qualities. That is what is meant by the Christian talk of being saved by grace rather than works, and by the Christian assertion that God loves everyone, the malformed, the poor, the disabled and even the foreigner.

    The idea that humans are valuable just for being human is, many would say, absurd. We assert it in the face of all the facts of history, and arguably even of biology. This idea entered the world with Christianity, and scandalised both Romans and Greeks, but it is now the common currency of western humanism, and of human rights. It underpinned the building of the welfare state, and its maintenance over the years by millions of people of all faiths and none.

    It is also an idea that Mr Cameron’s government has defined itself against. The assaults on social security, on migrants, and even on the teaching of the humanities, are all underpinned by a belief that the essential metric of human worth is their utility, and in practice their usefulness to the rich in particular, because it is the marketplace that provides the only final judgment.

I confess to find it rather galling to be lectured on 'responsibility' by Cameron and to have that explicitly linked to the Easter message. An appeal for votes, no doubt, on Cameron's behalf, but one that falls far, far short for those of us who have been walking with Jesus through the events of Holy Week. Last night in the church we held a Service of Tenebrae, in which we all listened and sang songs that recounted Jesus' story, and certainly for me, thoughts of 'living responsibly' were not the focus. A final reflection from the liturgy we used (courtesy of Spill the Beans) said this:

“Truly this was the Son of God”
proclaimed by a centurion
doing the bidding of an oppressive regime,
believed by the women
who gathered around the cross
unable to leave Jesus
even though witnessing his agony
was killing their soul.

    The Son of God
who had spoken of his impending suffering and death
breathed his last
and died.

    And the truth was revealed:
truly this was the Son of God.

So, what is the heart of Christianity? What is the story of Easter? Giles Fraser gives us a different perspective from Cameron's, and the shocking reality of a faith that acknowledges and indeed necessitates failure. His takeaway for me:

The Christian story, like the best sort of terrifying psychoanalysis, strips you down to nothing in order for you to face yourself anew. For it turns out that losers are not despised or rejected, not ultimately. In fact, losers can discover something about themselves that winners cannot ever appreciate – that they are loved and wanted simply because of who they are and not because of what they achieve. That despite it all, raw humanity is glorious and wonderful, entirely worthy of love. This is revealed precisely at the greatest point of dejection. The resurrection is not a conjuring trick with bones. It is a revelation that love is stronger than death, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success.

Easter cannot be reduced to inoffensive platitudes, whatever a vote hungry politician, however well-meaning, might hope.