It is the perennial, and not at all unjustified, question: “Come on then, what’s up with this God of yours? The one who both claims that the meek shall inherit the earth and commands numerous genocides such as against the Amalekites? He who slain covetous, deceitful Ananias and Sapphira on the spot yet spared covetous, deceitful Zacchaeus? How can you defend such a contradictory and fickle deity?”
These are tricky contradictions indeed, and many, invariably far more theologically qualified, individuals have agonised over them for centuries. Fortunately, with the arrival of Christmas and a focus on the fundamental bread-and-butter of the Christian existence, we are all afforded some illumination to guide us through this thorny path that leads to understanding what the role of Christians in the present day is.
Two millennia ago, God came into the world in a chilly outhouse under the aegis of a newly-wed teenager and her bewildered, carpenter husband. Whilst all of Israel, groaning under the weight of military occupation, waited with baited breath for a saviour to descend in radiant robes and with a gilded sceptre, their messiah was swaddled in a straw-lined manger. Outcasts from the nearby hills and foreign scholars were the first to visit. So unknown was the face of this infant King, that unnerved Herod ordered all the infants of the land to be slaughtered as a safeguard against the supposed dynastic threat.
Throughout the Nativity, the traditional dynamics of power are inverted in the face of a higher, celestial purpose. Shepherds are the honoured guests and princes are excluded and wracked with insecurity as God brings the starkest realities of his kingship to humankind. This theme of inverted power dynamics- the defence of the oppressed and humbling of the mighty- crops up time and again as the Gospel progresses: Christ defends the prostitute, tends to the lepers and lame, and advises a Pharisee’s dinner party guests to always take the lowliest seat at the dinner table, to name but a few examples. The climax of the Easter resurrection embodies the most dramatic inversion of them all: the triumph of a man over all-encompassing death (and, in socio-political terms, the harshest punishment a government can exact).
However, we must take a step back. However severely inverted this power dynamic might be- and however politically the power might manifest itself- political structures remain intact. Christ declares that he has come to ‘bring… a sword’, but rebukes St Peter for wielding one against an official party. He overturns the merchants’ tables in the temple, but never defiles the temple itself. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” He teaches in St Matthew’s Gospel, and five chapters later submits Himself to the most severe form of capital punishment. In short, Christ, God incarnate, may well promote social and political subversion that rejects entrenched power dynamics, but never condones the violent anarchy of outright and total revolution. Indeed, St Paul famous exhorted the churches in Rome to be “subject to the governing authority”.
This socio-political facet of God- one that is structurally (perhaps one could anachronistically say ‘constitutionally’) conservative yet radical within whichever structure exists at a given time- begins to resolve the contradictions I outlined in my opening paragraph. God operates within the contemporaneous political paradigm of a warrior society as he sends the armies of his beleaguered and fledgling Chosen People against their bellicose neighbours. Fast-forward to Roman Judea, and He spares the state-sponsored publicanus Zacchaeus in order to both demonstrate that He is not a threat to the framework of Imperial government but will subvert its oppressive excesses. Ananias and Sapphira jeopardised the integrity of the new, humble and collectivist Church by exemplifying the private commercialism that had resulted in (as traditional Christian perspective would have it) the cash-rich, spiritually-impoverished and socially-oppressive practices of first-century Judaism. Although the God of the Christians remains eternally the same, He manifests Himself and His unchanging values differently depending on the social and political circumstances of the age. He is only as fluid in His appearances as the vicissitudes of humankind.
Regardless of the historical authenticity of the Biblical narrative- and most sane theologians recognise large chunks of it to be metaphorical and allegorical- the core ‘Christian’ socio-political ethic that emerges out of the entire span of Scripture, from Eden to Apocalypse, is a moral imperative to compassionately defend defenceless and protect the vulnerable, to constantly seek to subvert and invert power dynamics without disrupting what we might now call ‘the state’ itself. Substitute moral imperative as derived from God with moral imperative as derived from a sense of fundamental concern for one’s fellow human being, and this Christian ethic is rendered remarkably similar to an overarching secular humanist one.
So what about being a Christian in 2017? How are we to conduct ourselves in civic and political society? Who are the shepherds of our era, the lepers and lame of our time? The ones whom no one wants to touch, to whom Christians owe their voice and their advocacy? The outcasts whom Christ would defend publicly in the town square and tend shamelessly to at the city gate?
Herein lies the thorniness of our current situation: six out of ten self-identified Christian voters opted for ‘Brexit’. One in three French Catholics voted for Le Pen’s Front National in the 2015 regional elections. Eighty per-cent of white evangelical Christians swallowed any misgivings that they might have had and plumped for Trump earlier this month. Even if every single one of these voters made their decision off the back of profound and genuinely-felt religious beliefs (something that I find a little hard to believe given the increasing co-option of ‘Christian identity’ into a neo-sectarian culturally conservative identity within the Euro-American sphere) the results of these elections have produced extremely problematic results for the basic Christian socio-political ethic.
Far from alleviating the lot of the oppressed, it has multiplied their number. The victories of Le Pen, Brexit and Trump have tilted an already asymmetric power dynamic further in favour the white, the male, the indigenous, the straight and, despite the socio-economic bracket of many supporters of the populist right, the wealthy. The surge in hate crimes, as those with latent hatred feel empowered and electorally vindicated, is but a foretaste of what administrations may well enact on a nationwide scale, especially the new one in the US led by a cheating misogynist and ‘gay conversion therapy’ proponent. On this side of the Atlantic, one hardly sees much sympathy from May’s post-Brexit government for the desperation of refugees, a category that by all accounts is long-established as a worthy recipient of Christian pity and charity.
Conservative-learning Christians may stop here and rip their newspaper in twain, accusing me of relativising Christianity, wilfully disregarding specific Scripture that explicitly condemns minorities like the LGTBQ+ community, and abandoning the evangelising zeal of the Great Commission in favour of ‘easier’ multiculturalism. This is the most fundamental problem of being a ‘Christian’ in 2017: denominations, probably individual churches, are riven down the middle, unable to agree quite who is ‘deserving’ of Christian protection and advocacy and how this might be performed, which weakens the potential of the Body of Christ as a whole.
However, Christianity is an inherently relativised movement: the God of ancient Israel and first-century Judea appeared differently within different circumstances in order to proclaim the same agenda of inverting temporal power dynamics, and so must He appear differently through us in our own time. Scriptural passages must be read in relation to both their historical context and the rest of the Bible; cherry-picked literalism is a poor and foolish hermeneutic approach. To proselytise ruthlessly, to culturally impose, to view oneself as a latter-day Richard the Lionheart, is to cheapen Christianity to a whitened sepulchre devoid of the love and humanity that should define it: Christ responded to the plights of the Syrophonecian woman and Roman centurion for a reason.
Just as the love of God is all-encompassing, unconditional and universal, so must our temporal projection of it be. The ‘accidentals’ of a person does not negate their very human spirit- made in God’s own image, no less- that qualifies them for Christian compassion, charity, advocacy and protection. Unfortunately for those who might want to deleteriously expunge the ‘gayness’ out of young people or expel the infidels from Christendom (as if that’s a geographic place), the scripturally holistic approach to the basic Christian socio-political ethic as explain in this article makes the duty of the faithful for 2017 abundantly clear yet admittedly difficult: peaceably defend whomsoever might be oppressed as we enter a new, culturally and socially ‘conservative’ era in the Euro-American West. Remember that Christ never wanted to overthrow a government, but always sought to turn the tables against the powerful and proud.
Christmastide is the great and holy light that burns through the bleak midwinter, the celebration of the celestial fire that illuminates the Christian mission that seeks to exalt the humble and rescue the oppressed. Whereas for many years now that mission has seemed straightforward in the context of this fleeting world, the social and political tumults of 2015 and especially 2016 has rendered it all the more challenging, yet all the more urgent. It is time for Christians to resist the power dynamics that tighten their grip on our fellow brothers and sisters, to reject the oppression that so many fellow ‘Christians’ seem keen to perpetuate, to signal the end of an ‘armchair Christianity’ and rise up in the defiant spirit of living love and compassion.