Are those who call for the return of a cherished ‘Christian nation’ missing the prophetic point? Dave Roberts questions where we ever were a Christian nation and argues for a servant-hearted approach to influencing our local communities and wider society for Christ.
The British church is facing huge challenges. We find ourselves grappling with the paradox of falling numbers, we face a cultural hostility to Christianity expressed in the denigration of the gospels in the Da Vinci Code and the dismissal of God by leading scientist Richard Dawkins. We believe that we are surrounded by moral decay.
What will be the foundation for our strategies of engagement with our culture, our communities and our government? The default stance of some evangelicals is to crusade against changes in the law that dilute our ‘Christian heritage’ amid prayers and preaching that call for a return to a ‘Christian Britain’. Is this the route to take? Or should we work to protect our freedom of speech and expression but articulate a prophetic analysis of contemporary life - without seeking to impose our morality through legislation?
Two of the most outspoken voices on the current situation in the UK are Stephen Green of Christian Voice and Wale Babatunde, the respected senior minister of the World Harvest Christian Centre and author of Awake Great Britain.
Amid Stephen Green’s concerns over moral failure, the growth of other religions and the failings of the BBC over the Jerry Springer Opera, his belief in the Christian nature of our nation emerges. ‘We uphold Christianity as the faith of the United Kingdom’ is a key tenet of the Christian Voice ethos. It touches all they do. Their opposition to the planned 70,000-seater mosque in the East End is linked to their belief in Christian nationhood. Their website explains that ‘We also oppose the mosque since it is one more way of undermining the truth that our nation belongs to the Lord Almighty.’
Wale Babatunde is equally adamant. Writing in ‘Great Britain has Fallen’ he notes that we don’t have the favour displayed to the Jews, but he claims we have a special privileged position with God. ‘God called and blessed Great Britain and made its name great’ – he writes. This he believes made it possible for us to be ‘the leading missionary nation through which the gospel has spread.’
He goes on to note the influence of Christianity on our culture and society. ‘He has done this for no other nation, and as a result we have had great leaders, a strong and noble economy and maritime power.’ Wale doesn’t seek a ban on the building of mosques but he’s clearly not happy. ‘Modern Britain is a multi-cultural society, which has allowed a whole variety of foreign religions and practices to flourish,’ he writes. He quotes David E Gardner’s alarm that this should ‘happen on the Lord’s Day’ (The Trumpet Sounds for Britain Volume 3). Responding to a Hindu ceremony in Trafalgar Square, Gardner writes: ‘Never did I imagine (seeing) this... kind of thing happening here - in my own native Christian England... Members of Parliament and the highest in the land would have brushed the whole idea on one side as totally impossible’.
Cleaning Up Our Own House Legitimate questions may arise about the motives of some religious groups. What if a group has terrorist links, as is alleged with respect to the backers of the East London Olympic mosque? Northern Ireland political firebrand Rev Ian Paisley once called for the setting up of a ‘third force’ – a militia that would have acted outside UK law if the situation demanded it. Rousas Rushdoony, a seminal Presbyterian figure in the religious right in the USA wanted to establish a Christian state, stone homosexuals and impose his morality on the non elect.
The best selling ‘Left Behind’ writer Tim LaHaye, who started his political life as a member of the ultra right wing John Birch society, has allowed computer games relating to the Left Behind series to portray Christian militia battling with heathen forces in one of his apocalyptic end time fantasies. If you’re going to ban the mosque you need to ban Paisley, LaHaye and Rushdoony. Laws exist to help stop terrorist acts. But I contend we are on a slippery slope however if you seek to prohibit the religion that sometimes informs it. There is much that Green and Babatunde say that would therefore earn the ‘amen’ of many, including myself. But I must ask: Did God select us for greatness and did we spearhead world mission?
Mission comes from the margins
The modern world has been shaped by significant nations beside Britain. France, a bastion of God rejecting humanism, Spain and Portugal, who exported Catholicism to the four corners of the earth, have all impacted many nations. Maybe it’s possible to be ‘great’ by simply being imperialistic? The spread of empire is usually fuelled by the economic ambitions of libertarian elites whose faith is nominal at best.And what of the claim that we are the leading mission sending nation? One view of history might suggest that the most significant missionary sending nation is actually Ireland (North and South) and that the history of both Protestant and Catholic mission has been dominated by this island that sent its people, but didn’t export its nationhood and empire.
Another view of mission might suggest that the fathers of modern mission were the radical, pre Reformation Waldensians or the Czech Brethren. They in turn inspired pioneers such as the German Count Zinzendorf. He left his mark through his influence on John Wesley and the then marginal Baptist mission pioneer William Carey. Mission came from those who had no control of the levers of state. The gospel has gone to the ends of the earth because of faithful and often marginal churches not faithful nations. Let’s now examine some of the examples that Wale Babatunde holds up to us in his writings as those who helped shape our Christian nationhood.
Despite her lip service to the Christian foundations for our nation and her desire to be the ‘first earthly monarch to take my crown and lay it at His feet’ should Christ return, Elizabeth the first was deeply involved in the mystical sects of her day such as the Rosicurians. Encyclopaedia Britannica highlights that the astrologist John Dee ‘Besides practicing astrology and horoscopy in the court of Elizabeth the first, whose favour he enjoyed, he [John Dee] also gave instruction and advice to pilots and navigators who were exploring the New World. He was asked to name a propitious day for Elizabeth’s coronation, and he gave her lessons in the mystical interpretation of his writings.’ William the third hardly fares better. The Orange Orders that bear his name in Northern Ireland are modelled on the structures, rituals and imagery of the Freemasons, albeit with some small changes of wording.
William, applauded by some Protestants for his victory over the Catholic James I at the Battle of the Boyne, had only recently stopped receiving payment from the Pope, who was keen to contain the political power of the French and the Spanish. The Pope celebrated the victory at the Boyne with a special Mass. The English political power brokers didn’t trust William and sought to preserve the protestant faith in the 1688 Constitution in case he reverted to Catholicism. William was no friend of radical Christian faith and went on to blight the life of the nation by relaxing the gin laws. Gin sales exploded. The impact on the working man and the urban poor is pictured in the devastating pictures of Hogarth. The modern equivalent would be the legalisation of cannabis! George the third is held up to us one who was the subject of ‘Divine Providence’ and during whose reign the nation became great. Masonic historians have suggested however that freemasonry started to receive royal support from the time of George the second and that six of George the third’s sons were members.
The monarchs of Great Britain have been complicit in the growth of the Freemasons since it’s inception in the early 1700’s and up to this present day with George the sixth being highly active as well as Prince Michael of Kent. Those charged with defending the faith have been leaders in a religious system that marginalizes Jesus and promotes universalism. Our Christian nation state has often been complicit in the murderous blasphemies of events such as the 12th century crusades, the Cromwelliangenocide at Drogheda, the slave trade and the persecution of dissenters from the time of Constantine until the late 17th century.
The prophetic stance of Tyndale and Wycliffe who bought the Bible to the common man, the Wesleys who made concrete the idea of the priesthood of all believers, and the Wilberforce and Shaftesbury style reformers who sought to bring about justice for the oppressed, are the key to the worldwide influence of the British church but not the so called greatness of our nation. The seduction of nationhood
Could it be that we teeter on the brink of an idolatry of our nation? Christian Britain, Christian America, Christian nations - it’s a seduction. We’re like ancient Israel, asking God for a King. We must stop looking at earthly kings or presidents as prophets of God. Jesus and the Kingdom of God expressed through the local church is the only blueprint we have or need. Greg Boyd, writing in The Myth of a Christian Nation (Zondervan) captures it well: ‘God’s kingdom looks like Jesus,and no amount of sword wielding, however just it may be, can ever get a person, government, nation or world closer to that.’
What can we learn from the New Testament church about our relationship to the state? Jesus found himself in an intolerant nation, in the midst of a spiritually diverse empire. The Romans were often universalists, they saw value in all religions. Jews of the day were hostile to Samaritans, Romans, friends of Romans such as tax collectors, and anyone who did not share their view of law and purity as a means of earning God’s pleasure and blessing for their nation. Jesus came and disrupted the conventional view of power by refusing the offer of it from the devil, turning down the offer of it from his followers after the feeding of the 5,000, and didn’t ask for it when he needed it the most, and at a time when he reminds us that he could have called on 10,000 angels. The church that bore his name had no state infrastructure or legal power, but like many non-Western churches today, flourished in the most unpromising of situations. The early church outside of Israel worked in situations of utter decadence. Divorce was simple and common place. Abortion was routine and infanticide was both commonplace and like abortion, at the whim of a fathers discretion. The societies of the day were marked by a tolerance of routine homosexual activity between adult men and boys. Mystical religions flourished and are the focus of much of the teaching in Colossians. Paul, Peter and the other disciples simply sought out those who had ears to hear. They weren’t lobbying the Athens council to close down the pagan shrines that dotted Mars Hill or lobbying the Senate of the day to ban homosexuality. The evangelistic modus operandi of the early church consisted of community, compassion and the seeking out of the spiritually hungry for dialogue about the life of Jesus. The redemptive community was (and is) the church, not the nation. There was no place for nationalistic idolatry in the early church. In Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
Salvation impact came through the grace of relationship not the compulsion of law. The early church provided a place where divorce was discouraged and human life valued. It took note of the call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). It only sought to uphold its standards within the family and the church community. It had no means of legislating either morality or faith until the syncretistic pagan emperor Constantine added Christianity to his favourite religion of the day list, crediting God with supporting him in his acts of violence and war. Attempting to ban other religions or impose Christian morality is the Pharisees’ way. Acts of grace are the mercies that will lead people to repentance, not laws (Romans 2:4).
It’s clear however, from the New Testament, that there was a place for civil authority - the church was to pray for leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2) and their role in restraining evil. No mandate is offered for their violent overthrow, even when their regimes were marked by injustice. Change came through influence and a change in the way that whole communities thought. Like Paul we can invoke our citizenship, play a part in the discourses in our society and defend our own freedom of expression and witness. We ask only to have a voice, not demand that we be the only voice.
I am not advocating that we leave the arena of politics. But our everyday decisions can have political impact. Looking after asylum seekers is a political act. Running language courses for Polish émigrés is a political act. Unifying with other races to worship Jesus is a political statement. Respecting the dignity of Muslims whilst rejecting their worldview is a political act. Buying fair trade coffee and exposing sex trafficking is a political prophetic action.
The Christian writer and social activist John Yoder writes of his concern that we believe we can affect change by ‘getting hold of society as a whole at the top’. Greg Boyd reinforces this: ‘The question that wins the world is not, how can we get our ‘morally superior’ way enforced in the world? The question that wins the world, and the question that must define the individual and collective life of kingdom-of-God citizens is, how do we take up our cross for the world? How do we best communicate to others their unsurpassable worth before God? How do we serve and wash the feet of the oppressed and despised? We conquer not by the power of the sword but ‘by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of (our) testimony’.
Our supposed Christian nationhood is largely a myth where God language masks the reality of paganism, injustice, greed and corruption. Will those who invoke it set it aside and build churches that change the nation from the roots? I ask; will those who seek to prophesy to our society frame their comments as a statement about the wisdom of God and an invitation to life - rather than the statements of judgment that are often heard in both private conversation and public discourse? Will we broaden the scope of our prophetic observation to include the whole fabric of life and not just sexual morality and idolatrous religions?Will we be the church of the sword, telling our governments to legislate? Or will we be the church of the towel, washing the feet of our society through compassion, mercy and kindness and causing many to turn from the sin that daily destroys their lives?
Dave Roberts is a publisher and local church pastor. He was formerly editor of Alpha and Renewal magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.tahilla.com