As Theresa May tours the Middle East, she’s being questioned by journalists about comments made by the Archbishop of York and other church leaders.
What vital issue has led Christians to speak out in a way that leads to May being questioned? Have they challenged May over her visit to the vicious regime of Saudi Arabia and its suppression of Christians and other minorities? Have they commented on the dreadful war in Yemen, that May’s government is fuelling with continued arms sales?
No, of course not. They’ve criticised Cadbury’s and the National Trust for not mentioning Easter often enough.
Many people see Christian churches in Britain as irrelevant, concerned with trivialities and obsessed with their own status. Who can blame such perceptions when church leaders act like this?
The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has accused Cadbury’s of "spitting on the grave" of their Quaker founder, John Cadbury. But in reality, most Quakers in the early nineteenth century did not celebrate Easter or Christmas (a practice continued by conservative Quakers today) on the grounds that every day is holy.
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has waded into the debate, saying that Cadbury’s behaviour represents an abandonment of Britain’s "Judaeo-Christian heritage". Farage has yet to explain the connection between chocolate eggs and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Cadbury’s have denied abandoning the word "Easter", saying that it is only the name of their egg hunts that has changed, not the whole description. I could investigate further to find out how often Cadbury’s mentions Easter but, to be frank, I really don’t care.
This is because I’ve no desire to confuse the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection with a largely secular chocolate festival that has virtually nothing to do with it save the timing. In the same way, let’s not confuse the celebration of Jesus’ birth with a festival of consumerism that happens on the same day. Expecting people to shove in references to Easter and Christmas in commercial events implies that the best we can hope for is a token recognition of Christianity within secular celebrations. Surely there’s more to the Gospel than that?
As a Christian, I get very excited about Jesus. When working on my last book, it was a privilege for me to read the gospels with people who had rarely if ever opened a Bible before. I saw their interest, their enthusiasm, their many questions and insights, as they read of a man who sided with the marginalised, confronted the powerful, mocked religious hypocrisy and was seen as an enemy by an imperial superpower. They read of a community around Jesus in which all were welcomed and all were challenged. They read of the Kingdom of God, loyalty to which involves the rejection of the kingdoms and powers of this world.
I saw such enthusiasm on the part of some of them that I was filled with thanks to God. I cannot imagine any of those people becoming excited over the name of Cadbury’s egg hunts, or connecting it what they read in the gospels.
There are plenty of reasons for Christians to speak out about policies and practices that are contrary to Christian values. Many of the values found in the New Testament are explicitly at odds with the dominant policies and attitudes of British society today. The Bible champions refugees. Today they are vilified in the mass media. Jesus exemplified nonviolent resistance to injustice. The UK has one of the highest military budgets in the world. Jesus was executed by a militarist empire. The UK government is prepared to be subservient to Donald Trump.
There are even reasons to criticise Cadburys: the company has been accused of tax avoidance for years, depriving society of much needed resources.
As Christians, we should expect to be at the margins of society, not because we’re happy to be there but because we’re siding with those who are pushed to the margins and working against the sinful systems that put them there.
Britain has never been a Christian country. Jesus did not advocate "Christian countries". He proclaimed the Kingdom of God. We too can proclaim the Kingdom of God. Or we can whinge about corporations not paying lip-service to Christianity. A church that chooses the latter is not a church of which I want to be part.