Christendom, capitalism and conservatives*

*Ok, so I don’t actually mention conservatives in this blog post, although they’re lurking implicitly in the background. Nevertheless, I include them in the title for the satisfaction of a soundly evangelical three-points-beginning-with-the-same-letter approach for those of you  who’ll appreciate that…

My research proposal is getting me down. It’s technical, number-centred, and requires precision and attention to detail. Not my forte. Suddenly I am missing my essays and the potential to be a bit more abstractly opinionated.

On the plus side, when I give up on that (fairly regularly), I find myself rather geekily enjoying revision. At the moment, I’m grappling with different conceptualisations of poverty and the finer points of capitalism. I remember the recent documentary series about the Empire and its description of the simultaneous/conflated exporting of ‘Christianity and commerce: two Victorian obsessions’. Where missionaries led, traders apparently followed.

It’s with that in mind that I decide  to work out why I’m feeling increasingly irritated by all the forwarded emails I keep getting about signing petitions from the ‘Marriage Coalition’ and various Christian lobby groups. The most recent one – ‘Help us Champion Christian Liberty’ – ominously warned that we ‘ignore challenges to Christianity at our peril’.

While the report to which that email drew attention focussed on the marginalisation of Christianity in the UK by The Powers That Be, it at least conceded that ‘the last century saw a privatisation of faith and the development of a sacred-secular divide through which Christianity lost much of its social and political influence. Now, too often the Church is defined by what it opposes rather than what it stands for. It is essential that Christians once again provide hope and a vision for society that goes beyond defending their own interests and includes the good of all.’

Nevertheless, that’s not really the message that seems to be seeping out from the emails about it. Somehow, all I seem to be hearing is what Hill describes as ‘fear and panic’ as people ‘cling desperately to the remains of Christendom’. Hill’s alternative is an emergent Leftwing Christianity which continues an age-old tradition in which Christendom has been ‘challenged by people who called for a return to J’s revolutionary message’. This new trend, he suggests, bodes well for ‘Christians who do not want the options for the future to be nothing more than a choice between promoting bigotry and maintaining tourist attractions’.

It’s an interesting read, but I’m not totally sure that leftwingism is the answer in and of itself. Nor, in fact, am I really sure that I’ve made up my mind on the whole debate about which values, policies, and freedoms to fight for in this increasingly secular public sphere which masquerades as neutral and benevolent. That said, having just written an essay on multiculturalism, I’ve got a few half-formed thoughts that can feed into my deliberations once I’ve got these exams out of the way. For now, in the absence of headspace, I choose a more positive question to consider.

‘The question remains, for those with faith,‘ suggests my friend Brian: ‘What is it we have, that we wish to pass on?’

He writes: ‘And perhaps that’s where we struggle, as Christians, and why our message, at least here in the West, isn’t as viral as it could be. What should be so infectious about the ‘good news’ that we simply can’t stop its transmission?

‘The danger is that we focus on our ‘religion’ – championing the supremacy of our beliefs over others. But religion is not a subversive idea worth spreading. Jesus knew that, and offered something more potent: the prospect of a life so compelling, so worth living, it’s worth giving up everything else for, even dying for.

‘Now, that would be contagious, wouldn’t it? Perhaps. But the challenge for Christians, even as we seek to disseminate the gospel through our talks, tweets, videos, and even emails like this one, is whether we’re dying to live this Way ourselves. For that’s how the word really spreads…’

That’s the challenge that gets me every time. E-v-e-r-y time. It’s so much easier to blame The System and the Big Bad Capitalists. Or to diss The Institutions which tone down and mainstream a counter-cultural and paradigm-shifting message, preached on a hillside to a ramshackle collection of those with ears to hear. Or to get irritated by the panic of those who seem to want the Kingdom on earth to be a bit more legislated than I think I do. Much easier than questioning the extent to which I’ve bought into a worldview that legitimises profit and gain at any cost. Much easier than recognising the ways in which the Word, the Way and the Life so easily stop being Him and start being commodities which slot into an otherwise bog-standardly Western worldview and lifestyle.

Yep, it’s about the systems, the structures, the politics, the institutions and all that. And I’m well up for challenging some of those. But it’s also about the people who sustain them, and not only the-easy-to-criticise high profile ones. It’s about me. About you. About us. About giving up what we can’t keep to save what we can’t lose. Right?

Brian concludes: ‘From one man, to twelve. A handful becomes a multitude. A multitude is moved, transformed. The Spirit flows. The movement overflows, with life. It really is good news. Pass it on.’

Recognising there’s stuff here that I want to think through some more (comments and suggestions welcome), I return reluctantly to the study that I should be doing and leave you with the pre-Christendomised message of that one man. Those who listened to it first time round thought it was the best thing they’d ever heard and life was never the same again. May it still be so.

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