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Archbishop of Canterbury - Cross is a challenge to the world

Posted on: April 4, 2010 11:41 PM
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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has used his Easter sermon to urge Christians to keep a proper sense of proportion when they feel they are experiencing opposition to their faith and remember both the physical suffering of Christian minorities in other countries and call to mind what exactly the Cross stands for in their faith.

In his Easter sermon delivered at Canterbury Cathedral he says that ‘bureaucratic silliness’ over displaying religious symbols should not be mistaken for physical persecution:

‘It is not the case that Christians are at risk of their lives or liberties in this country simply for being Christians. Whenever you hear overheated language about this remember those many, many places where persecution is real and Christians are being killed regularly and mercilessly or imprisoned and harassed for their resistance to injustice.”

“Remember our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and in Iraq, the Christian communities of southern Sudan … the Christian minorities in the Holy Land … or our own Anglican friends in Zimbabwe; … we need to keep a sense of perspective, and to redouble our prayers and concrete support.”

He says that the climate of intellectual opposition to Christianity – what he called ‘the strange mixture of contempt and fear towards the Christian faith’, regarding it as both irrelevant and a threat – is largely unjustified:

“… on many of the major moral questions of the day, the Christian Church still speaks for a substantial percentage of the country – not to mention speaking with the same concerns as people of other faiths. On burning questions like the rightness of assisted suicide, it is far from the case that the Christian view is only that of a tiny religious minority; and the debate is still very much alive.”

He challenges intellectual critics of religion and Christianity to come and see the difference that Christians are making in their communities

“… at local level, the Church’s continuing contribution to tackling the human problems no-one else is prepared to take on is one of the great untold stories of our time. I think of the work of a parish I visited in Cleethorpes a few weeks ago and the work they sponsor and organize with teenagers excluded from school in an area of high deprivation. I should be more impressed with secularist assaults if there were more sign of grass roots volunteer work of this intensity done by non-religious or anti-religious groups.”

“There are things to be properly afraid of in religious history, Christian and non-Christian; there are contemporary religious philosophies of the Taleban variety which we rightly want to resist as firmly as we can. But we do need to say to some of our critics that a visit to projects like the one I have mentioned ought to make it plain enough that the last thing in view is some kind of religious tyranny. And if any of the Church’s vocal critics would care to accompany me on such a visit, I should be delighted to oblige.”

But he says the Cross is an object that ought to be feared as well as respected because what it stands for is nothing less than the uncomfortable reality about ourselves and the world we live in:

… we must acknowledge our own share in what the cross is and represents; we must learn to see ourselves as caught up in a world where the innocent are scapegoated and killed and where we are all unwilling, to a greater or lesser degree, to face unwelcome truths about ourselves. We must learn to see that we cannot by our own wisdom and strength cut ourselves loose from the tangle of injustice, resentment, fear and prejudice that traps the human family in conflict and misery.”

And the hope that it represents is no less challenging, he says;

“If you want it to be invisible because it’s too upsetting to people’s security, I can well understand that; but let’s have it out in the open. Is the God we see in the cross, the God who lives through and beyond terrible dereliction and death and still promises mercy, renewal, life – is that God too much of a menace to be mentioned or shown in the public life and the human interactions of society?”

ENDS

The full text of the Archbishop's Easter sermon is below:

‘God has appointed him to judge everyone, alive or dead’ (Acts 10.41).

With a bit of a sigh, we read about yet another legal wrangle over the right to wear a cross in public while engaged in professional duties; one more small but significant mark of what many Christians feel is a sustained effort to discriminate against them and render their faith invisible and impotent in the public sphere. One more mark of the curious contemporary belief that Christians are both too unimportant for their convictions to be worth bothering with and too dangerous for them to be allowed to manifest those convictions…

Now it is quite likely that this latest folly, like others, is less a sign of deep anti-Christian feeling as such than the result of wooden-headed bureaucratic silliness combined with a well-meaning and completely misplaced anxiety about giving offence to non-Christians. But, while the legal issues are being fought over and the exact scope of religious freedom in the terms of human rights legislation is debated, we might step back a pace or two and think about the larger picture.

It is not the case that Christians are at risk of their lives or liberties in this country simply for being Christians. Whenever you hear overheated language about this, remember those many, many places where persecution is real and Christians are being killed regularly and mercilessly or imprisoned and harassed for their resistance to injustice. Remember our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and in Iraq, the Christian communities of southern Sudan fearing the outbreak of another civil war, the Christian minorities in the Holy Land facing the extinction of their two-thousand year old presence there; or our own Anglican friends in Zimbabwe, still – as I reminded this Cathedral congregation at Christmas – subject to routine attack from the security forces and locked out of their churches. That’s not our situation, thank God, and we need to keep a sense of perspective, and to redouble our prayers and concrete support.

But we have a problem all right and it needs reflection. Why this strange mixture of contempt and fear towards the Christian faith? If you think of all the high-profile attacks on Christianity that have been published in recent years, you may wonder why those who shout most loudly about the irreversible decline of Christianity campaign so ferociously against something which, on their own account, is withering away.

Some would answer that Christianity – in the shape of the Church of England anyway – still has a social and moral influence way beyond what its numbers justify; hence the campaigning. They see the Church as a retrograde force constantly seeking to impose alien standards on society, yet commanding very little grass roots support.

This doesn’t quite wash. On many of the major moral questions of the day, the Christian Church still speaks for a substantial percentage of the country – not to mention speaking with the same concerns as people of other faiths. On burning questions like the rightness of assisted suicide, it is far from the case that the Christian view is only that of a tiny religious minority; and the debate is still very much alive. More important still is the very large number of the population who believe that Christian perspectives should have a place in public discussion and decision-making – a belief that has been rather strengthened than otherwise by the realization in the last eighteen months that the value- free climate of much of our financial and public life has poisoned and wounded our society more deeply than we knew. And at local level, the Church’s continuing contribution to tackling the human problems no-one else is prepared to take on is one of the great untold stories of our time. I think of the work of a parish I visited in Cleethorpes a few weeks ago and the work they sponsor and organize with teenagers excluded from school in an area of high deprivation. I should be more impressed with secularist assaults if there were more sign of grass roots volunteer work of this intensity done by non-religious or anti-religious groups.

So yes, it’s possible to understand the fear that religious people will automatically want to put the clock back to an age when the Church simply decided the fate of everyone and blandly appealed to supernatural authority when challenged. No-one, to coin a phrase, expects the Spanish Inquisition. There are things to be properly afraid of in religious history, Christian and non-Christian; there are contemporary religious philosophies of the Taleban variety which we rightly want to resist as firmly as we can. But we do need to say to some of our critics that a visit to projects like the one I have mentioned ought to make it plain enough that the last thing in view is some kind of religious tyranny. And if any of the Church’s vocal critics would care to accompany me on such a visit, I should be delighted to oblige.

But the New Testament suggests there may be something more at work when people fear the gospel and the cross. Our second reading today hints at this. As so often in these early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, St Peter underlines the fact that the resurrection of Jesus means that the one who was so decisively, annihilatingly, dismissed by the religious and political establishment of the time is the one who will decide the destiny of every human being. We shall all be judged by our response to him, to the divine and human person who has carried the cost of our mindless violence, our pride and self-satisfaction, our reluctance to face the truth. The court of final appeal in all human affairs is Christ; how we define ourselves in relation to him is a matter of life or death.

This is not about some fussy insistence on saying the right words and joining the right organization, as if St Peter were simply recruiting members for the Christian club. Jesus himself reminds us starkly in the gospel that we may be seeing him where we think we can’t see him or don’t know him – and that we may be failing to see him when we’re making all the right noises about him. One day we are all going to discover in the presence of God who we are and how we stand with God, whether we can bear the presence of God for eternity; and in that moment of discovery, what will be crucial is how we have reacted to and understood the gift of God in the life and death of a man rejected and tortured to death.

The preaching of Peter and Paul and all the witnesses of the Risen Jesus says that two basic things are demanded of us. First: we must acknowledge our own share in what the cross is and represents; we must learn to see ourselves as caught up in a world where the innocent are scapegoated and killed and where we are all unwilling, to a greater or lesser degree, to face unwelcome truths about ourselves. We must learn to see that we cannot by our own wisdom and strength cut ourselves loose from the tangle of injustice, resentment, fear and prejudice that traps the human family in conflict and misery.  

And second: we must learn to trust that love and justice are not defeated by our failure; that God has provided from his own strength and resourcefulness a way to freedom, once we have become able to recognise in the face of the suffering Jesus his own divine promise of mercy and life. The resurrection is the manifesting to the world of the triumph of a love that uses no coercion or manipulation but is simply itself – an indestructible love. The challenge of Easter is to believe that God is not defeated by the most extreme rejection imaginable.

Good news? Emphatically yes. But not easy news. To recognise God in the crucified Jesus alters so much: it alters what we think about God, and it alters where we look for God in the human world. It suggests uncomfortably that God is likeliest to be found among those we have, like the religious and political establishment of Jesus’ day, dismissed or shut out; it suggests that our models of success and failure have to be turned upside down; it suggests that our eternal future is bound up with whether we are able to turn to those we have hurt and seek forgiveness. 

And so much else. Put like that, it is not surprising that the gospel and the cross could provoke fear and an unwillingness to allow such thoughts to become part of the current of public discussion. And perhaps it is not surprising either that we who call ourselves Christians may secretly be happier treating the cross just as a ‘religious symbol’ than letting ourselves be shaken and unmade and remade by it.

I don’t imagine for a moment that much, if any, of this is going on in the mind of some hyper-conscientious administrative officer rebuking an employee for wearing a cross to work or even saying a prayer with a colleague. But perhaps we should take the opportunity of saying, ‘This is what the cross actually means. If you want it to be invisible because it’s too upsetting to people’s security, I can well understand that; but let’s have it out in the open. Is the God we see in the cross, the God who lives through and beyond terrible dereliction and death and still promises mercy, renewal, life – is that God too much of a menace to be mentioned or shown in the public life and the human interactions of society?’

For Christians, making the cross invisible is dangerously close to making both ultimate tragedy and undefeated love invisible. If we fear what these petty bureaucratic assaults mean, it should not be because we fear for ourselves or our faith or our God, who is amply able to look after himself. It should be because we fear for a society that cannot cope with the realities of unspeakable human tragedy and cannot cope either with the hope of ultimate healing and reconciliation; a society that shrinks into its comfort zones when challenged. At the most extreme points, the defence of those comfort zones can and often has meant the violent rejection of Christian faith; we have lately been recalling the martyrdom thirty years ago of Archbishop Oscar Romero for his fearless rebukes to a murderous and corrupt government in El Salvador. As I’ve said, we must not dramatise our own situation unduly when we see how serious the rejection of the cross can be in circumstances like that. But there are connections – because the word of the cross, as St Paul said, is a nonsense and a shock for all who want to decide right and wrong, life and death, only in terms of their own security.

So at least the petty annoyances of our context may give us a chance to explain both why you would be right to be afraid of the word of the cross and why you need to hear the Risen Jesus saying, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ The human condition is more serious and more terribly damaged than anyone wants to hear; but the resource of God’s self-emptying love is greater than we have words to express. We are to be judged by our relation with the crucified; yet once we have accepted what that means, we are also released and absolved.   If that is indeed the promise of the cross, it’s well worth being obstinate about the freedom to show it to the world – so long as we ourselves are ready to show it in lives that look for Christ in the outcast, that examine their own failures in truthfulness and that constantly seek to share forgiveness and hope.