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Christians Picking Sides at St Paul's

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If they don't want to be identified with extremists, why do they reveal they are religious? The paraphrased question, asked on Radio 4 a while back, related to the Ennahda party, winners of last week's Tunisian election. But the sentiment will be familiar to Christians. Religious people should ignore or at least hide their beliefs when engaging in politics. Religiously motivated politicians and voters will always be unreasonable and oppressive.

Religious people have done themselves no favours in this, but unless you're the kind of dribbling goon who thinks anything useful can be achieved without the beliefs and ideologies that unite social movements, it's obvious that secular philosophies have just as many crazy-eyed zealots. So get over it.

I for one make no apologies for my politics' religious motivations. That can irritate many in the secular world, particularly on the Left. But then, within the Church it sometimes feels as if a similar prejudice is in effect about talking practical politics. Talk 'values' and you're fine with secularists. Mention a specific faith and you're crazy. Talk political engagement in the Church and you're responsible. Pick a side and you're 'politicising the pulpit'.

A few weeks back, Giles Fraser resigned from St Paul's Cathedral over plans to remove anti-capitalism protesters' camp from its doorstep by force. Judging by his comments, it seems he was siding more with democracy's right to free speech than a hatred of capitalism, but he still came out looking like he sided with those who want to call the world economic system to account.

Fraser might imagine 'Jesus being born in the camp', but the question many Christians have been asking is whether effectively siding with the protesters has been worth the lost revenues for the cathedral and the controversy for the Church. In short, there are lots of causes out there - is this one worth a battle for the soul of the Church, or should we stay, on balance, neutral, so as not to alienate those who disagree with either side? Essentially, is this something on which Christians should debate and pick a side?

I can certainly see the value of British Christian vagueness on all but the most obvious or popular social causes. Millionaires and conservatives need salvation and the Church as much as anarchists and socialists. But then, so do drug dealers, pimps, murderers and despots. Slave-traders, porn-stars and prostitutes may well, if Jesus comments about the sick needing a doctor are to be taken seriously, need Christ more. And yet, we feel perfectly comfortable with saying things about the choices and philosophies often involved in those types of life that may well cause anger and resentment.

We are a religion of truth. I understand the desire among some Christians to soften the gospel, to reject or ignore some aspects of traditional Christian teaching in order to make room for those who otherwise could not face being part of the Church. It makes me uneasy, but I believe God can and does bless it in many cases. But I also believe there are lines which, once crossed, take one into territory that is no longer Christian. I will not presume to try to draw them, and I believe God is powerful and wonderful enough to work even there, where his adopted children fear to tread, but we who want to remain true to the gospel that was preached to us should not be afraid to preach truth, even if some disagree with it. Even if it will alienate.

The Church has been pretty good at embracing this principle when its traditional position on the issues concerned matches that of societal prejudice. And hey, sometimes societal prejudice may be right. Murder turns out to be both theologically and popularly wrong. But so many of the 'causes' that define perceptions of Christians are both salvifically irrelevant and underrepresented in Scripture.

The plight of the poor, economic justice and reigning in the powerful to protect the weak are neither. We need to pick a side.

This piece first appeared in The Baptist Times