Canon J John: the Signs of the Times?
Canon J. John
‘One swallow does not make a summer’ goes the saying and I interpret it to mean that you should not turn a single incident into a sign of a trend. However, when two similar incidents follow in rapid succession, even the cautious observer is entitled to suspect that something is up. And in the last two weeks we have had two incidents in which British ‘officialdom’ has decided to be foolishly unpleasant to Christians about the Bible.
One was where an open-air preacher, Oluwole Ilesanmi, was arrested and accused of causing a breach of the peace, being racist and, according to some accounts, Islamophobic. It has to be said that the aggressive manner in which he was treated, had his Bible snatched from him and was handcuffed, is not what one expects from the British police force. Or at least what one didn’t used to expect. He was later – wonderful phrase – ‘de-arrested’. I gather that the case is being reviewed and would like to think that the ‘enthusiasm’ of the police officers involved has been rebuked.
The second case involves an Iranian national seeking asylum who claimed in his application that he converted from Islam because Christianity was a peaceful religion. Extraordinarily, the Home Office apparently wrote a lengthy and offensive letter of refusal, denying that Christianity was peaceful and quoting – or misquoting – biblical passages to make their point. This, too, has not gone unnoticed and protests are, quite rightly, being made.
Although different, these two events are clearly linked to reveal a widespread and arrogant scorn for the Bible and its message. Three points come to mind.
First, to be so dismissive of the Bible is to lack wisdom about the past. It would take an extraordinary level of ignorance to deny the fundamental role of the Bible in creating British culture. For nearly 500 years the Bible in the language of ordinary people has been part of British society and influenced who we are and what behaviour we praise or condemn. From it we have learned the value of such things as the worth of all human beings, care for our neighbour, humility, truth, honesty, faithfulness within marriage and many other virtues. True, we may not have always practised what the Bible preaches but in doing so we have always known we have rejected its standards. It is symptomatic of the Bible’s influence that it is given to the monarch at the coronation and that a copy is present on the table between the benches in the House of Commons. After the last election over 400 of the 650 MPs chose to swear an oath of allegiance on a Bible. The Bible is part of our heritage and should be honoured on that basis alone.
Second, to be so dismissive of the Bible is to lack wisdom about the present. The United Kingdom is somewhat unusual among nations in having no written constitution. One major reason for this is that precisely because the Bible holds out a moral framework for how we are to live, a definition of rights, duties and limits has never been felt to be necessary. After all, in the Bible we find clearly stated how individuals are to relate to each other and to the state and how, in turn, the state is to relate to them. We learn from the Bible that we are accountable to God for our actions and should live accordingly. We are warned that because sin colours even the best intentions, checks and measures have to be put in place to ensure that evil does not triumph in private and public life. Without a Bible we have a nation without a moral rulebook.
Finally, to be so dismissive of the Bible is to lack wisdom about the future. What we are seeing in both these cases is someone or other from ‘officialdom’ standing up and either preventing a book being read aloud or imposing their interpretation of it. This is extraordinary arrogance. One of the most universal elements of modern liberal Western culture, and one that we all enjoy, is freedom of speech. Yet here, quietly but unmistakably, agents of the state are using their authority to silence or reinterpret a holy book. Questions multiply. Who exactly are these people who have taken it upon themselves to be our moral guardians? Who are they answerable to? Who has given them authority? Suddenly the chilling world of Orwell’s 1984 seems uncomfortably close.
A linked and deeper question should worry all of us. What limits, if any, do these people have? Let them ban or reinterpret the Bible today and where will they stop tomorrow? After all, almost everything in literature can be guaranteed to be offensive to someone, somewhere. And the seizure of power by authority over what is said and done does not stop with books, does it? In 1821 the German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote, ‘Where they burn books, so will they in the end burn human beings.’ Just over a hundred years later his own books were burnt by the Nazis, who then went on to burn people.
Society always needs the Bible but never more so than when, as now, a culture arises in which authority is exercised with arrogance and without accountability. For the good of our souls and the good of our society we need to let the Bible speak and be heard today.
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