“WHAT AN INSULT TO CHRISTIANS!” the headlines screamed at me from the front page of yesterday’s Daily Mail – apparently, British Airways’ standard free issue along with the Financial Times, for passengers – as I was boarding a plane in Lisbon. (The Mail has a decent centrefold pullout with puzzles to occupy one gainfully if one does not want to read or sleep on the plane. However, the headline had caught my attention, so solving the Sudoku had to wait.)
In the article that followed, the Mail’s outraged political correspondent, James Groves, expressed his strongly worded opinion about the latest advice coming from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), or, as he calls it, the “equalities watchdog”. As a consequence of a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights, a British Airways worker, Nadia Eweida, has earned the right to wear a crucifix at work. The decision overturns an earlier ruling in a British Court against Nadia. In its response to the European Court ruling, the EHRC has advised employers that – among other scenarios – this could open the door for vegan or vegetarian kitchen staff refusing to handle meat at work and environmentalists exercising the right to lecture those who use cars to travel to work. (As an aside, the “environmental lectures” would be reasonable, according to the EHRC. One wonders what would be their conclusion were someone to share the gospel as openly!)
There are two points in Groves’ article about which I wish to comment:
First, I am an evangelical Christian, intent on the good news of Jesus’ transforming power being spread and Christianity being promoted – not as a religion, but as the means to relationship with God. I want others to experience his love and grace and know his transforming presence in their lives. You would think, therefore, that I am pleased with Groves’ noble defence on behalf of all affronted Christians. But I am not. Instead, I am concerned that he chooses to keep the argument narrowed to the specific – that is, the effect on Christians – rather than addressing the wider principle. It spoils the good point he does make – and to which I will return later – by focusing on a specific group when a much larger community could be affected by the kind of thinking the EHRC is bandying about.
Britain is a multicultural society, with people of varying faiths embarked on different spiritual journeys. The advice being given by the EHRC has implications for people of all faiths, not just Christians. Instead of speaking up for religious freedom as a general principle, Groves chooses to separate, and thus isolate, Christianity. In so doing, he risks disaffecting many “neutrals” who may have been more susceptible to hearing and supporting a principle which was well articulated, than what, in the broader context of today’s United Kingdom, could be dismissed as sectarian posturing. The argument could be lost on those who feel that, yet again, Christians are bemoaning the fact that secularism has usurped our place in society; that it’s a question of sour grapes rather than an important issue that should give society pause. Perhaps the Church should defend Christianity, while journalists address the broader societal themes – for the sake of all that is holy!
Secondly, whereas I distance myself from his specific drumbeating rhetoric on behalf of offended Christians, I do agree with Groves’ main argument – that, regardless of how strongly they are held, lifestyle principles and/or persuasions which are motivated by political, ecological or dietary considerations cannot, and should not, be equated with deeply held spiritual convictions connected to faith. There are several problematical elements to such thinking, but I will confine myself to two.
On the one hand, it seeks to nullify religion, faith and all things sacred. Since this is the agenda of the aggressive secularism and active atheism that is prevalent in our society, I must wonder what motivation lies behind the EHRC’s work when the sacred is being reduced to the same level as lifestyle choices.
The secularist and the atheist reject the notion that there is a dimension to humankind beyond the soul – my soul is where I settle those lifestyle choices, pertaining to my diet, my engagement with the world, my sexuality and my body’s wellbeing. Beyond that, there is my ability to connect in the spiritual realm – many recognise that connection as being with God. Regardless as to what I call that relationship, it is a connection with a being outside of myself – a connection that cannot be equated with looking after the environment or not eating meat! So, in the name of all that is holy, EHRC, stop negating the role of religion and the fact of faith’s importance in the life of society and the individual by insisting on placing it alongside lifestyle choices!
On the other hand, if we accept the EHRC’s premise of equating lifestyle choices with matters of the faith, one wonders where the EHRC believes such choices should end. Where does one draw the line? Would it be in order for a fanatical sports fan to ask for time off work to watch a favourite team play on the basis that Nadia Eweida is wearing a crucifix to work – it would salve the consciences of so many who call in “sick” when a test match promises an exciting day’s play! Actually, it seems to me that the EHRC has decided where the line is drawn – all that is holy must cease to be sacred, in the name of all that is secularist.
I disagree with Groves about one other thing – this is not an insult to Christians. It is an insult to common sense and, therefore, an insult to the whole nation. In the name of all that is holy, EHRC, get a grip about what is sacred and what is not!