Just how far does the concept of Christian solidarity extend?
Oh no. I had made a double booking. My heart sank. What to do? Some middle class friends – all in standard-issue English summer kit: cream suits and Boden dresses – were driving over from Putney for me to baptise their new son, the wonderful Arthur Montgomery. The bubbly and egg sandwiches were all ready on tressle tables in the garden. The day was perfect and sunny. It was to be one of those quiet private baptisms that some vicars disapprove of: after all, being baptised into the Christian faith is to be baptised into a wider family than that bequeathed by biology.
But – ah! – the church wasn’t free. I had forgotten I’d given permission for a neighbour of mine, an Ethiopian pastor, to run a whole-day prayer service for his community. They’d set up their PA system, got banners printed and the church was full of a few hundred Ethiopian evangelical Christians enthusiastically singing prayers in Amharic, hands aloft, faces semi-ecstatic. And not a Boden dress among them. But there was only one thing to do: we were going to have to share the space.
When my Putney friends arrived they were already slightly discombobulated, having been greeted in the car park by the sight of a man shooting up heroin into his penis. I apologised for that and then broke the news that their private little gathering wasn’t going to be as private as they’d expected. So as we got round the font, the Ethiopians began to sing a chorus for little Arthur. Unusual sounds filled the air.
The Ethiopian kids and the Putney kids edged nervously towards each other. We used holy water from the river Jordan and we all prayed for peace in the Holy Land. To my relief, it was all OK. In fact, it was better than OK. Something connected the whole group across an enormous ethnic and cultural divide, something, in my more religious moments, I would want to call being a part of the body of Christ. Baptism is about being reborn into a new, wider family – which is why Jesus is not all that interested in the narrow nuclear family and was often quite dismissive of his own. “Best Christening we’ve ever been to,” the Putney crowd declared.
Of course, religion’s cultured despisers will be suspicious of this connection. But even without any sort of specifically religious apologetics, there is surely a case for valuing anything that forges unlikely connections between peoples of very different experiences and backgrounds. After all, most groups outside the workplace are gathered on the basis of some class or ethnic sameness – and anything that disrupts our neat social silos has to be a good thing. But how far does this body of Christ idea extend?
In Iraq, right now, tens of thousands of Christians are being driven from their homes under threat of death by Islamist jihadists. But, hitherto, this has hardly made the intercession list in many churches. Rev Andrew White, once a vicar in Balham and now vicar of Bagdhad, tells of the horrendous atrocities meeted out to religious minorities by Isis: “They have chopped off heads, chopped children in half, hanged people on crosses. The stories are so bad they don’t sound true – but I’m afraid they are.” And White is furious that the British government is so far refusing to take any of these people as refugees.
If David Cameron is sincere in his commitment to Britain as a Christian country, he ought to offer safe haven to these fellow Christians being butchered in Iraq, or so the argument goes. The body of Christ etc. But where does this leave the Yazidis, who are being equally persecuted in Iraq? For it wasn’t religious solidarity that brought the Putney and Ethiopian kids towards each other: it was the simple solidarity of being human.
In this article in the ‘Guardian’ (Comment is Free section), Fr. Giles Fraser poses the question of precisely how broad our sympathies should be in the present conflicts around the world – with special reference tor the current ISIS invasion of Iraq.
In his demonstration of Christian hospitality in a situation of cultural difference – where a parish Baptism takes place in the midst of the celebrations of a different ethnic congregation – Fr.Giles is querying our openness to other religious groups who are being persecuted by fundamentalists of an alien religion. The question that might be at issue is; how far are we as Christians willing to go to protect the common human rights of people other than those of our own faith community?
This is not a purely hypothetical question for people in the U.K. who are being challenged to treat the asylum claims of non-Christian groups – like the Yazidi, presently being pursued by ISIS in a bid to force them to convert to the ISIS brand of fundamentalist Islam – in the same way as they would those of the Christian minority, that is also being subjected to the same violence, at the hands of the same terrorist group.
The point at issue, for Giles Fraser, and for many of us who are Christians, is; do we consider we only have a duty towards the rescue of our own faith community members in situations like Mosul and Baghdad, or in other places where innocent people are being persecuted for their adherence to another faith group? Or do we believe that our Christian duty might be towards all fellow human beings who are suffering persecution because of ethnic, tribal or other difference?
Do we consider such matters as being only a basic immigration problem? Or is the issue of a common human right to live life in peace and security, free from persecution and violence, more important to us as fellow members of the human race? This is not an easy question to answer, but we must surely be prepared to give it our best consideration.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand