26 March 2013

Where is the Christian Voice?

by Dr Philip Church

On 13 March our politicians approved the second reading of the Marriage Equality Bill. It is not my intention to comment on the rights or wrongs of “marriage equality.” On that I have mostly applied the Amos 5:13 principle: “the prudent will keep silent in such a time.” What I do want to comment on is the marginalisation of the Christian voice in the media. Some opinion pieces from Christians have been published, but in the main the media have supported the Bill either explicitly or implicitly. Some of the more extreme contributions against the Bill have been published, but very few of the reasoned contributions from within the Christian church have appeared.

In addition to this, some commentators are calling for the silencing of the Christian voice. In a piece published in the NZ Herald on 1 March one Sam Clements claimed that advances in scientific knowledge have now limited the ability of the church to “brainwash the masses,” that “religious adherence, at least in the developed world, is in free-fall,” with the result that we can debate issues such as this “based on evidence, reason, and progressive outlook, not hysterical and irrational fear-mongering and melodrama.”

Then, on 15 March, in the same newspaper, Toby Manhire referred to opposition to the Bill as “haphazard, incoherent and at times semi-literate.” He also proposed removing marriage from the statute books altogether so that people can marry as they will, and concluded his article by suggesting that the churches could debate marriage as much as they liked, but we needed to “[g]et God out of the state.” Then, on 26 March, when the results of an opinion poll indicated increased opposition to the Bill, it was attributed to “religious scaremongering!” This is nothing new of course. Many people argue that a Christian voice has no place in our secular, post-Christendom society. And while we can no longer expect deference to be given to our views because of who and what we are, it does seem to me that Christian voices should be able to be heard in the public square alongside other voices.

While this debate has been raging I have been thinking about the book of Revelation. This book is a mix of apocalyptic and Christian prophecy in the form of a letter to seven beleaguered churches in what is now Western Turkey. They were marginalised by the Empire and facing persecution. One contribution that apocalyptic literature makes to marginalised believers to assure them that in the heavenly world, God's side of reality, all is well, for God is enthroned in heaven, and will ultimately vindicate his people. Reading Revelation also reminds God's people that it may get worse before it gets better, and it tells them how they should live in such circumstances.

A few years ago I visited Rome. While I was there I saw an artist’s impression of the city in the first century. Similar pictures are available on the internet (e.g. http://sebastian-corn.tapirul.net/93/insemnarea-93/). It was clearly magnificent. What impressed me walking around the Forum though was that the epicentre of this once great Empire which tried to suppress Christianity and to marginalise the followers of Jesus now lies in ruins.

On the same trip I also went to Western Turkey and visited the locations of those seven churches. I saw the ruins of an ancient church in every place. These were much later churches of course, maybe four or five centuries later, for when Revelation was written the believers would have met in homes. Like the Roman Forum, these churches are also in ruins. Revelation warns most of these churches about syncretism and idolatry, with the threat that if they do not repent they will face ruin. Apparently they didn’t heed the warnings. Some believers did, though, and are described as "those who conquer" – the forces of evil, that is, including syncretism from within and the Empire from without.

The ruined churches in Turkey reminded me that what was once a vibrant centre of Christianity almost died. Not completely though, for early in the twentieth century most of the remaining Christians were “cleansed” from the country. It is now over 99% Muslim. But the church has risen again in Turkey. Today there are about 5,000 followers of Jesus there, marginalised of course, and often harassed. They are mostly former Muslims who have had a life-transforming encounter with Jesus. And while they are faithfully following Jesus and proclaiming the good news, God is adding to their number. God is still on the side of his marginalised people.

So what would John, the author of Revelation say to the followers of Jesus in the present situation? I don’t think he would tell us to shout louder in an attempt to be heard. I do think he would tell us to live as faithful followers of Jesus. When faced with increasing marginalisation, the followers of Jesus are called to follow the example of Jesus.

In Revelation 5, John hears a voice from God's throne announcing that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev 5:5). He turns to look at the lion, and sees instead “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” Christ’s victory was won by his execution at the hands of Rome. Later in the book those who conquer do so “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. They are described as those who do “not cling to life even in the face of death" (12:11). There is no room for triumphalism; there is no room for shouting. We are simply called to be faithful followers of Jesus, and to live and proclaim the good news. Our, enlightened and come-of-age western civilisation may ultimately go the way of Ancient Rome. But God is still enthroned and will ultimately vindicate his people who remain faithful.

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