The Invisibility Of Christianity
Why is Christianity invisible in this Coronavirus crisis? Christian leaders have nothing to say, or, if they are saying something, no-one is interested in publicising it. Has Christianity not got anything to contribute to this state of near emergency, to this lock down house arrest, to fearful and mentally suffering citizens, to sick and dying and bereaved, to victims of domestic abuse and child abuse, to unemployed and state dependent, to front line NHS staff, care home staff, home care staff, to family members unable to visit, see each other and touch?
Has Christianity nothing to say to all powerful governments, to near communist centralising of power and decision-making, to unprecedented social control, to the closing down of Christian worship, to the wrecking of livelihoods, to the depressing of the nation in all the dimensions of its existence?
Has Christianity nothing to say to the world’s humanity about its purpose, direction, destiny, about the origins of evil, about base human conduct, about power and greed, about humanity and good neighbourliness, about sacrificial living, about Godlessness? What about computer modelling, the guessing game, scientific optimism and pessimism, theoretical absolutism, competing explanations, grants and funding for answers, financial rewards and Nobel prizes? And especially, what about the continuing prevalence of disease in humanity, generation to generation, century to century, millennia to millennia?
The Pope is the most visible single leadership voice of Christianity in the world. Other denominational leaders have nothing like the profile and are rarely heard from though they together represent almost as many as the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. There are evangelical television and online outreaches in the United States of America, South American countries and South Korea. It is big business. The British media are more interested in Islam than in Christianity. Daily television news bulletins now rarely fail to include a Muslim related item. There never has been any proper media evaluation of the claims of Islam and no acknowledgement of its rejection of Christianity and of its imperative that all humanity should become Muslim. There is no correlation of the prevalence of violence in Islamic countries with the doctrines and history of Islam. Nothing is said about the suffering of Christians in Muslim countries.
How has it become the case that to disagree with Islam can be regarded as a hate crime? How has criticism of Islam become conjoined to racism? Why does equality legislation not apply to Islamic family life? Why are sharia courts allowed to offer an alternative legal structure within the land? How is it that Islam has got under the skin of governments and media if not because of its unsettling and frightening absolutes set against the liberalism and vacuity of the established Christian churches? Fierce looking bearded men in middle eastern clothing contrast with bespectacled, pleasant, ingratiating Dad’s Army type clergy.
Christianity forms the largest social grouping within the human community, upwards of 2.3 billion identifying as Christian. This compares with the numbers of those who identify with political parties in the nations of the world. About one hundred million Americans identify equally as Republicans, Democrats and Independents but they are not card carrying members. 1,617,989 voted for Scottish independence in the 2014 Referendum out of a total population of 5,338.000, this being about 30%. The current actual membership of the Scottish Nationalist Party is 125,482. The Scottish Green Party has 6,412 members. The UK Conservative Party has 191,000 members and the UK Labour Party has 580,000 members.
Christianity does not fight above its weight in the world. It does not even fight equal to its weight. Christianity is not a militant political force. That is not its nature or purpose. It is the creation of Jesus of Nazareth. Of humble origins, he went about doing good. He took the side of the weak and powerless in society against their misrule. He called them and everyone else to relationship with his Father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He did not use violence. He suffered rejection and judicial murder. He died by crucifixion. He warned his followers that they were not to be the bosses of one another or of the world. He told them that if they were true to him then they would suffer as he was doing. He said ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’. Christianity is a social spiritual entity; it is a family; it is a congregation of souls, hearts and minds. It is not a nation. It is both a visible and an invisible church.
Christianity’s social capital is long and large. Throughout the world today Christians provide humanitarian, educational, health, construction and engineering expertise on charitable terms. Christian congregations provide friendship, care, concern and love to people and communities. Christians provide food and safety for many in need. Christianity links those who are interested to relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This is an invisible but powerful relationship of love and inner peace. It is inspirational and directive, taking people from poverty to life achievement and success. Christianity has done this for nearly two millennia. The origins of the welfare state lie in the New Testament, hospitals and schools likewise. Food bank organisations in the United Kingdom began with Christians and use church buildings as ready made centres for this now regrettably necessary and much needed resource and service.
Christians are the most persecuted people in the world. According to the ‘Open Doors’ Charity, the top ten countries persecuting Christians at the present time are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran and India. Zenit.com says that in two millennia of Christian history, about 70 million faithful have given their lives for the Faith, and of these, 45.5 million, fully 65% were in the 20th century. At present in 2020 11 Christians are killed every day for their Faith, some 4000 each year. Genuine Christian martyrs are those who are not participating in wars, battles or returning violence. There is much more general persecution also. Deprivation of rights, liberty, property, education and work is widespread towards Christians throughout the world. No-one would describe Christians in Britain as being persecuted but Christians are no longer free to speak and share their core beliefs in public. Christians are now excluded from certain occupations if they affirm their Faith. Rival ideologies now take legal precedence over Christian practice. Christianity’s redeeming Gospel call to humanity has been neutered. Its leaders are fearful of causing offence and of breaking the law. Christians are cowed and Christianity is scarcely seen or heard from.
Are people turning to God and back to God in the Coronavirus crisis? The Pew Research Centre reports increased prayer in the USA. 44% of Americans have also said that the COVID-19 coronavirus is a “wake-up call for us to turn back to faith in God.” One of the UK’s largest online Christian book stores, Eden, has seen physical Bible sales rise by 55 per cent in April. Churches report that online services have been viewed by many more than usual weekly attendance figures. There may well be a spiritually turning by lots of people in lock down. The impulse to pray is universal and it becomes stronger in times of threat to life. Many churches are saying something online. Some people are listening. This is all good and the analogy between spreading out the fishermen’s nest and the reaching out via the internet is apt. Internet communities and relationships however are somewhat barren, whether church or otherwise. They are described as ‘virtual’ which in this context means ‘simulated’ or ‘extended’. That is, they are not real. They are not corporeal. Often they are not honest. This then is a technological version of the ancient docetic heresy, that Jesus, his historical and bodily existence, and above all the human form of Jesus, was mere semblance without any true reality. Visibility is online visibility now. Internet self-promotion is the new reality. Yet lock down has proved that internet only existence is barren and filled with straw. Printing press, newspapers, radio, television, film and internet are means to ends. They cannot ever define what it is to be a human being. Lives described within their confines are not real lives. Jesus was simply himself.
Christianity has a lot to say. Christianity is not a ‘religion’ as the media lazily describe it. Journalists, newsreaders and reporters would choke if they used the word ‘Christian’. Christianity is relationship. It is personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is personal relationship with Jesus Christ, risen, alive, eternal through the connecting link of the Holy Spirit. This is invisible to those who do not share its content. Christian collective worship is physical, visible and quantifiable. It is at best inwardly liberating and spiritually and mentally healing. It is an expanding experience taking the individual out of individuality and into the greater worlds of creation beyond our immediate knowledge. The universe is personal. That is Christianity’s contribution to contemporary physics. The universe is not meaningless, hostile, empty or alien. Because our Maker came in one person, Jesus, among us, each person has his and her place, loved and valued.
There is a need for proclamation. There may also be a hunger for proclamation even if it is not understood as such. We scarcely hear it. Christian leaders are afraid of certainty. Yet they have access to the greatest truth of all, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from death. Circumscribed by the conventions of social establishment and blackmailed into silence by militant atheists and lgbtqai+ campaigners, Christians do not want to appear divisive and selective. They surrender to popular universalism rather than call to distinct Christian identity. Weak and watered down, the salt of the Gospel has lost its savour. There is no denouement of Christianity’s enemies. Speaking the truth in love is a step too far. It is far too easy to be characterised as bigoted, Pharisaical and divisive. Divine love must be seen as all inclusive which in essence as relationship indeed it is.
Perhaps power is visible and the churches of our land are no longer powerful. For centuries Christian Churches were at the heart of nations. Now they are sidelined, offering their platitudes from more disadvantaged platforms. They may however be the better and closer to their Master who never occupied any position of authority in the institutions of government.
Much in the Bible has to do with invisibility. It is the record of people who experienced God invisibly. Abraham’s call was audible to him only. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:1,2). The call became visible over the years and centuries since in the People of God and in the Christians who followed. Elijah heard God’s call not in thunder and lightening, noise and trouble, but in the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:13). Isaiah held power and justice together in gentleness, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3).
In Jesus God became visible and dwelt among us. But his teaching was full of paradox. “The meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Yet his resurrection and the history of Christianity bear him out, at least in part. Jesus’ resurrection was visible and empirical to those to whom he revealed himself. This was not just an audible call. “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:24-29). The latter describe the very large majority of humanity ever since. With exception of rare visionary experiences given to a few, we do not see Jesus Christ Himself before our eyes.
But we do see Christians, Christianity, the Churches. Paul described Christians thus “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Christianity has had a chequered history. Jesus’ own parable of the wheat and tares continuing side by side pertains (Matthew 13:24-30). Roman Catholicism turned the Body of Christ into an ecclesiastical replica of the Roman Empire. The Church of England specialises in aesthetic Christianity, pretty clerical attire and beautiful music. Church of Scotland Christianity was modelled as much on the Old Testament as the New Testament. Now it is like a household pet without bark, let alone watchfulness. Pentecostal, Gospel, Baptist and Evangelical congregations maintain some sort of connection with New Testament Christianity and pick up those who want some definition to their belief and practice, some distinction from the world.
Paul wrote “And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is” (Ephesians 3:18). Paul was also conscious of malevolent, unseen existences and influences. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). That these exist should not surprise us. The history of the 20th century suffices as proof. Organised imaginative industrial evils such as humanity had never witnessed wrought wholesale destruction. What were the origins of these? How did they enter human minds? How did they consume personalities? Covid-19 is an unseen agent of death, frightening in its random selection of victims, seemingly intelligent and sadistic. It is terrorism of another sort. “Even though I walk through the valley, of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4) offers the unseen companionship of God to the believer in fear of dying.
Christianity’s primary focus is about non-terrestrial life, resurrection life, eternal life, the life of our Maker, the life of our risen Redeemer. All is unseen on earth. Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee and assurance of victory over human finitude and loss of life. It is the most significant intelligence on offer, the best knowledge available to us. All Christian worship hymns testify to it. Yet governments have forbidden singing. Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever who believes in Me, though they may die, they shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25,26). What better proclamation amid the Covid-19 crisis. What better focus, what better news! Paul offers witness to and corroboration of Jesus’ resurrection. He was not one of the twelve disciples. He did not meet Jesus on the day of his resurrection. Paul is one of us. He affirmed, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). So have confirmed countless Christians throughout the last two near millennia. What brighter, more encouraging, helpful and laser like relevance can be proclaimed. Christian proclamation is missing. Christian controversy is unwelcome. Platitudes, sanctimony and acquiescence abound. Christianity survives as best it can, hollow and a shadow of its kernel truth and purpose. No wonder it is invisible.