So wrote Giles Fraser in a recent article for UnHerd. Reading that, as a Christian, James Tomison, of Christchurch, Leamington, said he couldn’t help thinking, ‘with friends like these, who needs enemies?’ He continues: Over the years, as I’ve spoken about my faith, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt obliged to defend Christianity; not so much from its opponents, but from my fellow Christians. And I’ve not been very successful.
Unfortunately, from Constantine to Charlemagne, from Peter the Hermit to President Putin, it is undeniably the case that many who recite the ancient creeds, who hold the orthodox beliefs, turn out to be nothing more than strong men and bullies.
Every defence of their actions (“you need power to bring about change”; “we’re all flawed after all”; “they were just men of their time”) is ultimately doomed to fail because – in the words of the author of our faith – blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers.
Jesus, more than any other person in history, shifted the world’s thinking about what the good life looks like. Suddenly, it was better to suffer than to inflict suffering. It was more righteous to be persecuted than to persecute. And many who claim the name of Christian – literally “little Christ” – have conveniently forgotten this truth. It has been sacrificed to pragmatism and power.
As a Christian, I cannot defend this. I do not wish to.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, speaking recently on Radio 4, suggested a better approach: “One of the paradoxes of the life I lead,” he said, “is that I find myself in a particular position in a very large – 85 million strong – religious institution... and yet when I go, for example, to one of the passages in the New Testament which continually has an impact on me… the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, I see something absolutely about breaking down barriers, about not being a code of rules but about being relational, deeply full of love, of vulnerability, of transparency… and it pushes you not to ask what you believe, but who you follow. In other words, not dogma but relationship.”
The importance of that final sentence is hard to overstate. When we read the gospels, Jesus’s word is less often “believe this” and far more frequently “follow me”. Get to know me. Become like me. If Putin really wants a spiritual quest, he must realise that the way of Christ is found not through military triumph. Quite the opposite.
It is the way of love, of humility and – very often – of suffering. As Jesus told his disciple Peter: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” Christians would do well to follow his lead