Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

They're derided, but society still relies on Christians' charity

There is something of a frenzy afoot in Britain. The struggle of the Anglican Church to avoid appointing women as bishops and its resistance to gay marriage has been encroaching ever closer on politics and increasingly preoccupying commentators in the media.

There is a new virulence in the debates. The comments of former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, accusing the Prime Minister of pursuing an 'aggressive secularism', drew equally savage ripostes from secularists and from within his own faith community, as well as a somewhat bemused rebuttal from Downing Street.

His remarks triggered challenge on interesting grounds. The Church should be excoriating the Government on bedroom tax (obvious barbs there), on its 'attack on benefits', on its militarism, on its general attitude to 'the poor'. As well as, of course, abandoning its own thick fixation with wizards in the sky.

The propensity of non-believers to insist that believers should perform a full menu of activities to redress the failings of the secular state can be quite breath-taking. There is certainly a religious obligation upon Christians to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit prisoners. There is no such obligation, moral or legal, on any of the rest of us, which is why Live Aid and Comic Relief have to offer entertainment to prise contributions from those who have just laughed and just been moved by celebrities discovering distress in Africa.

Christians do it for free, but because they are under religious command to do so. Without that command, it simply would not happen. By nature, Christians are no more 'giving' than any one else. They would be 'Bad Samaritans' like the rest of us. But their faith and its obligations are what sustains some of the world's largest charitable institutions, at home and abroad. Not your or my taxes. Not anyone's government grant.

Of course, most people approve of 'Christian charity'. Without it the death toll on our streets and among our elderly and lonely in winter would be a scandal. But the idea Christians should just agree there is no God or just shut up if they don't and get on with making the rest of us feel better as we step over or around Roma beggars in Belfast, is quite extraordinary.

A bit like Barack Obama, there is a palpable sense of disappointment that the Pope, whoever he may be, will still be a Catholic, just as the US President, black or white, will still be an American. Interest in Pope Francis waned as soon as the realisation set in that he wasn't going to declare God was dead. Believe in nothing, say the secularists, or – if you must – believe only what we believe; but do not do as we do. Keep on helping others especially when you no longer believe in the basis of your charitable acts. That is an injunction even Jesus Christ balked at imposing on his followers.

Of course, Lord Carey is right. Of course, the PM is pursuing a secular agenda. And, of course, for the most vociferous of his attackers, it isn't half secular enough.

In Northern Ireland, we have had a firestorm of anti-Christian sentiment on the basis of the churches' resistance to reforms such as abortion. But there is also our own peculiar variation where apparent anti-Christian comment often comes veneered with a sticky sectarianism, with some churches coming in for more florid and vicious attack than others.

And just this Easter, a firestorm of lobbying to 'liberalise' the drink licensing laws, with its cute overtone that making alcohol available for sale in bars for a few extra hours a year is helping to free our society from its medieval religious wars.

Nothing about road deaths from drink driving or the fatal damage alcohol wreaks on young lives in our society or domestic abuse fuelled by alcohol. Nothing, even, about the lakes of vomit with which our streets were awash at the weekend. (Pity the council workers mopping that lot up.)

For most people, though, these are arcane discussions. The fact is, while there are always those who lecture and theorise in the abstract about justice and mercy, very few people care about anything other than their own welfare. Very few will do anything for anyone outside their family without some promise of gain. That's human nature.

And those disinterested acts of charity – those hostels, those prison visitors, those soup-&-sandwich runs at 2am, those doors open to the lonely and disturbed, those trips to the scene of car smashes to tend to corpses and visits to the homes of bereaved?

Better leave all that to those nasty, bigoted, illiberal, reactionary abusers and paedophiles, the Christians.

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