Congratulations to Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, for speaking out in public about the misuse of the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Evangelical’ for people who oppose what Jesus stood for.
He did so in an interview with the Guardian at the launch of a new charity, the Ozanne Foundation, to work with religious organisations on LGBTI, sexuality and gender issues. This itself remains controversial in church circles, where opposition to same-sex partnerships remains strong; but the Guardian highlighted the implications for American Evangelicals who support Donald Trump. Can people who support his policies really call themselves Evangelicals, or Christians?
Bayes is quoted as saying
Some of the things that have been said by religious leaders seem to collude with a system that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.
Whenever people say those kinds of things, they need to be able to justify that they’re saying those things as Christians, and I do not believe it’s justifiable.”
He regretted that ‘people who call themselves evangelical in the US seem to be uncritically accepting’ positions taken by Trump and his allies.
Judging from the report, the bishop was careful with his words. He didn’t say the word ‘Trump’. The focus was on policies: what kinds of activities should Christians support? Is a system which marginalises and excludes the poor contrary to Christianity?
We are so used to people calling themselves Christians while supporting a huge range of contradictory policies, that we have virtually emptied Christianity of all meaning. Just as we can celebrate Christmas with as much gusto as ever while ignoring all references to the birth of Jesus Christ, we are also used to people calling themselves Christians without showing any interest in what he did and said. It is as though each of us can create our own Christianity.
On other matters we expect limits. If I call myself a socialist who supports Trump, you might point out the inconsistency. If I call myself a Manchester United fan, despite having never had the slightest interest in football, you might think it odd.
So what is it about Christianity that makes us so much more accommodating? Can we believe anything at all and still call ourselves Christians? And if we can, doesn’t that make the word ‘Christian’ meaningless?
We could probably find plenty of historical explanations, but what seems to me most relevant is a contradiction that has been there for 1700 years. Ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine, rulers have found Christianity a useful tool for controlling their populations. Whenever they have taken over control of Christian churches, they have appointed bishops and patriarchs who would tell congregations to obey the government.
Unfortunately for this adaptation, the one fact about Jesus which is most strongly attested is that he was crucified by the Romans. The Romans used crucifixion for political opponents. They must have seen him as a threat, and from what we know about his teaching, it is pretty clear why.
Jesus drew on the Jewish scriptures (the Old Testament) to argue for what he called the Kingdom of God. These scriptures are full of minor details which we couldn’t enact today, but the overall principle is clear. Everybody has been created by the same god, as an act of blessing. God has also created the natural environment, to provide enough to meet everybody’s needs. So whenever anyone is without food or a home or a caring community, something is wrong. It isn’t God’s kingdom.
This is why the Bible is full of prophets and historians condemning governments for failing to protect the poor and outcasts. It’s also why Jesus appealed to those prophets and historians as he brought together groups of outcasts into caring communities.
Trump’s policies are the opposite of what Jesus stood for. When his supporters call themselves Christians, they are misusing the word ‘Christian’.