First published 5 March 2012
I’ve been talking for what seems like a long time about morality, sin and the consequences of it. To be honest it was riots in the summer of 2011 that partly sparked the thoughts. Or rather it was the reaction of the respectable middle class that made me think. We have to bear in mind that some of the commentators who were most horrified and condemnatory in seeing purposeless looting and violence were the same people who poke fun at religion and try to force Richard Dawkins’ atheism on us at every opportunity. They are the same people who tell Christians that we can’t say that homosexuality is wrong. They tell us we can’t protest against abortion. They say that we shouldn’t even talk to other people about our religion. And it’s not just that they laugh at us or ignore us. For Christians to say that certain things are wrong is now practically illegal – witness for instance Christian guesthouse owners, Mike and Susanne Wilkinson, who were sued in 2010 because they refused to allow a gay couple to share a double room. The same people on the one hand condemn Christians for calling certain behaviour wrong, and on the other hand condemn the behaviour of others as wrong. Why should it be offensive for Christians to talk about right and wrong, but perfectly correct for non-religious people to talk about their own version of right and wrong?
It’s the kind of situation that confuses Christians. Should we continue to be upfront and call wrong things wrong? What really is our basis for deciding right and wrong? Should we echo the condemnation of our non-religious neighbours when they speak out against certain types of sin, whilst keeping quiet about other sins?
What I’ve tried to outline is that Christians and non-religious people see moral statements in completely different ways. Non-religious people see themselves as the final authority in matters of right and wrong for themselves, and therefore when people do things they think are wrong it makes them angry. They are personally offended. They are also personally offended when people, like Christians, say that things are wrong that they don’t believe are wrong. It challenges their authority. They worry that if enough people agree with the Christians, their actions will not be tolerated. They feel their freedom personally threatened.
On the other hand Christians see themselves as part of humanity, equally responsible to God, equally failing, equally sinners, equally hell-deserving, equally called to repentance and offered forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We are not personally offended or threatened when people transgress God’s standards. We are concerned both for them and for the influence that immorality has on society and culture. We want to make our nation one that pleases God, and has His blessing because we uphold His rules. And we want to see people repent and receive salvation and eternal life. And therefore we shouldn’t stop talking clearly about moral standards.
We’ve seen the emptiness and flimsiness of non-religious morality. But I want to look from a different angle this time.
What does non-religious morality give rise to? And what does Christian morality give rise to? It is common amongst the non-religious to speak of Christian morality as giving rise to oppression, whilst their own moral systems give rise to freedom. My argument will be the opposite.
Non-religious people see themselves as their own final authority. And their personal pleasure and freedom to enjoy whatever gives them pleasure is ultimately important to them. If they can just get on with it, they will. But if they feel barriers and taboos restricting them, they will work on tearing those down. And once they have torn them down they will ensure they stay down by the oppression of those who believe their behaviour is sinful and/or harmful.
That’s what we’ve seen, in the UK at least, over the past 60 years or so. In the 1960s there were movements geared to tearing down all sorts of taboos, traditions and rules mostly to do with sexual freedom. Enough people got together to challenge the current norms of society, and it became permissible to kill unborn children. At first, of course, it was restricted to certain circumstances, but as time has gone on, because the restrictions were arbitrary in the first place, those restrictions have been relaxed. It became socially permissible (although not immediately normal) to have sex before marriage, not just within it. And as that became more and more common, during the 70s and 80s, we have been forced to set complex laws around civil partnerships, next of kin arrangements, and so forth. During the 80s and 90s, because sexual freedoms from the 60s were based on pleasure and personal freedom, those who had embraced homosexual lifestyles started to feel less compulsion to hide that. And so we had a long string of people ‘coming out’.
As we reached the end of the twentieth century, and over the past ten years or so, the rejection of previous Christian norms has turned into the push for anti-Christian laws. There has clearly been democratic pressure consistently over the past 50-60 years to detach laws regarding sexual freedom from their Christian principles. However, since this has not happened fast enough for some, I believe that the media and political system has been hijacked. Spurious research is constantly wheeled out. Any science or psychology that questions the benefits or points out the dangers of permissive sexual lifestyles, homosexuality or abortion, is rubbished, shouted down, ignored or misreported. People who mention such scientific, or empirical, evidence are sidelined or sacked if they work in the media, medicine, education or social services.
And as if that were not enough, it has now become illegal to question the morality of certain behaviour. Sexual freedom is now, by law, more important than religious freedom. If our politicians have their way, very soon it will be illegal for churches to refuse same sex civil partnerships to be performed on their premises – even if they disagree with them morally. This amounts to oppression. But it is the only avenue open to those using arbitrary, subjective, arguments to support their position. They will have their freedom to enjoy their pleasure, no matter what the cost to other people – Christians, unborn children, etc.
Some of the non-religious, liberal, intelligentsia (i.e. not necessarily the man on the street, but those plotting and scheming the downfall of Christian moral standards) may argue that oppression is exactly what the old Christian standards would have done to dissenters back in the nineteenth century. However, there is a difference between outlawing an activity because we believe that doing it is wrong, and making it illegal even to think or say something is wrong. Pornography, for instance, was outlawed because it was believed to be wrong. Those who broke the law were punished by the law. Nowadays it is getting to the stage where Christians are punished, not for living in a certain way, but for saying certain things are wrong or unhelpful. And we are not punished only by the law, but by social exclusion.
Of course, it’s much more complex than I can talk about here. And I don’t know much, I admit that. But that’s the way it feels to me. The freedoms of the non-religious have led to the oppression of Christians.
And Melanie Phillips was right in the Daily Mail article I referred to when commenting on the 2011 summer riots. Those riots showed that our liberal, non-religious friends and neighbours have so broken down moral boundaries that they are stripped bare. Everyone can see that our moral code is arbitrary. The only consistent reason for the rioting and looting seemed to be ‘because I can’. Young people really do believe that they are their own final authority, and that if they want something they should go and get it. The law, the police, the judicial system, may be a deterrent for most people, but given half a chance there are a good number of people who would do some horrific things to get ahead in life.
People have also often complained about the lack of volunteers to help in education, child care, caring for the elderly and mentally ill. Why? Because contemporary society is selfish – our final authority is ourselves, we live for our personal pleasure and why should we care about anyone else?
Rejection of Christian morality has got us this far, and it will continue to push us into barbarism and societal breakdown until we are woken from our stupor.
In contrast, Christians believe that God requires that we treat each other well – to put it in Biblical terms – love your neighbour as yourself. Christian morality is primarily unselfish.
Jesus told the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) to illustrate that when we are told to love our neighbour, this means everyone, and that love is practical and sacrificial.
The Samaritan man in the parable went above and beyond anything anyone would expect for an injured man that he did not even know. He picked the man up off the side of the road, put him on his own donkey, carried him to a nearby inn and took care of him. When he had to leave he left money and told the innkeeper that he would reimburse any excess costs.
In contrast the religious people (a priest and a Levite) walked past the man on the other side of the road, lest they be contaminated and made unclean by either a dead body or the blood of an unknown person. They were more concerned for their own religious position than for a man in need.
The punch line for the Jews was that even a Samaritan, whom the Jews would have considered scum, could show the kind of love towards others that God expects.
And therefore Christians should be people who, taking this on board, do everything they can to help other people in need.
That is why Christians have been involved in some of the most culture-transforming charitable work in history – think of Wilberforce’s campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade, Shaftsebury’s campaigning for better working conditions for the poor, Barnardo’s work for vulnerable children, and many others. Christians do these things because we are all equal and because God’s second highest requirement (after honouring Him above everything, and indeed flowing from that) is to love and care for others.
Since Christians know that everyone is a sinner, everyone has done wrong in God’s sight, everyone deserves hell, the fact that we identify certain actions as morally wrong should not take away our own moral obligation and desire to show love and care towards the people who do such things. That’s why Christians should continue to care for AIDS victims or teenage parents, even though many get into their predicament through promiscuous and immoral sexual activity. That’s why we should continue to care for homeless people, whatever they are like as individuals. That’s why we should continue to visit people in prison, whether they have raped, murdered, defrauded or abused children. Wherever we find people in need (and we have seen that every person is in need – in need of Christ’s saving grace), especially those neglected by society, Christians should be in the forefront of caring for them. Within our worldview that care does not compromise our standards of morality.
Of course, those examples are at the extreme. On a day to day level the love of our neighbour could be as mundane as lending someone a lawnmower, giving away unwanted clothes, giving a lift to the hospital, giving directions, putting the bins out while the neighbours are on holiday. There is no-one we should be unwilling to help out – even if you know they deal drugs, use prostitutes or defraud the state benefits system. (Of course, it goes without saying that our help should not enable people to go further in their wrongdoing, but I’ve given these examples to get us thinking about how far we would go and whether there are people we avoid.)
Christian morality, then, has given rise to much charity and help for the oppressed. Non-religious morality leads to selfishness and oppression of those who disagree.