A Christian Country

David Cameron, in his speech (http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/king-james-bible/) commemorating the 400-year anniversary of the King James Bible, makes some unusual assumptions about fear:

“The King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history. And none of us should be frightened of recognising this.”

“Third, we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.”

This is soothing: Mr Cameron offers us these reassurances before saying what he means by the terms ‘relevant’ or ‘a Christian country’: so perhaps we are to conclude that we shouldn’t be afraid to make all the other imprecise and vague statements of opinion which, if we’re honest, we’d probably carry on making whether the Prime Minister’s approval was given or withheld. Of course, he does explain both assertions in more detail as the speech goes on. But as far as the first sentence I’ve quoted goes, it might be that the KJB’s relevance, for 400 years, has been slight, or undesirable, or both—and we need to know what sort of relevance is in view before the idea of recogising it can frighten us (or not). Similarly, the remark ‘we are a Christian country’ will have some peoples’ hackles rising while others raise a shout of hallelujah—but we need to know what we mean by the phrase before we allow ourselves to do either.

As it turns out, the kind of relevance Mr Cameron ascribes to the KJB is startlingly unalarming. The language of the KJB, we’re told, ‘permeates every aspect of our culture and heritage’; instances are listed of Biblical phrases used in everyday conversation, and of poetry, music, art and political speeches that depend on Biblical texts. But this does not show whether (and, if so, to what extent) the KJB or any other Bible has been an effective force shaping the patterns of English-language thought and culture: one can use odd phrases, stories and characters from a text while misinterpreting or substantially ignoring that text as a whole, as with a modern-day film or television adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. A text can be present without having had much influence, and/or without anyone in its vicinity expecting it to speak to the present and future in an influential or authoritative way. Yet that would be the sort of relevance that we might well be afraid to acknowledge of the Bible. In any translation the Bible may demand that we alter our view of ourselves, alter our view of the world, alter our priorities, alter the way we behave. And to many of us, change doesn’t come easily.

The Prime Minister’s description of the KJB’s role in British culture assigns it a benevolent, quiet, largely passive role. He does, however, have several anecdotes to relate of its impact on political changes:

“the Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy. […] And the knowledge that God created man in his own image was, if you like, a game changer for the cause of human dignity and equality. […] The Putney debates in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in 1647 saw the first call for One Man, One vote, and the demand that authority be invested in the House of Commons rather than the King. Reading the Bible in English gave people equality with each other through God. And this led them to seek equality with each other through government. In a similar way, the Bible provides a defining influence on the formation of the first welfare state. […]”

If all this is sound, then maybe the KJB has had some level of influence after all. And maybe, therefore, it can continue to. But polite applause for the Bible’s permeation of language, culture and politics in the past doesn’t encourage us to question whether previous generations interpreted the Bible correctly, or to wonder what challenges the Bible might make to us now.

‘We are a Christian country,’ says Mr Cameron; ‘The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country’, ‘The Bible runs through our political history’. What does he mean? Mostly, it appears, that the United Kingdom ‘is defined by’ and ‘treasures’—supposedly—‘responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities’, and that these are ‘Christian values’. Consequently, the UK should be considered a Christian country. There are two problems with this. One, obviously, is that to the casual observer this country may, but also may not, appear to be defined by and to treasure these virtues. Another is this: if Christianity is temporarily reimagined as being itself defined by a bunch of values, and a country is supposed also to be defined by those values, then it might just be that that country is being established as a competitor or alternative to Christianity.

It seems reasonable to think that a country, and the way it is ruled, and the way different aspects of it operate, and the things that are done and said and thought within it, can be more or less Christian, in the sense that they can be more or less just, and more or less compassionate. The United Kingdom, I would suggest, could be and could have been worse, but it could be and could have been better.

But, aside from this, it seems to me at the moment that there will always be a mismatch, or lack of fit, or incomprehension, between the New Testament worldview and the idea of nation states. Nations are supposed to provide individuals a sense of identity and of belonging to a community, to which in loyalty them can commit themselves. But the followers of Jesus, according to the Bible, belong primarily to His family, and are primarily committed to His cause. ‘The history and existence of a constitutional monarchy owes much to a Bible in which Kings were anointed and sanctified with the authority of God,’ says Mr Cameron—but the throne of the Old Testament monarchy was inherited by Jesus, who is, according to the Bible, still sitting on it. And although 1 Peter 2:17, for example, does (in Mr Cameron’s words) emphasise ‘respect for Royal Power and the need to maintain political order,’ it’s an emphasis placed carefully: you honour the emperor, but you fear God; you honour the king, but Jesus is King of Kings. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”, which Mr Cameron quotes, can be taken as expressive of blank indifference towards the structures of human power. Jesus apparently doesn’t have a coin to hand himself when he’s asked “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” So he borrows one—and then, as Shane Claiborne suggests, ‘he shrugs and tells them it’s got Caesar’s image stamped on it, so give it back to him. Caesar can keep his coins…’

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