Do you cringe when someone mentions Jesus in polite conversation?
I’ll admit it – I do. Not because I want to, or choose to, but because – well – I don’t really know. It’s an unconscious reaction.
I’ve never been a right-on kind of Christian. Not even when I was briefly president of the Newman Society at university (which I did badly, like most things except partying).
I went to Mass, had my private devotions and my Catholic friends – but we didn’t talk about Jesus. Well, most of us didn’t.
We shook our heads and rolled our eyes at the evangelicals and charismatics. The ones who spoke in tongues and said they could feel the spirit move.
But I never felt that people would look on me with pity if I said I was a Catholic. It was just what you were – a brand of Christian. Or maybe a scoffing atheist, but still nice about it, like my friend Janet.
Now, though, friends raise their eyebrows if I let slip the fact I’m going to church. Two of them even tried to persuade me not to go. It was as if I’d gone out wearing six-inch platform soles and a red leather mini-skirt. As if I really was too clever, too old, too worldly wise for such silliness.
‘Creepy,’ someone I know said, after visiting a Catholic school, referring to a crucifix.
‘Just wrong,’ said another about a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the garden of – um – St Mary’s.
Roadside shrines are now accepted as commonplace in this superficially Christian country – as long as they feature a football scarf or a teddy bear. But heaven forfend someone leaves a statue of Our Lady amid the decaying chrysanthemums.
And yet, we revel in images of colourful Indian ceremonies, of many handed – or headed – gods.
We all know about (and respect) Ramadan and Diwali.
We admire peace-seeking Buddhists and Hindus working towards nirvana. Some of us admire white witches. Well, they’re interesting, at least.
We ‘celebrate’ Halloween, but disconnect it from All Saints Day – and All Souls Day.
So why are we so patronising and supercilious about Christianity?
Why the scorn poured on a faith that says ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’?
When the new Pope was elected, the priest at our local church said, ‘I think the supreme Pontiff would prefer to be called the servant of the servants of God.’
And it struck me, then, how wonderful it was, that simple statement. The servant of the servants.
How there’s a lesson in that for all the world’s politicians – and its journalists.
Where does their divine right come from, these high-horsed pontificators who populate our TV screens and newspapers – and run the world?
Jesus (I say in a tentative voice) . . .
Jesus (firmer this time) had (reportedly) a lot of things to say whose spirit they might wish to emulate, even if they don’t believe in a God of any kind.
Jesus said blessed are the merciful.
Jesus said the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
Jesus said it would be easier for a camel to slip through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to get into heaven.
I suspect Jesus wouldn’t have said, ‘Go on, have that bar of chocolate. Buy that expensive face cream and a car that costs more than some people’s houses. Go on – you’re worth it.’
Or, ‘yeah, take massive risks with someone else’s money. Ruin the world’s financial systems. Meh. You’re too big to fail’.
I wonder. Do we (I’m talking mostly middle-class white folks in England, as you probably guessed) feel uncomfortable around ‘Christians’ because while they seem to be just like us, they’re actually focused on something different? Not the latest iPhone or the pink coat that’s so this winter. Well, they may be focused on those too, but they’re not their be-all and end-all. Their end-all is much, much bigger – beyond all knowing, in fact.
Do they make us feel selfish, these Christians? Because they’re like us, but not like us?
OK there are exceptions – the Amish, for example. But then they’re not really like ‘us’ (well I don’t wear a bonnet do you?) – and anyway, there’s been a film about them with Harrison Ford, so let’s put them to one side.
What I’m wondering is, do we allow ourselves to find Buddhists, Hindus and white witches ‘interesting’, because they’re different?
‘Aha!’ you may say, ‘but why haven’t you mentioned Jews or Moslems?
Why, indeed? People who are often subject to far more suspicion, discrimination, abuse, hate and loathing in the west than are mere Christians. Well, that’s a topic too far-ranging for a short post like this – and being neither a Jew nor a Moslem I can’t speak from experience. Plus, I don’t have any answers.
But I do know that fear is at the heart of hatred and mistrust. That fear stokes the flames under martyrs, as well as the engines of terrorism.
At school I learned about Catholic martyrs burned at the stake, here, in England. As children we sang:
Our fathers chained in prisons dark were still in heart and conscience free, how sweet would be their children’s fate, if they like them could die for thee.
I wish to God those days were gone forever, for all religions, all faiths. But they aren’t, are they? The gap between the haves and have-nots grows. Poor countries face famine and natural disasters. The rich throw tons of food away and Western governments build flood defences that Bangladeshis can only dream on.
And so it will continue to happen.
But I’m a pessimistic optimist. It may not be in my time, but one day, surely . . .
[By the way, I don’t wear red leather mini-skirts, or six-inch platforms, but I’d defend my right to do so against all comers.]