The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

God is wonderfully kind

Last week the BBC reluctantly revealed the salaries received by its presenters, actors, pundits and contributors who earn more than £150,000 a year. The general response was that the salaries were high, with many whose roles appear to be straightforward receiving higher salaries than the Prime Minister. People struggling to pay their mandatory licence fee out of the benefits they receive to support them and their families must have seen the salaries as very generous indeed.

The biggest debate, however, has been the obvious inequality between the salaries paid to men and women who fulfil the same kind of roles, in some cases, presenting the same programme. More than 40 high-profile women have written a letter to the BBC director-general urging him to act now to close the gender gap and to “do the right thing.” In their letter they acknowledge, “Compared to many women and men, we are very well compensated and fortunate.” It is not clear, however, whether they think the BBC should increase their, already generous, salaries or reduce the salaries paid to some men.

Jesus told a parable about a landowner who, early one morning, hired workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them the normal daily labourer’s wage. At 9 o’clock, noon, 3 o’clock, and even 5’oclock, he saw people who had no work to do and hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right. At the end of the day he paid all the people a full day’s wage. Those who had worked all day complained that he had been unfair. The landowner replied that he had paid them the full day’s wage he had promised and said, “Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” Then Jesus added, “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

Jesus was teaching that God is wonderfully generous and kind. He doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor people or give preference to those who have had the privilege of knowing Christian teaching all their lives. At whatever time in our lives we come to God, he receives us and promises us forgiveness and eternal life. In Jesus, there is true equality that transcends all the great divisions between people in this world. The apostle Paul told the early Christians, “You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

A new morality

In the Western world we are experiencing a moral revolution. There is now a new morality. What has, for hundreds of years, been regarded as wrong is now right. What was right is wrong. Positive words are used to give the impression that this is all for the better. Promoting the new morality is “progressive”. Politicians tell us they are doing “the right thing.” This is not a claim to be acting morally but that they believe they are adopting the right policy to deal with an issue.

The new morality involves key words and ideas: “freedom”, “choice”, “equality”, “discrimination”, “phobic”, and “human rights”. Armed with theses concepts we can justify almost any action and can present anyone who disagrees as bigoted, out of touch or opposed to the onward march of “progress”. The new morality is intolerant of anyone who disagrees. Anyone who disagrees is attacked, denied the right to express their views and, sometimes, even criminalised.

But morality is fundamental to the lives of every one of us and to any society. Being honest matters. Being faithful to our marriage partners is vital to social stability. Respecting people who are different from us is really important. To disagree with people of another faith or of another sexual disorientation is not “phobic”, but arises from our moral convictions and spiritual beliefs.

A Muslim may fundamentally disagree with a Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, but he isn’t Christian-phobic, which means being afraid of Christians or Christianity. He just disagrees with them. Normally such a disagreement does not lead to violence. I have Muslim friends. Love and respect for one another transcend differences of religious belief and practice.

The new morality has no place for God or for absolute moral principles that apply to us all. But God has given us two great commandments, which embrace all the important principles of true morality. We are to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Love for God involves worshipping him, honouring his Name and enjoying the weekly day of rest he has ordained. Loving our neighbour means honouring our parents, not killing our neighbour or taking his wife, not stealing his possessions or telling lies about him, and not being jealous of what he has. Any individual or society that abandons these moral principles is like a ship adrift on the ocean without power or compass.