‘Atheist’, ‘Christian’, ‘Missionary’, ‘Baked beans’… What’s in a label? Or rather: What lies behind the label? A recent article in The Guardian called Jeremy Corbyn an atheist. In an article in The Huffington Post he ‘denies he is an atheist’. Does this label fit or doesn’t it?
What do these labels mean?
At work I have often given a presentation to new members of staff about identity and integrity, where we look at labels. We note that words are slippery and they mean different things to different people. If a container is labelled ‘DANGER Toxic hazard’ we have a pretty good idea of how to treat it. If a tin is labelled ‘baked beans’ we have a pretty good idea of what is inside. We would be in deep trouble if the toxic waste canister was labelled ‘baked beans’.
What about labels that people might apply to themselves, labels like atheist, Christian or missionary (or agnostic, Muslim or evangelical for that matter)?
Am I a missionary?
If I call myself a missionary, what does that mean? More to the point, if I call myself a missionary what do you understand by that label? My guess is that for many of you reading this post it means one who has been sent (normally by a church) to another location to be involved in some sort of Christian activity (preaching, medical work, Bible translation, working for social justice, etc). Some of you may have a narrower definition such as church planting or saving souls. Ask the imam of Turbanstan or the director of the State University what a missionary is and you’ll get a quite different reply. They may equate the label ‘missionary’ with American, right-wing, imperialistic supporters of George Bush and Donald Trump. That is not what I am. The label ‘missionary’ is misleading. So while I am happy to use it when interacting with folks at my home church, I do not use it in other contexts.
Actually the Internet makes it more complicated (or more simple, depends on your perspective). The imam of Turbanstan has the ability to read everything anyone writes about me on the public Internet, so and so it’s easier all round if we drop the label ‘missionary’ entirely.
Am I a Christian? If you mean, ‘Am I a right-wing, fundamentalist, American imperialist?’ the answer is No. If you mean, ‘Do you follow Jesus of Nazareth?’ the answer is Yes.
Jesus himself often answered a question with another question. If in doubt the best answer might be, ‘What do you mean by the word “missionary”?’ ‘What do you mean by the word “Christian”?’ That way your Yes or No will fit your conversation partner’s understanding of these words.
OK, let’s get back to Corbyn, Trump and Cameron now.
I do not know what faith, if any, Corbyn has. He himself says his beliefs are ‘private’. However, as The Guardian points out, ‘It’s the Tories that are still most likely to profess their commitment to the church.’ Therefore it behoves Corbyn to distance himself from any such allegiance. I am not suggesting that Corbyn is a Christian (as I understand the label) but if he has applied the label ‘atheist’ to himself it may just be a label of convenience for a particular context.
Donald Trump and David Cameron
What about Trump and Cameron? To be fair to Trump, there are right-wing fundamentalists, lots and lots of them, who are desperate to vote for him, and so they have decided that he is a Christian. As Rachel Held Evans tweeted, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life? Become the Republican nominee for president, apparently.’ If being a ‘Christian’ makes Trump more electable, then he is a Christian. What the content is behind that label is not important. If James Dobson wants Trump to be president what better way than to state that he is a ‘baby Christian’? That’ll get the Dobson fan club behind Trump.
Cameron saw Christian faith as a ‘moral code’ (I use the past tense since he is no longer prime minister and therefore may have changed his mind) – thus devoiding it of all real meaning while still making himself attractive to conservative church-goers. Yorkieman (16 April 2014) hits the nail on the head: ‘Moral code? What sort of moral code is it that has forced austerity onto the poor to pay back the debt of the rich. A moral code that forces the poorest in the country to food banks just to survive. A moral code that punishes the sick and disabled for being sick and disabled. It that’s a moral code I am proud to not have one.’
The point that Giles Fraser is making in his article in yesterday’s Guardian is that the Bible is absolutely scathing about hording wealth.
Have you heard about the vicar and the Communist?
There is a story of a vicar and a Communist who agreed to attend each other’s meetings. The vicar was not looking forward to the Communist’s trip to church. He expected him to find the service boring, irrelevant and out of touch. However when they met up after the service the Communist was ecstatic: ‘When are you going to put it into practice?’
They had read (maybe sung) the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55):
He [God] has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
Both Old and New Testaments are packed full of warnings to the rich and messages of support to the poor. Fraser cites Amos, Psalms, St Luke and St Paul. Let me add the apostle James:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
Isn’t that straight from the Communist Manifesto? Nope. It’s James 5.1-6. I’m not sure which moral code Cameron thought he found in the Bible but it wasn’t this one. I’m not sure what kind of faith Trump claims to have but it certainly isn’t this one. Corbyn on the other hand… No, he is nowhere as radical as the prophets and apostles of the Scriptures.
Jesus’ own test is this: ‘By their fruits you will recognise them.’ (Matt. 7.20) Let’s apply that test to our leaders. Ignore their words, the labels they choose to stick on themselves. What are they doing? What are their fruits?