AT LAST, Western governments are waking up to the reality of the
persecution of Christians in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle
East. The abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram (
News, 16 May), and the cruel imprisonment of Meriam Ibrahim (Comment,
23 May), have burst open our official silence.
Governments have feared that protest on behalf of Christians
might fan the flames of anti-Western feeling. There has also been a
reluctance to support Christians abroad, in case it compromises our
own "equality" agenda.
We may well ponder what it is about Christianity that arouses
hatred. The correspondent Matthew Parris suggested in a thoughtful
article some time ago that Christianity was a threat because it was
a halfway house to the libertarian atheism that he himself
Mr Parris was born and brought up in South Africa, and knows
from first-hand what the Christianity of the missionaries brought
to the poor and oppressed. He could see the hope and dignity that
people found in their faith, and concluded that the genius of
Christianity was its appeal to the individual. The gospel gave
people an identity beyond that of tribe or ethnicity; the first
step on the road to personal freedom which would find its
fulfilment in Western libertarianism.
I was struck by his insight, while not sharing his conclusion
that true freedom would finally mean abandoning belief in God. It
is true that Christianity - particularly, although not exclusively,
in its Evangelical and Protestant forms - assumes that the heart of
faith is a personal relationship with Christ.
Christ becomes the friend of the soul, and the Holy Spirit is
the guide of the individual person. Everyone matters. This is
powerful stuff. It subverts authoritarianism in all its guises,
while inviting individuals to see themselves as free agents,
capable of love, choice, and challenge.
The fruits of Christian history are still present in the West,
of course, but often in a degraded form. Where Mr Parris's analysis
fails is that it does not see that without faith in a loving and
redeeming God, individualism can become self-indulgent, choice is
corrupted, and love is made shallow.
Yet the fact that thoughtful atheists are starting to
acknowledge their Christian heritage holds out the possibility of a
more fruitful dialogue between Christians and humanistic atheists
about their common values. It also enables Western governments and
media to end their denial about the persecution of Christians, and
to recognise it for the gross abuse that it is.
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church,
Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the
diocese of Oxford.