Saturday, 24 December 2011

A merry Christmas in a Christian country

Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, declares that it is one of the happiest characteristics of this glorious country that official utterances are invariably regarded as unanswerable.

So when it was announced the other day, by no less a figure than David Cameron, our great British Prime Minister, or at any rate Prime Minister of Great Britain, that the country we shared was Christian, how could I possibly answer the claim except by immediately concurring?

Cameron was speaking on Friday 16 December, at Oxford, addressing churchmen at an event to celebrate the fourth centenary of the King James’s Bible. This is the one I'm always being told is admirable for the quality of its poetry. So I opened my Bible at random and found myself reading 2 Samuel 8:2. Let’s see how the uplifting message blends with the glory of the language:

‘And he smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive. And so the Moabites became David’s servants, and brought gifts.

Too right: I’d become a servant and bring gifts if I’d just watched two thirds of my people cast down. Still, in that event I might perhaps console myself with the thought that it had at least been described in limpid and moving language    if that was my idea of limpid and moving language. 

But back to the other saintly David: ‘...what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.’ Well, I’m sure he’s right. We don’t actually measure people in lines before we mow them down in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the rest we follow to the letter.

So it’s about values. Cameron made that explicit. And values matter to our Dave. As David Edgar pointed out in the Guardian on Monday 19December, Cameron’s speech contained a particularly telling passage:

‘A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. We need to stand up for these values.’

So that’s the hidden agenda. The government’s going to tell us what our values are. Amazing how these enthusiasts for small government love to tell us how to think as soon as they get into office themselves.

‘We are a Christian country,’ Cameron assured us.

Interesting comment that. Lots of people say it, and I’ve often wondered how they measure it. Even Tearfund, which is a Christian charity with no obvious interest in understating religious practice in Britain, claims that only 15% of the population attend Church regularly (at least once a month). But if as he suggests, it’s values that matter to Cameron, perhaps what he means is that our society lives by Christian principle.

On the radio the other day, my favourite Churchman, Giles Fraser, quoted Luke 1:53. Luke being a book of the New Testament, as opposed to Samuel that I quoted above and which is in the Old, makes it perhaps a better test of what is specifically Christian. So what does it say? ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

Well, you be the judge. Unemployment is approaching a thirty-year high. Among young people it is particularly disastrous, condemning a large portion of a generation to a life of employment insecurity. Social benefits are being withdrawn – one recent measure had the effect of plunging 100,000 children back into poverty. Meanwhile, bankers’ bonuses, after a brief dip in 2009, are back up to the pre-credit crunch level. And last year top executive earnings rose by an average of 49%.

Filling the hungry with good things? Sending the rich away empty?  Not sure that’s exactly what’s happening.

Still, it’s Christmas Eve. Not point in being a killjoy. Have a merry Christmas, all of you! Whether you’re Christian, of some other faith or of no faith at all. And whatever you think Christmas may actually mean.

Suitably Christian image for the season

... and a happy 2012! Which means one that proves the economists wrong...

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