Christopher Smith contrasts our comfortable Easter with that of our persecuted brothers and sisters
Periodically, some daft clergyman will eat a daffodil in the pulpit at Easter, to demonstrate that sometimes apparently incredible things do happen. A Baptist minister once ate a tin of dog food in the pulpit to make the same point. Rather touchingly, she said grace before she ate it! And these eccentrics inevitably go on to make the point that nobody will believe that the preacher ate daffodils or dog food in the pulpit, but you will know that it happened, because you were there.
But we have to accept that we believe in the Resurrection on the basis of testimony which is not universally accepted, which is to say on the basis of faith, as well as on the basis that it is the logical outcome of all that has gone before. And in that respect, we are not so different from other faith communities. Imagine what it must be like, for instance, to be a theoretical physicist. This is a faith community feeling rather beleaguered at the moment, searching for things which they sincerely believe must be there, but which prove ever harder to demonstrate. I know all this because I saw a programme on BBC2 recently, of course. I worried about them. Some of the poor things are wondering whether they should start all over again, questioning the existence of dark matter, a thing which has steadfastly resisted all efforts to prove that it exists beyond the equations on the physicist’s blackboard.
I raise this only because I, like you, I suspect, have friends and acquaintances who would believe without question the faith of the theoretical physicist, but who, on much the same terms, would dismiss out of hand the faith of the Church. What seem to me to be watertight logical and theoretical grounds for the existence of God are dismissed, even when placed next to the similarly logical and theoretical grounds for believing in dark matter and dark energy. Because B exists, therefore so must A, is an argument which is apparently acceptable from physicists, but not from theologians. Quantum physics is forever postulating the existence of entities which cannot be observed, and which apparently have no bearing on the prediction of future events, yet I’m the one dismissed as (at best) eccentric by my atheist friends! As a certain mathematician-turned-theologian once said, ‘the discovery that “time turns into space if you multiply it by the square root of minus one”, while it can have done little to enlighten the uninstructed, did much to enhance the prestige of the scientist, to whom, it was believed, such mysteries were as clear as the day’ (E.L. Mascall, Christian Theology and Natural Science, 1956). Well, it seems as clear as the day to me that Jesus broke down the barriers of nature, and indeed, fields of Higgs bosons, to walk out of his tomb, and into a locked upper room. What problem is a Higgs boson if you created it?
But however concerned I might be for the well-being of the theoretical physicist, and mindful though I am that quite a proportion of those physicists are faithful Christians, I am significantly more concerned for the well-being of those Christians of whom the Western world has been so neglectful in recent decades. The Pope has caused the government of Turkey to confect a spasm of outrage over his recent reference to the Armenian genocide, which began a hundred years ago this year, and resulted in the slaughter of perhaps a million and a half Armenian Christians by the Ottoman government and the effective suppression of their culture. And now we look out at the new Caliphate slaughtering Christians on the beach in Libya.
We have a problem here, and it is one which scarcely gets a mention, although the media are at least beginning to wake up to the fact that Christianity is rapidly dying out in some of the places where it has been practised the longest. For the monk at the ancient monastery in the process of being destroyed, or the family seeing the church they have worshipped in all their lives being desecrated and their priest shot, the gun at the head or the knife at the throat comes with a threat. And we have to talk about it; we have to have the discussion with our Muslim friends. We cannot keep sweeping it under the carpet: we can’t keep pretending that Islam is not relevant and that it cannot therefore hold a possible solution. When our Christian brothers and sisters fall under persecution, they are offered three options: convert to Islam, become a member of the ‘subdued’ class who pay an extortive tax and are effectively excluded from civil society, or die. And that hasn’t come from nowhere into the modern world of violent terrorism: it has come from the Koran, specifically sura 9, verses 5 and 21. We Christians can’t address it, although we might hope that our new government (assuming we have one by the time you read this) might raise it in the international forum. Only Islam can offer a solution to it, in the way it uses its scriptures.
And what would you or I do, faced with the choice? The Ethiopian Bishop Antonius recently said that he and his flock will ‘continue to look at these events with the eyes of faith. The chain of martyrs has not finished, and will accompany the whole of history until the end’. May they, by God’s grace, be able to cling to the reality expressed in this prayer from the Easter Vigil, that, in the Resurrection, ‘things that were cast down are being raised up, things that had grown old are being made new, and all things are returning to their perfection through him from whom they took their origin, Jesus Christ our Lord’.