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'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!'
Words memorably uttered by Kenneth Williams in one of the Carry on Films. That could also be the cry of the Christian Churches in this country, faced with the rise of militant secularism.
I picked up a Catholic Herald by chance the other day, and the front page consisted of embattled headlines such as ' Defend Marriage!' 'Prayer Ban is Intolerant!' 'Stand up for Faith!', and articles inside the paper about the dangers of this secularist age, with employees being banned from wearing a cross, or offering prayers for patients - all issues that have hit the headlines in the last two years.
So, are we entering a period of persecution? Should Christians begin to see themselves as potential martyrs? The answer in this country is no. We are still fortunate that we can practice our faith freely: what we face at the moment is discrimination, not persecution.
But there are countries in the world where people of faith, Christians included, are persecuted: And in our modern world there are other groups who face violence and a systematic attempt to oppress or intimidate or even wipe them out. This Lent we are looking at the theme of persecution: the intimidation of minorities, or those who are marginalized or vulnerable. We shall look at the work of Amnesty International, supporting those imprisoned for what they have spoken or written against repressive regimes, at the plight of asylum seekers, the place of women in societies where they are abused or oppressed, and of course the persecution of the Church, which is increasing, not decreasing.
Recently there were reports of bomb attacks on Christian Churches by Muslim radicals in Nigeria, part of an escalating campaign against Christians and Western culture. And attacks continue to be reported in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Coptic Church in Egypt is dwindling in numbers, systematically under attack by Muslims groups
At the end of last year The Daily Telegraph published an article headed 'How can we remain silent while Christians are being persecuted?' The article was unusual in that such persecution has not often been reported in the press/TV: it is almost as if it doesn't fit with our PC view of how things should be. It makes us feel embarrassed so we ignore it.
Primo Levi, the chronicler of the Holocaust, describes a recurring nightmare after his liberation from Auschwitz: in the dream he returns from the horrors of the concentration camps and tells his family and friends, but they don't want to know: they turn away in disbelief, or even worse through lack of interest.
For those who suffer persecution it is terrible to encounter a reaction of disbelief, denial, apathy or indifference about what they have endured or are enduring. This sermon series is a small attempt to confront that indifference and look honestly at these difficult and painful issues.
Above all, as Christians we should be able to confront suffering, not ignore it or be ashamed of it. Our Saviour is:
'a man of suffering and familiar with pain'
as the prophet Isaiah says. Our God is a suffering God, one whose heart of love can be broken. And Jesus himself in what we know as the Beatitudes said:
'Blessed are you when people hate you, slander you and reject you because of me. Celebrate because in heaven there is a great reward. '
And he adds:
'Woe betide you when everyone speaks well of you.'
A degree of suspicion, hostility, even active persecution is almost inevitable when we openly put our faith into practice.
So we must not deny, or dismiss or minimise the sufferings of our persecuted brothers and sisters, nor must we be afraid of it.
Persecution is in fact deep within the DNA of Christianity. The early church was persecuted and that's what gave it its identity. The Roman historian Tertullian said:
'The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church. Dying we conquer.'
That history leaves us today with a residual feeling that we are most authentic when we are most at odds with society, and in a country which is still very tolerant of the practice of faith, that means that when there are attacks from atheists and secularists, we can easily feel that 'they' are out to get us.
'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me.'
Yes we do face a situation in this country where faith is under attack from certain quarters, where people feel much more able to mock our beliefs and where there is discrimination against people of faith in the name of a spurious equality, which could presage something more sinister in the future.
But this Lent, let us remind ourselves of those who really do suffer - some because of their thinking or writing, others because of their status or their sex. People who, on a daily basis, face real persecution and whose lives are often at risk. The preliminary to action is understanding. When the House of Lords debated the position of Christians within the Middle East at the end of last year, Lord Dopat, a Hindu, who fled Uganda when Idi Amin persecuted the Indian population in 1971, said:
'To witness persecution, then sit back and do nothing to stop it is a terrible sin.'
As we reflect on the suffering of our Lord this Lent let us resolve to take every opportunity to speak up for those who suffer persecution, who cannot speak for themselves. This Lent we seek to understand a little better how much different groups of people suffer in our sophisticated 21st century world, and as we do that we identify ourselves a little more with the Cross - God's open-hearted love which takes the pain of the world upon himself.
Christ our Victim, Whose beauty was disfigured And whose body torn upon the cross; Open wide your arms To embrace our tortured world, That we may not turn away our eyes, But abandon ourselves to your mercy.