The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
The survival of the Church today does not depend on Europe. But the survival of Europe as we know it certainly depends on the Church.
It was a wonderful statement from the former Lutheran pastor’s daughter. She wanted her country to welcome the refugees from the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. Not for her the paltry 20,000 over five years that the United Kingdom promised to take. No, Mrs Merkel was prepared to take as many as wanted to come – and they did. More than one million were registered in Germany during 2015, four times the number that came in 2014.
And Germany is not the only country to welcome these refugees with open arms. Sweden has the highest proportion, with 1575 per 100,000 population, followed by Hungary, Austria, Norway, Finland and then Germany. France, Ireland and the UK are the least welcoming.
Where are the refugees coming from? Syria is the largest source, followed by Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Albania and Pakistan. There are also significant numbers from Nigeria, Serbia and Ukraine.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel’s largesse has turned somewhat sour – the New Year attacks in Cologne being one sign that the dream of a fully integrated Europe taking millions of the world’s poor and conflict victims, is in danger of turning into a nightmare. Denmark has introduced confiscation of goods; Sweden is sending back 80,000 asylum seekers, and right-wing anti-immigrant parties across Northern and Western Europe are set to make political capital.
As Christians reflect on this we need to do so without the sound bites that make a complex situation, simplistic. It is as foolish to claim that the Völkerwanderung of 2015 (ongoing into 2016) is just simply an Islamist plot to take over Europe, as it is to assume that Europe is a Disneyland that can absorb every refugee and economic migrant without significant cost and change. As we reflect upon this, let us first of all identify the problem.
1. Secular Europeans do not understand nor comprehend that not everyone in the world shares their worldview. Despite protestations to the contrary most liberal secular Europeans believe that their worldview and value system is at the top of the evolutionary tree. Self-proclaimed “progressive” countries regard other countries, especially religious ones, as being backward and regressive.
They also believe in the innate goodness of human beings (apart, of course, from those held back by religion) and that most people who come to Europe will immediately grasp the superiority of liberal values and want to “progress” into this secular Nirvana. It therefore comes as a great shock when many of the immigrants refuse to immediately bow down to what are considered self-evident values and norms.
The historian Niall Ferguson warns that European hubris and pride is similar to that which preceded the fall of the Roman Empire. “Like the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble,” Ferguson writes. “As its wealth has grown so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums. At the same time it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.”
The Roman Empire was complacent, thinking it would always exist. The European secular elites have forgotten from whence they came and are living on borrowed time in a fanciful world where they are the masters and everyone wants to be like them.
2. Secular Europeans do not understand that religions are different. In their narrative all religions are and must be the same. Therefore, they must all be treated the same.
At its mildest level the “neutrality” of the secular state means that all religions will be tolerated provided they have little or no influence in public policy. Privatised religion is to be regarded as a private club, much as a golf club, line dancing society or “Trekkie” group.
But in the stronger sense the myth of all religions being effectively the same results in misunderstanding, intolerance and the view that if one religion is dangerous then they must all be treated as such.
Thus in Britain there is a problem with extremist Islamic infiltration of some schools, and so the UK Government proposes measures which will result in Christian youth camps and Sunday schools being inspected! In order to limit the Islamic extremists, freedom of speech must be limited for all in order to appear fair.
3. Secular Europeans do not understand their own Christian heritage. The more militant and ideologically driven secularists see the Islamist threat as an opportunity. The following was posted on a leading UK secularist website at the beginning of 2016: “We must confront terrorism and extremism on all fronts, but we can’t very well ‘confront Islamism’ unless we confront Christianity as well I'm afraid, and every other religion come to that. If we are to confront bigotry and lies and indoctrination then this applies to Christianity far more in this country than it actually does to Islam and is, sadly, still a woven-in part of the fabric of the nation.”
Although some, like Richard Dawkins who recently warned that removing Christianity might result in something far worse coming in, are beginning to reassess the situation, not many are prepared to see that the rejection of Europe’s Christian heritage is the source of the problem.
4. Secular Europeans do not understand Islam. It is not just the militant secularists who see an opportunity. So do the fascists and racists of the far right. Most of us do not want to be considered racist and so we speak of Islam as a religion of peace, and have invented yet another phobia to add to our growing list: Islamaphobia. The trouble is that both the racists and the apologists for Islam are making the category error of confusing race with religion.
But Islam is not a race, nor is it just a religion – at least in the sense of the privatised notion of religion held by the secular liberals. It is also at heart a deeply political system that does not recognise the separation between Church and State that has been at the very heart of modern European civilisation. There is no Muslim country in the world that grants freedom of religion or real freedom of religious expression to its citizens.
I spoke at a “liberal” Islamic institution whose aim is to encourage Middle Eastern Muslims in PhD work with a more “liberal” Islamic perspective. My subject was “the Muslim doctrine of tolerance”. I asked the students if they thought that the State should punish Muslims who left Islam. To my astonishment, while only one thought that apostasy should be punishable by death, all the others thought that imprisonment or fines should be enacted by the State. This was meant to be the liberal version of Islam!
Even in Europe it is very difficult for many Muslims to convert or change their faith. I have been involved in situations where police protection has been required for such, and indeed they have been compelled to move away from their home town because of the threats to their life.
So what should be the Christian response to this crisis? Stricter immigration controls may be part of the answer, but they are not the solution. We have a responsibility to help asylum seekers and genuine refugees. Nor is it right to descend to the level of keeping out Muslims – such an action would only fuel the grievances already felt by many. We cannot rely on our secular humanists to run the State based on their liberal delusions and these misunderstandings of both Islam and Christianity.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, faced a similar crisis when Rome was threatened with the Barbarian hordes. He wrote his magnificent The City of God which looked at the relationship between secular and religious authorities. Rome fell, and two centuries later North Africa, and eventually much of Europe, also fell to the Islamic warriors. But the Church continued.
The survival of the Christian church then did not depend on the survival of Rome or Carthage. The survival of the Church today does not depend on Europe. But the survival of Europe as we know it certainly depends on the Church. Not the weak, pathetic, secular, humanised version of Christianity that merely apes the fashions of the liberal elites, nor the fascistic “white Christian” supremacist of the right-wing groups currently gaining so much traction. We need a robust, biblical, Christ-centered, open, compassionate and robust church.
If the Lord in his mercy does not grant such a revival and renewal, then Christian Europe is finished and it will be replaced not by the secular nirvana of the liberal fantasists, but rather by either the fascism of a totalitarian religion, or the fascism of a totalitarian State.
In the 20th century, Europe almost destroyed itself in two great wars, but was spared and eventually flourished. We pray that in the 21st we will see not more great wars, and instead that there would be peace and prosperity. In order for that to happen, we will need to see the spiritual and ideological battle won.
David Robertson is director of Solas: Centre for Public Christianity.