I have a confession to make. I am an extremist.
Worse than that, I am a leader in an organisation which is dedicated to being extremist, and spreading extremism. It is a vast worldwide network, working all across the world to radicalise people. We particularly aim at young people; we want to take normal children and turn them into people with a total, no-holds-barred, undiluted, passionate, radical and extreme commitment.
I really mean all of that. And I am totally unashamed of it. For I am a Christian minister, serving a small church in the North of England. And the radical commitment to which I and all my colleagues across the world are calling people is an extreme commitment to Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself demanded nothing less. Whoever wants to follow him, he said, must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him. Whoever does not leave his father and mother for his sake, he said, is not worthy of him. Whoever puts his hand to the plough and turns back cannot be his disciple. Christians, according the one all Christians call their Lord, must be extreme in their commitment to him. To ask Christians not to be extremist Christians is to ask them not to be Christians at all.
But it seems that the government is about to insist that, because of the threat of extremism, churches and other Christian organisations must have their work with children inspected by the state, to ensure it is not ‘extremist’. They have decided to deal with Islamist terrorists by opposing, not Islamic extremism, but ‘extremism in all its forms’.
Now at a basic level this is simply silly. To talk about ‘extremism’, without defining extremely what, is nonsense. Is the government concerned, for example, about ‘extreme’ sportsmen? What about ‘extreme’ gardeners or ‘extreme’ stamp collectors? Those are undeniably ‘forms’ of extremism, but presumably not the kind of thing they have in mind. How about those extremely committed to the relief of the poor, the education of children, the care for the sick, the service of those in need? The idea of tackling ‘extremism in all its forms’, and therefore never defining what the thing is which is being taken to extremes, as if that were irrelevant, is absurd.
It is also arrogant. The government’s approach proceeds on the assumption that the creed of secular humanism – for that is what the list of ‘British Values’ is a version of – is the only thing that can generate decent behaviour. Religions – apparently understood as being all basically the same – are fine as long as they are not taken too seriously. They need to be seasoned with a good dose of secular humanism to prevent them from turning people into murderous monsters. So the only acceptable kind of religion is one which doesn’t actually believe its own precepts to be ‘fundamental’, but instead subscribes to a set of fundamental values invented by atheists. As Christians, we are being asked to accept that the 2,000-year-old truths revealed by the one, true, triune God in the incarnation, death and resurrection of his eternal Son, are inadequate unless held in check by a set of values apparently drawn up on the back of an envelope two years ago in Whitehall.
Burden of proof
If the government wishes to claim that these ‘British Values’ are capable of creating good citizens and a just, peaceful and happy society, the burden of proof rests very much upon them. Certainly the current state of secular British society isn’t much of an advert for them. But more importantly, Christianity has no need to be diluted or bridled in this way to save those who follow it from ‘extremism’. Because to be an extreme Christian is to be extremely committed to doing what Jesus said we should do. So the more radical someone is in following Jesus, the more they will love their neighbours, whether those neighbours are Christians or not. The more they will prefer suffering themselves to seeing someone else suffer. The more they will put honesty, faithfulness, commitment, truthfulness, trustworthiness at the top of their agenda. The more they will turn the other cheek, love their enemies, do good to those who hate them. Those are all things Jesus commanded.
More than that, radical Christians aim not just to do what Jesus said, but to do what he did. And what he did was to come down to earth from heaven to offer himself as a sacrifice for others; specifically, as a sacrifice for those who hated him. He gave up his life to save the lives of those who were his enemies. Every Christian knows that that includes themselves. Left to myself, I deserve nothing from God; I was naturally his enemy, but Jesus gave up his life in my place. I owe an incalculable debt to the one who died on a cross to rescue me, though I did not and I do not deserve it.
Radical followers of some religious groups may want to kill those of whom they disapprove, if that is what they believe their god(s) are telling them to do. But radical followers of Jesus Christ could never do such a thing. Indeed, the more extreme a Christians is in his or her commitment to Jesus, the more horrific that idea will be. Radical Christians would rather die themselves than see harm come to others, including – especially – those who disagree with them, or even those who hate them. Radical Christians love their enemies, for that is what Jesus’s whole life and mission was about. At the centre of Christianity is not a sword but a cross.
Which is why to respond to the threat of Islamic extremism by cracking down on Christian teaching of children is totally ridiculous. Radical Christianity (which real Christianity must be) does not produce murderous monsters. There have been plenty of murderous monsters claiming to be Christians, of course, but that is because they weren’t radical Christians, not because they were. The job of ministers like me is to call people to repent of their evil deeds, words and thoughts, not to send people out to commit them. We call people to lay down their lives, as Jesus did, for others. We call people to stop being half-hearted followers of Jesus, stop holding onto their natural tendencies to seek their own advantage at the cost of others, stop thinking of themselves as the centre of the universe, and instead to follow Christ’s example and teaching 100%.
This is not a creed which needs to be diluted for fear of what it will do to people. Christianity, when it is taken seriously, turns people into the best citizens a country could possibly hope for: honest, trustworthy, self-sacrificing, hard-working, law-abiding. And this is not because they have had their Christianity toned down, but because they have had it toned up; because their first, highest, fundamental, radical and extreme commitment is to the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ. That is what we teach our children and urge them to live out. To learn to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus; to learn to repent of your sins and trust him alone to forgive you for them, through his sacrifice of himself for you; to learn how essential it is to forgive others, as God has forgiven you; to experience the transformation of character which the Holy Spirit brings to those who heed Jesus’s call to turn from sin and trust in him and his coming kingdom, are things with a power for good in a child’s – or an adult’s – life, in comparison to which a set of vague and groundless ‘British Values’ can only be called a sad and sorry joke.
Extreme Christianity is a very good thing. It does not need to be made more moderate, it does not need to be made more British, and it does not need to be regulated by Ofsted. The government’s extremism strategy needs to focus its energies elsewhere.
Matthew Roberts is minister, Trinity Church York (and current Moderator of the International Presbyterian Church)