The year 2016 was a tumultuous twelve months, characterised by dramatic and largely unforeseen events such as the Brexit vote in the UK, the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, and the refugee crisis in Europe. The Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 is “paranoid”, while the Oxford English Dictionary’s is “post-truth”.
If these two words accurately encapsulate the public mood last year, then we can say that now, at the beginning of 2017, people are feeling nervous, distrustful of institutions that they might previously have seen as reliable even protective, irrationally convinced that others are planning to harm them. At the same time we can say that people are being guided more by their emotions, feelings and personal beliefs than by objective facts. Putting these two together, we are looking at a deeply anxious world, a world which is indeed heavily destabilised and fraught with uncertainties, but all magnified in the minds of those who feel unsafe, unable to trust authorities or experts, with no expectation of distinguishing “fake news” from real truth, only able to trust themselves and their feelings. Given that those feelings are increasingly paranoid, the downward spiral towards febrile fear and ill-judged actions continues.
Challenges facing the Church in 2017
In this context, let us consider some of the challenges facing the Church.
- How do Christians, who believe that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), function in a post-truth era? How do Christian leaders respond to the fact that clergy are now regarded by many members of the public as intrinsically untrustworthy, like politicians and journalists? How can they shake off past habits of “mental reservation” and equivocation? First developed half a millennium ago, the idea of “mental reservation” was that a Christian need only speak part of the truth out loud, so long as they added the rest mentally to God. Equivocation is the skilful choice of ambiguous words to mislead the listener without actually telling an outright lie. When a Church has indulged in speech patterns like this for centuries, how can Christians and especially their leaders learn again to live like their Master, who was full not just of grace but also of truth (John 1: 14)? When the courageous Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus of Mosul, who was recently refused a visa to visit Britain, was asked a question recently of a very sensitive nature, he gave a straight and open answer, explaining his unusual frankness: “If Jesus asked me a question, I must tell him the truth.” There was no mental reservation, equivocation or deception in his reply. Of how many other church leaders could that be said?
- As barren materialism and empty secularism gain an increasing hold on formerly Christian societies, how can the Church help those who begin to yearn for something deeper? In France, always in the vanguard of secularism, many municipalities have – controversially – in the last two or three years started to display nativity crib scenes during the Christmas season. If the Church cannot fill the void and meet the felt spiritual needs, then something else will. It could be Islam. Or, given society’s current fascination with vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, aliens etc., it could be the real spiritual forces which exist behind some of those beings, not all of which are as imaginary as many assume. What does a Church, particularly in the West, which has drunk from the cup of materialism and secular humanism, have to offer a generation who are living off husks and desperate for help? How can the Church be the solution when so many Christians are part of the problem?
- Encouraged by governments, the new civic religion of humanism is increasingly impinging on societies in many European countries and in the USA. Using security as a pretext, governments are increasingly restricting religious liberty and intruding into the lives of Christians (and other citizens), seeking to control them. Christians should in general obey the laws of their country, but how should they act when those laws begin to conflict with Christian ethics and theology? How can they stand up for what they believe in conscience to be right? Are modern Western Christians prepared to go to prison for the sake of the Gospel, as their Christians forebears often had to and as so many believers do today in countries like Iran, Eritrea and North Korea?
- In a society increasingly dominated by secular humanism, including the educational sector, the role of Christian schools assumes an importance it has not had for many generations. But Christian schools in many Western countries are coming under huge pressure from the regulatory authorities. In very practical terms, how can Christians defend the right to educate their children in a Bible-believing environment?
- The Islamist terrorist group Islamic State (IS) may have suffered a number of military defeats in Syria and Iraq in the closing months of 2016, but it is embedded in the hearts and minds of countless Muslims around the globe. The Islamic world is divided between those who want to walk the way of peace and those whose desire is to return to the seventh century interpretations of their religion as promulgated by IS. How should Christians respond to this threat to their very existence in the Middle East and wherever else IS can gain control, as well as the violence perpetrated against Christian targets in the West and elsewhere? Both American President-elect Trump and Russian President Putin agree that political Islam and Islamist terrorism must be tackled – a stance that President Obama has always refused to take. Both oppose Saudi Arabia for its support and funding for IS, a stance that runs right against the current policies of many Western countries. But what will be the shape of Christianity in Muslim-majority countries? Will anti-Christian persecution increase or decrease and how should Christians respond? Will Western countries support and embrace the persecuted Christians?
Surprise defenders of Christianity
In recent years, support for the beleaguered Christian faith has come from some unlikely sources. President Trump sent an emissary to Erbil just before Christmas with the specific task of meeting with Iraqi Christian leaders. He came only to hear the views of Christians, and turned down invitations to meet with anyone else during his visit. He recorded the conversations so that he could re-play them to himself and be fully familiarised with the issues that the church leaders raised before he briefed Mr Trump who was very concerned about their plight.
Vladimir Putin, former KGB colonel and now of course president of Russia, said at the Valdai Forum on 19 September 2013:
“We see that many Euro-Atlantic states have taken the way where they deny or reject their own roots, including their Christian roots which form the basis of Western civilization . . .
“The people in many European states are actually ashamed of their religious affiliations and are indeed frightened to speak about them. Christian holidays and celebrations are abolished or "neutrally" renamed, as if one were ashamed of those Christian holidays. With this method one hides away the deeper moral value of those celebrations.
“And these countries try to force this model onto other nations, globally. I am deeply convinced that this is a direct way to the degradation and primitivization of culture . . .
“Without the moral values that are rooted in Christianity and other world religions, without rules and moral values which have formed, and been developed, over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity and become brutes. And we think it is right and natural to defend and preserve these Christian moral values.”
Even Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss neo-Salafist Muslim, congratulated French mayors in 2014 on their nativity scenes.
But will Christians speak out for themselves and defend their own values?
Word of the year 2017
In a topsy-turvy world of such surprises, in a perilous world of uncertainty, insecurity and violence, what might be the word of the year for 2017? Some have predicted that it could be “fear”. Another possibility is “hysteria”.
Christians must resist this way of thinking. When some of Christ’s frightened disciples woke their sleeping Master as their boat was almost sinking in a storm on the Lake of Galilee, His words to them were, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” And in a moment, He had calmed the storm. (Mark 4:35-41)
For Christians the word of the year for 2017 must be “hope”, a hope born out of faith in the midst of uncertainty and danger.