30 April 2010
There has to be a better way than going through the courts
by Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance
As Gary McFarlane's appeal bid was thrown out of court, I couldn't help noticing the irony that Relate and one of its counsellors - who specialise in resolving relationship conflict - had been unable to find a solution to their own conflict without ending up in court.
When I watched Gary McFarlane interviewed on television a couple of weeks ago, I felt here was a man whose advice and counsel I would appreciate if ever my marriage was in difficulty. Yet he has just been in court fighting one of the most respected counselling agencies in the country. There has to be a better way to work out our differences.
It feels to me as though Christians are finding themselves in court far too often these days. Whether it is to keep our job, wear religious symbols or over freedom to preach and pray, the role of Christianity in public life is no longer straightforward, though I doubt it ever was. It also seems we think the solution to these challenges lies in legal precedents and court judgements. But as I reflect on the history of Northern Ireland I realise that the courts can never enforce stability and you cannot legislate for tolerance. All we are left with are recriminations and counter recriminations and a wedge is driven between plaintiff and defendant until it is a chasm that cannot be bridged.
When so many of society's disagreements end up in court we show a lack of imagination in dealing with conflict. Because it's not just in religious cases that the law is used as a blunt instrument to solve all our disputes. The courtroom seems sadly to have replaced conversation as our first port of call.
I am drawn to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, 'You have heard it said "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", but I tell you ... if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles'. Jesus' words were not weak, timid, capitulations, but an innovative way of dealing with conflict by not only submitting but assertively going further than was required to illustrate the unfairness and rigidity of the system.
In 1st century Israel Jews were obliged to walk with a Roman solider for a mile if commanded, so to offer to walk a second was to submit to their demands, but to also assert their independence. The second mile could humiliate the solider by doing more than he was allowed to ask of you. And to turn the other cheek was not a sign of weakness but a subversive challenge, as for someone to hit you on the other cheek would be to hit with a clenched fist and acknowledge you as an equal.
Christians do not need to pick a fight with the society they inhabit. Every court case builds the wall a little higher and the disconnect between Church and society greater. There needs to be a way for those who disagree to work through their differences, to be open to change but not forced to change - to look to mediation and accommodation before filing amicus briefs. In Matthew 5v25 Jesus teaches, 'Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison'. If only common sense could have prevailed in this latest case, surely a solution could have been found with sufficient flexibility to ensure that Mr McFarlane could still provide the service that he was trained to do without being sacked.
I understand why calls have been made for special panels of judges, but I worry that such calls suggest that Christians should be treated differently. It can also prompt us to view our environment with suspicion, and undermine the role that the Church can and does play in society, of caring and serving, of working for the good of all.
Life for Christians in contemporary society might pose challenges to our faith, but if Christians are too casual in their use of the term persecution it can belittle the very real suffering fellow believers' experience worldwide. Too much talk about marginalisation can become self fulfilling, if Christians are marginalised in the UK then we may have to take at least some of the blame.