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01 July 2010

See you in court (or not)

See you in court (or not)

General Director Steve Clifford finds a more biblical example for engaging with our society...

My local newspaper recently reported on Peter Aspinall's nasty accident. The handyman fell some four metres from a tree in the grounds of Egerton House Hotel near Bolton, resulting in a broken heel and damaged ligaments. The accident was somewhat bizarre in that Peter had apparently cut down the branch on which he had leaned his ladder. Yet the report indicated that the hotel was to be fined £1,000 for failing to carry out a risk assessment, and Peter was pursuing a civil claim for compensation.

I confess that I have managed to do many embarrassing things over the course of my life, most of which I've tried to keep secret. I certainly wouldn't have reported my employer, expected them to produce a risk assessment or gone to court anticipating compensation for my own lack of forward planning.

It seems to me that society as a whole is falling into the arms of lawyers, with newspapers full of court cases, employment tribunals and medical malpractice suits. Rather than having conversations, perhaps the default position has become to go to court. Lawyers get richer, and society gets poorer in more ways than simply financial; there has to be a better way, especially for us as a Christian community.

I am grateful for the work many Christian lawyers are doing representing Christians in some very difficult situations of employment, religious freedom and conscience. I know that on many occasions there really is no alternative other than going to court. But I would still love for us to try to find another way.

I wonder if we as Christians can sometimes appear to have a furrowed brow, a pointing finger and a somewhat limited outlook on life. And of course we can sometimes appear homophobic as well. Can we also sometimes be guilty of playing the same power games as everyone else - far from the example of Jesus? 

A better model

But Jesus modelled a completely different way of relating to those who opposed Him. He refused to play power games with either the religious or political authorities of the day. He redefined Messianic expectations, preferring the title "servant" to "king". Faced with a court appearance, He laid down His life rather than fighting for it.

The early Church seemed to espouse His example. When dragged into court they used the opportunity to preach the Gospel with the expectation that beating and imprisonment would follow.

My question to myself, the Alliance and to the whole Christian community is this: can we find another way of engaging with the authorities and those in power?

Jesus constantly challenges us. "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you..." (Matthew 5.38ff). In 21st century Britain, what could this better model look like? Jesus' teaching was never weak. He never passively capitulated to injustice or violence, but modelled another way of dealing with conflict.

"Jesus modelled another way of dealing with conflict."

Going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving away your cloak were not simply acts of submission. This was about assertively going further than required to illustrate the unfairness of the system.

My friend and colleague Stephen Cave, director of the Alliance in Northern Ireland, recently reflected on the contentious issues that still face Northern Ireland's divided communities. He concluded, "The law and the courts can never get us out of our troubles. The law is a blunt instrument and, as Gandhi once said, 'an eye for an eye' will simply leave us with a whole load of blind people." 

A battle worth fighting?

So how do we respond when faced with events and issues that challenge our behaviour and undermine our freedom of conscience? We should first ask ourselves if this is a battle we really need to fight. Historically we have chosen the wrong issues to die for and have perhaps failed to fight some crucially important battles.

Let's also recognise that some of those we might regard as enemies could become friends. There are many people of good will in our councils, schools, health authorities, businesses and workplaces, who might not hold our beliefs but share our desires for the wellbeing of our communities. Understanding this and taking time to understand them could bring effective collaboration.

There are unprecedented opportunities for the Church to provide services, education and care, supported and funded by national and local government. Do we miss opportunities to engage with each other because we speak a different language?

Can we look for and actively work towards a more imaginative way of dealing with conflict? Could our appeal be for mediators and peacemakers to help us find ways forward with respect and sometimes compromise before we get to the court?

And can we acknowledge that freedom of conscience - and behaviour in line with that conscience - must be extended to those who disagree with us? Let's battle for the rights of others as well as our own.

Back in the 1850s, the newly formed Alliance sent a delegation to Turkey to meet with the sultan. Their mandate was simple: to appeal for religious freedom, not just for the Christian community but for all faiths. They were successful in their appeal, and numerous deputations of appeals were made throughout the 19th century.

As we look to the uncertainties of the future and the opportunities that present themselves to us, let us do so with a sense of confidence, not fear, recognising that, whatever comes our way, we are not on our own. And through God's grace we can find that elusive, more positive way forward.

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