Friday, 24 July 2015

Going to Extremes?

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Monday this week saw David Cameron deliver a speech announcing plans to tackle Islamist extremism. Calling for the promotion of ‘British values’, the Government, he said, will confront ‘groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative’.

The unease, voiced by some commentators, is that a wide definition of what counts as ‘extreme’ leaves the door open for attacks on anyone whose views differ from the Government. Writing in The Independent, Abdul-Azim Ahmed expressed concern that the speech ‘casts the net of extremism so wide it undermines some very basic civil liberties’. In The Telegraph, Brendan O’Neill wrote of a ‘dark, twisted irony’ to Cameron’s speech, warning that attempts to clampdown on ‘non-violent extremism’ will extinguish freedom of speech and debate.

All this in a week when Tim Farron, new Liberal Democrat leader and self-confessed Christian, had to tackle pointed questions about his views on same-sex sexual relationships, and whether he would seek God’s guidance before making policy decisions. To many, it seemed a bit unfair. As Farron himself pointed out to John Humphreys on the Today programme, ‘everybody comes to every situation with a set of value judgments’.

Indeed, every political vision operates out of some overarching perspective on life; every policy decision is supported by moral considerations of some sort. But there still seems to be a lingering presumption that a so-called ‘secular’ perspective is more neutral, less in danger of ‘extremism’, and so more appropriate for the public square. That is surely open for debate.

Does the belief that Jesus Christ is Lord mark Christians out as ‘extremists’? Maybe so. But it ought also mark us out as civil, seeking the good of others. The ongoing challenge will be not just to continue to contribute to the common good wherever we find ourselves, but to do so as Christians, with all that our discipleship to Jesus entails.

Seeking neither to take over the institutions of society nor abdicating responsibility altogether, we can feel confident about bringing a Christian vision into everyday life, including the public sphere. As theologian James K.A. Smith puts it: ‘The public task of the church is not just to remind the world of what it (allegedly) already knows (by “natural” reason), but to proclaim what it couldn’t otherwise know – and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good.’

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