The Rowes case: The Christian Gospel does not uphold binary gender

I was protesting against the London arms fair when I heard the news story about the Rowes famiy on the Isle of Wight. They have withdrawn their child from school, supposedly because he was “confused” by the school allowing children to make choices about what to wear.

It seems that the school permitted another pupil to choose weather to wear “boys’ clothes” or “girls’ clothes”. The Rowes parents insist that this was contrary to their Christian faith. They are now taking legal action against the school for allowing their pupils to choose what to wear and “confusing” their own child.

I too was confused when I was a small child. I was confused about why boys and girls wore different clothes, and why I couldn’t wear the same clothes as girls. I was confused about why girls and boys were expected to play with different toys. I was confused about why my family lived in a small cottage in the grounds of a large house in which my mother worked as a housekeeper, and why the family that she worked for had a much larger and better house than ours.

As I grew up, I came to understand the reasons for these things, while never accepting they were right. I am still confused all the time. Being confused is part of being a child – or an open-minded adult.

It came as no suprise to me to learn that the Rowes parents are backed by the Christian Legal Centre, a far-right gang of homophobes who pursue legal cases to back up their absurd claim that Christians are being “marginalised” or “discriminated against” in the UK. While they’re most often attacking gay and bisexual people, their other targets have included trans people, Muslims and Jews.

With this case, the Christian Legal Centre have sunk to a new low (some might be surprised that such a thing is possible, but they keep proving that it is). This time, they are not objecting to something being banned, but something being allowed. They are not opposing the treatment of their own child, but to the choices of another child.

They are launching a legal challenge over a school uniform policy that they considers offers children too much choice. As if this isn’t bizarre enough, they are citing Christianity as their reason for doing so.

The Christian Legal Centre (and Christian Concern, which is their political campaigning wing) are not representative of evangelicals, let alone Christians generally. Many other Christians, however, tend to ignore them rather than challenging them, which unfortunately gives them space to represent themselves in the media as the voice of Chrsitianity.

Occasionally, they have brought cases that make at least some sort of sense (such as opposing restrictive uniform policies that rule out religious symbols). This time, they’re objecting to a uniform policy that offers too much freedom.

Thankfully, they have very little chance of winning this ridiculous legal challenge. They will, however, manage to secure considerable media coverage to promote their prejudices. As a result, Christianity will probably be associated with bigotry and coercion in even more people’s minds by the time they have finished.

They will also promote the impression that the Bible upholds narrow attitudes to gender and sexuality. I am baffled as to how so many people who have read the New Testament can conclude that it promotes “family values” and binary gender. It is not just that gender fluidity is compatible with the Gospel. Rather, it seems to me that that narrow atttiudes to gender are utterly contrary to the Gospel.

Different groups of Christians can always hurl quotes from the Bible at each other. But I am not backing my argument with a few isolated lines from the Bible. I suggest that most of the New Testament consistently attacks narrow, biological, socially constructed attitudes to families, gender and sexuality. Rejection of such things is one of the New Testament’s prominent themes.

Jesus and his followers left their families to form a community that travelled around together; such behaviour was surprising at least. According to the gospels, Jesus allowed women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking (but he is never shown initiating the contact). He redefined family, saying that whoever does God’s will was his brother, sister and mother. He urged his supporters to “call no-one father on earth” (in a context in which a father was a figure of authority). He opposed the practice that allowed men to divorce their wives on a whim, throwing them into disgrace and poverty. He made clear that men were responsible for the sexual sins they committed “in their hearts” and couldn’t blame women for tempting them.

Such radical attitudes continued in the early Christan community, with the older parts of the New Testament making clear that women were given a central place in the community. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul attacked those who would replace the freedom of the gsopel with a series of rules, insisting (among other things) that distincitons between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, were ended in the Christian community.

True, the later parts of the New Testament show a more conventional attitude to gender, family and hierarchy. For example, the letters to Ephesians and Timothy tell women to obey their husbands (these letters are attributed to Paul but most biblical scholars take the view that he did not write them). This reflects Christianity losing its progressiive attitudes as time went on, contrary to the shocking radicalism of Jesus and Paul.

The Gospel is about liberaton, not legalism. To preach legalism, as Paul told the Galatians, is to preach “another gospel”.

Since last week, over 100 people have been arrested while taking nonviolent direct action against the evil of the DSEI arms fair in London. Many of them are Chrsitians, some arrested during acts of worship. The Christian Legal Centre present themselves as anti-establishment (as far-right groups often do) but they do nothing to challenge the injustices of capitalism and militarism. The gospel is about challenging legalism, exploitation and oppressive attitudes – not upholding them.

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Christian Concern have crossed a line to outright racism with their attack on Sadiq Khan

The right-wing lobby group Christian Concern are well-known for their vocal homophobia and for stirring up prejudice against Muslims. With their attack on the man set to be the new Mayor of London, however, they seem to have crossed a line from nastiness to racism.

Sadiq Khan’s Tory rival, Zac Goldsmith, has rightly been accused of running a campaign that encouraged thinly veiled racial language and anti-Muslim prejudice. Christian Concern have gone further.

I have no brief to defend Sadiq Khan. I once shared a platform with him at a Fabian Society conference. He was friendly and seemed genuinely down-to-earth. But I disagree with him on too many issues for it to be likely that I would ever vote for him. I am angry not because I am a Khan supporter but because I am disgusted by racism, and furious when I see it promoted in the name of Christianity.

The day before polling day, Christian Concern published an article on their website entitled “Londonistan with Khan?”. It was written by Tim Dieppe, the organisation’s “Director of Islamic Affairs”. I was unaware that Christian Concern employed anyone in such a role; I think it’s fairly new. This being Christian Concern, it’s safe to assume that they mean “Director of Islamophobic Affairs”.

Dieppe’s article is truly vile. Some of Khan’s attackers accuse him of association with “Islamic extremists” but insist that they are not attacking him for being a Muslim. Christian Concern offer no such qualifiers. Dieppe states simply, “It is well known that he is a Muslilm who is devout in his adherence to the faith”.

The article then goes on to repeat some of the accusations about his “links” with extremists. Dieppe states that they have been “well-documented”, though the only link provided is to an allegation that he shared a platform with some extremists twelve years ago.

There is a list of six bullet points about why Khan is so terrible.

At least one of the points is factually inaccurate. Khan has not opposed the criminalisation of forced marriage but rather a particular law about it. Whether or not he is right about that law, this is not the same thing as wanting forced marriage to be legal.

But by far the most bizarre bullet point is the first. This states that, in his capacity as a lawyer, “Khan wrote a ‘how-to’ guide for people wanting to sue the police for damages”.

So whatever else he might be blamed for, it seems that Khan has been willing to help people who have been the victims of police racism or brutality. So why is this on a list of bad points?

Underneath his list, Dieppe has written, “Particularly concerning are his encouragement of suing the police for racism”. The implication is that the police should be allowed to get away with racism.

This becomes more explicit a few lines afterwards, when Tim Dieppe’s foul arguments reaches its height. He writes:

It is hard to see Khan supporting the police being more proactive in upholding the law in areas with high Muslim populations… Knowing they lack political support, the police are likely to continue in their politically correct ways, with disastrous results. Fear of causing offence will rule. We have already seen some of the effects of such politically correct policing in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and other cities where Islamic rape gangs have been allowed to run riot, with the police terrified of being called racist.”

Well, at least Tim Dieppe and Christian Concern are not terrified of being called racist. They are blatant and open about being racist. I doubt they would describe groups of child-abusing priests as “Christian rape gangs” but when the perpetrators are Muslim, they blame the crimes on Islam.

The organisation says little about sexual abuse more generally or asks whether wider social attitudes and police prejudice contribute to the lack of rape convictions. Nor is such prejudice likely to be challenged by people who damn lawyers for writing guidelines on how to challenge the police.

There’s a thin line between Islamophobia and racism. Christian Concern are now clearly promoting the latter as well as the former. To suggest that police racism should not be challenged goes hand in hand with their focus on rape committed by ethnic and religious minorities rather than others.

Let’s not forget that Christian Concern have never denied or confirmed the allegation that they held a planning meeting with Tommy Robinson when he was leader of the English Defence League. That tells you a great deal about Christian Concern.

I have no doubt that Christian Concern are, at least in many areas, entirely sincere about their beliefs. What I will not accept is that these beliefs have any basis in the teachings of Jesus.

15 UKIP candidates and two Tories accidentally pledge to oppose Trident

Fifteen UKIP candidates and two Conservatives have signed a statement that commits them to opposing the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Unfortunately, they appear to have done so by accident.

Indeed, those who produced the statement seem to have overlooked the meaning of what they have written. The Christian Party has produced a so-called “Declaration of British Values”, which they have asked candidates of all parties to sign.

The declaration includes the following sentence:

“I will not participate in nor facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves intentionally destroying innocent human beings.”

Forty-one candidates have signed the declaration, including two sitting Conservative MPs –
David Amess and Bob Blackman – and fifteen UKIP candidates (most of the others are from the Christian Party or Christian People’s Alliance).

All warfare involves taking innocent life, although supporters of wars insist that this is unintentional. Nuclear weapons, however, cannot be used without killing millions of innocent people. It is illogical to argue that they are “only a deterrent” – they will not deter anyone if it is not possible that they may be used.

Of course, the signatories will insist that they were thinking of abortion. Some who refuse to facilitate abortion are happy to facilitate the creation of weapons that would kill thousands of unborn children – and millions of others.

UKIP’s Christian group accuses gay people of ‘recruiting’ children

One of the nastiest accusations against gay people is the claim that they “recruit” children with the intention of turning them gay. In Britain, most groups that oppose LGBT rights, even the fairly extreme ones, tend to avoid making this claim explicitly. However, it has now turned up on a leaflet distributed by the group called Christian Soldiers of UKIP.

Christian Soldiers of UKIP is a group set up by Christians who belong to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). The UKIP leadership has described the group as “authorised but not official”.

Nigel Farage and his colleagues insist that they do not share the group’s views on sexuality.  Nonetheless, they are prepared to work with them. They have certainly not disowned the “Christian Soldiers”.

I wrote on the Huffington Post a few days ago about UKIP’s links with right-wing Christian lobby groups such as Christian Concern. Earlier this week, Nigel Farage launched UKIP’s “Christian Manifesto”, which offers to defend Britain’s “Christian heritage” and the “rights” of Christians who want to discriminate against gay and bisexual people.

The latest comments from UKIP’s Christian Soldiers shows further evidence of the party’s willingness to tolerate homophobia.

The leaflet in question is an attack on sex education in schools, which it claims is seeking to “normalise” same-sex relationships. The leaflet’s writers declare, “The state is allowing the sexual grooming of our Primary School children for same-sex attraction”.

This leaflet was distributed during at least one hustings event in East Anglia (without the organisers’ permission). I would be interested to hear from anyone who has seen it, or any similar leaflets, elsewhere.

In their leaflet, UKIP’s Christian Soldiers state:

“What the LGBT is achieving, of course, is a recruitment drive. As such people cannot reproduce their own kind, they must recruit among the young and this is best done among children in schools, the younger the better.”

Presumably the Christian Soldiers of UKIP believe that heterosexuals can “reproduce their own kind” by giving birth only to children who turn out straight.

The leaflet includes the lyrics of songs and dances for young children that imply a celebration of a same-sex marriage or unclear gender identity. On the grounds that the children change “partners” during the activity (as they surely do in lots of activities), the leaflet adds the note, “Multiple partners made to seen normal”.

The Christian Soldiers of UKIP state:

“Ideally, we should work towards the removal of all ‘sex education’ from state schools.”

They then go on to link increased sex education with a rise in teenage pregnancies and abortions. No evidence whatsoever is cited to back this up.

Marginalised and minority groups have always been accused of harming children. Most famously, European Jews were for centuries accused of kidnapping and crucifying Christian children (the blood libel, as it’s commonly called). However, early Christians were also accused of drinking children’s blood. Recently, child abuse in the UK has attracted more attention when the perpetrators have been Asian and the victims white, with racists linking the horrific abuse of children not to the people who committed it but to whole ethnic or religious groups.

At the same time, recent years have given ample evidence of how child abuse is often overlooked when the perpetrators are powerful or respected. Child abuse should be tackled regardless of the perpetrator, not used as a means to attack social minorities.

Christian Soldiers of UKIP, in their leaflet, quote Jesus’ comments about not harming children. This is outrageous. They want to deny children the chance to learn about life, to consider different ethical views for themselves and to grow up to form healthy, loving, consensual relationships free from prejudice and narrow gender roles.

I could call on UKIP to disassociate themselves from the Christian Soldiers, but I’m not going to bother. UKIP’s tolerance of homophobia is already clear. Christians, however, need to do a better job of rejecting it.

Let’s remember that some of those who have been handed this vicious leaflet may not have read or heard many other comment from Christians on sexuality. If we don’t do a better job of speaking up, it may be the only Christian perspective on sexuality that they encounter.

Christian Concern’s general election campaign: Distorting the Gospel

With the general election coming up, there are a range of websites and other resources to help Christians to engage with the issues. My favourite is of course Vote for what you believe in set up by the Ekklesia thinktank, but I am rather biased, given that I’m an associate of Ekklesia.

Nonetheless, there are some other good sites. Many complement each other, while some come from different perspectives, which is fair enough.

I feel slightly sick, however, having just looked at the general election website of Christian Concern, a homophobic right-wing lobby group that sadly has influence over churches beyond its own extreme position.

The site lists “four key areas” that Christian Concern claims serve as a “litmus test” for society.

The first is “Family”, by which they mean a defence of the nuclear family and opposition to same-sex marriage. Nuclear families as we understand them today did not exist in Jesus’ time. Jesus himself does not appear to have been overly keen on biological families generally, insisting that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3, 35).

The second is “Foundations”, which seems to refer to protecting Britain’s “Christian heritage”. Britain has never been a country based around the teachings of Jesus, however powerful churches may have been at certain points. Does preserving a certain set of cultural practices have anything to do with living out the Gospel of Jesus?

The third is “Liberty”, by which they mean liberty for Christians. Christian Concern make artificial connections between a wide range of cases that supposedly show discrimination against Christians. Some are about over-the-top uniform codes. Most are about the supposed right of Christians to discriminate against others (usually same-sex couples). Jesus never taught his followers to demand rights for themselves that they deny to others.

The fourth is “Life”, which begins with the promising line “How we treat the most vulnerable in society speaks volumes about what we really value”. Is this the point at which Christian Concern will declare their opposition to austerity, their outrage at food banks, their solidarity with the homeless, unemployed and low-paid?

No, of course not. It’s all about abortion. Christian Concern think they can stop abortion simply by banning it. If they really want to reduce abortions, they need to tackle the causes, challenging poverty and sexual abuse, amongst others. In coming years, we are very likely to find that cuts to disability services have led to an increase in the number of abortions of disabled babies. But while Christian Concern will not say a word against these cuts, I’m not willing to take their claims seriously even on the question of abortion.

Let’s not forget that Christian Concern is an organisation whose leaders have refused to answer questions about the allegation that they held a strategy meeting with Tommy Robinson when he was leader of the far-right English Defence League.

The Bible says far, far more about poverty and violence than it does about sexuality and marriage. This is not to say that marriage and sexuality don’t matter. The Bible makes clear that they do matter. Jesus’ teachings about love and liberation apply just as strongly to sexual matters as they do to others (although I argue that they lead naturally to support for loving same-sex relationships, not opposition to them).

But how can anyone claiming to apply a Christian voice to an election completely ignore poverty? How can they insist that an unborn child should be born but say nothing about the chances of that child being killed in warfare? How can they demand the “right” of Christians to discriminate against gay and bisexual people but not defend the right of disabled people to equality and respect? How can they talk of the supposed destruction of Christian values but have nothing to say about the very real destruction of our God-given environment?

Jesus began his ministry by saying he had come to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4,18). Luke tells us he said “Blessed are you who are poor… Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6, 20-24). In Matthew’s version, Jesus blessed “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5,3) – that is, those who side with the poor. The majority of Jesus’ parables concerned economic themes. He spoke of a kingdom in which the first would be last and the last first.

I am sure that my own interpretations of Jesus’ teachings are mistaken in all sorts of ways. We all make errors. We are all influenced by our preconceptions and desires. Seeking to follow Jesus is a moment-by-moment challenge. Like many others, I fail all the time. Please let me emphasise that I do not expect all Christians to agree with me. I learn a great deal from those who don’t.

This does not mean that I can sit back while a group claiming to be a Christian voice in the general election use that voice to ignore the growth of poverty and inequality (thereby helping them to grow) and to stir up homophobia. Surely it is barely possible to come near to any understanding of Jesus’ teachings if we wilfully ignore the centrality of issues of wealth and power to almost everything that he had to say.

To speak of the Gospel without reference to poverty is not simply to twist the Gospel. It is proclaim another gospel all together .

Are Christians who support same-sex relationships frightened of saying so?

Conservative Christian groups are forever telling us that people who oppose same-sex relationships are frightened of expressing their views. According to people such as Christian Concern, those with “traditional” views are shut out of debate. George Carey frequently rises from his seat of privilege in the House of Lords to tell us that the voices of “traditional” Christians are marginalised. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail occasionally echo these comments, meaning views trumpeted on the front of top-selling newspapers are described, with no sense of irony, as being views that are shut out of public discussion.

It may come as a surprise then to hear that many Christians who are frightened of expressing their views on sexuality are those who support same-sex relationships.

A survey of churchgoing Christians by Oasis, reported in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, found that 49.8% of respondents believed that same-sex relationships are not “wrong” and that being in one should not affect a person’s position in the Christian church.

However, 30% said that although they believed that churches should accept same-sex relationships, they thought that it would be badly received if they expressed this view openly in church. Another eight percent said they were in favour but considered it not to be “helpful” or “appropriate” to say so publicly.

If this survey is accurate, then while half of churchgoers are accepting of same-sex relationships, only around 12% may be saying so in their churches.

I admit to being baffled by the eight percent who don’t declare their support because it wouldn’t be “helpful”, implying it’s more helpful to go along with something they believe to be untruthful and wrong. I’m worried by the 30% figure. I don’t condemn anyone for being nervous of expressing their view – I’ve been there often enough myself. But we need to encourage each other to speak up and declare that loving same-sex relationships should be judged no differently to loving mixed-sex relationships. God rejoices in love and fidelity, not in gender.

It is not always easy to speak up, let alone to persuade others. At times, the arguments put forward by liberal Christians can make things difficult. They too readily get drawn by conservatives into discussing the precise wording of a small number of biblical passages rather than looking at the New Testament’s broader messages of radical love and liberation from law. Too often, their reasons for accepting same-sex relationships sound simply like a pale reflection of secular liberalism rather than a strongly Christian position. I failed to be convinced by these arguments for years.

There is an alternative. The New Testament presents a Christ who has freed us from the law and a Holy Spirit that empowers us to live by love, guided by Jesus’ teachings rather than the legalism of those who snatch lines of scripture from their contexts and set them up as laws. The Kingdom of God, present here and now yet mindbendingly eternal, offers an alternative to both legalism and hedonism, to the homophobia and sexual abuse of many churches on the one hand and the shallow, commercialised sexuality of secular capitalism on the other.

We need to give us each other courage, seek God’s guidance and speak up.

Farage still scaremongering about same-sex marriage

During his recent debates with Nick Clegg, UKIP leader Nigel Farage found time to make a baseless prediction about same-sex marriage and religion.

In his first debate with Clegg, Farage said that UKIP opposed same-sex marriage “while we are signed up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and where we have the risk that our established church, and possibly other faith communities, could ultimately under discrimination laws be forced to conduct services that they find anathema”. 

He went further in a statement released by his office, to correct any perception that UKIP now supports same-sex marriage. He said, “We note that some gay rights activists are already talking about taking legal action in Strasbourg to force this issue.”

Are they, Nigel? Can you name them please?

I’m not sure they exist outside Nigel Farage’s fantasies, but I am ready to apologise if he or anyone else can point them out to me.

The fear that faith groups may be forced to carry out same-sex weddings against their will has been whipped up over the last two years by groups such as the “Coalition for Marriage”, certain conservative Catholics and UKIP.

These claims are less believable than ever. They had largely died down since the legislation on same-sex marriage was passed by Parliament last year, as it became clear that legal challenges were not happening.

By reviving these claims, Farage raises the spectre of the European Court of Human Rights. He does not, of course, explain why the Court has not forced faith groups to carry out same-sex marriages in all the other European countries that already recognise same-sex marriage.

Despite working on these issues for several years, I know of no LGBT rights group that wants to force faith communities to carry out marriages they don’t believe in. I have never met any individual who wants to do so either. Anyone attempting such a legal challenge would almost certainly have to begin it in the UK courts; not in Strasbourg. Furthermore, they would receive no support from any of the major LGBT rights groups in the UK, and very little from anyone else.

In November 2011, Christian Concern (one of the lobby groups behind the “Coalition for Marriage”) commented on new legislation allowing churches to host civil partnerships. Christian Concern’s director, Andrea Williams, said “It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.

No such litigation was commenced. No organisation came out supporting such litigation. I wrote to Andrea Williams on 4th November 2011, asking her to name any groups or individuals of whom she was aware who were planning such litigation. Two and a half years’ later, I am still waiting for a reply.

It’s no surprise that the Christian Concern website currently has a picture of Nigel Farage on the front page, with an article saying he is “right to the fear the consequences” of same-sex marriage. Both UKIP and Christian Concern are fuelled by fear. Their baseless claims must be challenged.