This week I read about the appalling case of the Sudanese woman Meriam Yehja Ibrahim who has been sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy, and flogging for adultery. But, she hasn’t committed adultery in the sense that you and I might understand the word, for the ‘crime’ of this 28 year old doctor is her marriage to a South Sudanese Christian. Meriam has steadfastly refused to renounce her Christian faith. When invited in court to affirm allegiance to Islam she simply, without equivocation, said ‘I am a Christian.’
We all of us hope ,and pray, that religious tolerance is exercised and that Meriam is spared the whip and the gallows. And, I suspect we are all in awe of her bravery and, the strength of her faith.
But let us also reflect on what the implications are for all of us when we say ‘I am a Christian.’
I suggest that to say ‘I am a Christian’ is to invite judgement. Indeed if Christianity implies a pattern of life based on Jesus’ earthly life then it is hard to dodge the fact that judgment is inevitable. For some judgement might lead to death, but not for the majority of us; so what forms of judgement can we anticipate? Four possible forms of judgement can be readily identified from the Gospel stories.
- Straightforward apathy – this will be the reaction of people so caught up in their own lives that they simply can’t afford the time to come and dine with Christ (Luke 14, 15-24).
- Injustice – Jesus experienced the worst kind of human injustice. He was put to death by an unholy alliance of the religious and political elite. Currently the same fate, by an equivalent group of actors, awaits Meriam.
- Positive rejection – the message is heard, perhaps even the experience of an encounter with the Divine entered into but ultimately the message of Christianity is rejected. The Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10, 17-31) knew that Jesus offered something different, better even, but couldn’t let go of his allegiance to the material world. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) reveals a less explicit form of rejection, for one of the seeds fell on what appeared to be fertile soil, only to be choked off as hurdles to growth were encountered.
- Negative rejection – this might be our fault! It will take place when the zeal of our words are out of kilter with the quality of our lives. We come over as all logos but no ethos. We provoke a reaction akin to Gandhi who was greatly inspired by Christ but completely turned off by Christians.
- Acceptance – occasionally the quality of faith is so infectious that a genuine conversion experience becomes possible. But don’t bank on it, after all, to paraphrase the cat food adverts, nine out of ten lepers, received their healing and then went on their merry way without accepting their ongoing spiritual healing (Matthew 17, 11-19). Sometimes we have to accept that we will be used!
Western Christians are unlikely to face the gravest of injustices, outright injustice enacted through flogging and hanging. Our judgement is much more likely to be apathy or positive rejection. This is part of the pattern of Jesus’ own judgement.
I hope that tolerance wins out for Meriam. I pray that it does.
But, what can we learn from her story? Simply this, that to say that ‘I am a Christian,’ is to invite judgement.
How comfortable are we with this? I suspect that the answer is not very! I have said I pray for tolerance for Meriam but, at the same time I get slightly worried when I hear western Christians asking for tolerance. Could it be that at times we really crave the ease of apathy? In asking for tolerance are we in danger of entering into some form of uneasy pact where we trade religious freedom for silence or acquiescence on other issues? I watched Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace with a group of parishioners this week and was struck by how the Lutheran Church traded freedom of worship for silence in the political sphere. Bonhoeffer criticised the Lutheran Church for ‘peddling cheap grace,’ without paying the ‘cost of discipleship.’ We must make sure we don’t do the same, we must like Meriam and Bonhoeffer accept that judgment is the cost of discipleship. Are we prepared to do so: that is the question.