The evangelist and the Mail On Sunday

There are mornings when I fall out of bed. Stagger to the laptop clutching my coffee. Get lured into reading something that looks vaguely interesting. Click on a link. And end up wanting to crawl back to bed in tears. Today was one of those days. The trouble with incoherent anger is it’s … well, it’s incoherent. So I’m going to need a good deal of grace and self-control in writing today.

It started innocently enough. A group of eminent non-Christians has written a letter to the Daily Telegraph objecting to David Cameron’s declaration that Britain is a Christian country. Don’t go there I thought. The man’s too easy a target for wrath and despair. It’s Bank Holiday. Just finish what you started last night and be done. But you know what they say about curiosity …

I read on. I found myself nodding in agreement. It is surely divisive to declare Britain a ‘Christian country’. In the 2011 census only 59% of the population declared themselves ‘Christian’. A more specific question in a YouGov survey found only 29% of Britons calling themselves ‘religious’. While a recent survey of religion in G7 countries found only 35% of us believing religion to be a positive influence on society, compared to 29% believing it to have a wholly negative impact. All of which suggests that quite a few of those who self-identified as Christian in the census have no more than a nodding acquaintance with faith.

A year or so ago I was almost mown down by three cyclists. They whizzed past me one after the other at high speed. On the pavement. Temporarily pinned to the wall, I glared at the last as he flew past. He turned round and swore at me. That evening, I took to Facebook to declare my frustration. The internal combustion engine is king. I want to empathise with cyclists. I really do. So why can’t they give me a little respect? A friend responded. 90% of the cyclists in Bristol give the rest of us a bad name. It seems to me that David Cameron and his ilk are at risk of becoming the aggressive exponents of Christianity who give the rest of us a bad name.

Sounds harsh? Mr Cameron once declared his faith to be a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns. It sort of comes and goes. Nothing wrong with that. There’s not an honest Christian alive who hasn’t had doubts. Suddenly it seems he wants us to be ‘more evangelical’ about our faith. Odd. He’s at loggerheads with the church, isn’t he? So what’s with the sudden volte face?

People often confuse faith with culture. Nineteenth-century missionaries, complete with pith helmets, famously exported British culture in the name of Christianity. They cleared the ground for a brutal colonial empire. The effects are still being counted around the world today. War. Poverty. Injustice. Genocide. That’s no part of faith in my book. There are modern missionaries who do no better. Exporting the American Dream. Living on a monthly income in excess of the annual wage of those they seek to ‘save’. Driving shiny 4x4s to newly-built churches through streets lined with beggars. This type of evangelism is a witch’s brew of cultural imperialism and overzealous moralism. The kind of mentality that declares ‘we’re right and everyone else is wrong’. It can only end in tears.

On the other hand, there are people who do amazing things because of their faith. Mother Teresa springs to mind. My brother and his wife. They’ve spent more than twenty years transforming the lives of Bolivian street kids. One25 was founded by a Christian. And the Trussell Trust. That nefarious ‘scaremongering’ organisation responsible for undermining the moral fibre of our great nation with its food banks. I have personal experience of all these. Although sadly Mother Teresa was no longer with us by the time I made my only trip to Calcutta. The difference? Simple. These people do what they do out of love. Not because they want to manipulate other people into seeing the world their way.

Here comes the incoherent anger. Call me cynical. A conspiracy theorist. It’s all right. I’ve been called worse. Less than two weeks ago David Cameron held an Easter reception at Downing Street. Among other things, his speech praised faith organisations for setting up food banks. Now, either the man’s had a Damascus road experience or there’s something funny going on …

Enter yesterday’s Mail On Sunday. With a vitriolic attack on food banks.

Now you see why I was spitting nails when I started writing this morning? Talk about manipulation. The people who use food banks are poor beyond the wildest dreams of any Daily Mail reporter. Vulnerable. Desperate. I’m not for one moment suggesting that we’re all saints. Yes. I said ‘we’. I’ve received food from a food bank. I wouldn’t recommend the experience. The gift was given with immense love and grace. I was still reduced to tears of humiliation. I’ve seen a food bank from both sides of the counter. I’m fairly sure one or two of the people who use it are just as dishonest as MPs with their expenses. I’m not condoning the behaviour of the minority. But to rubbish the entire system the way this article does is one of two things. It’s either irredeemably irresponsible journalism. At its absolute worst. Or a cynical attempt by an embattled government to smear its enemy. While carefully trying to appear whiter-than-white. Take your pick.

But the signs are that all has not gone to plan. First came news of a Twitter backlash against the Mail On Sunday. A surge in donations to food banks followed. At the time of writing, the Trussell Trust’s Easter appeal stands at £54,953. After the hammering this morning, my faith in human nature is considerably restored. I’m not naïve enough to imagine we’ve won the war today. But I do believe we’ve scored a small victory. For compassion. For caring. For the human race.

 

I’m blogging to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. I’ve given up NOT being a writer for 125 days in support of One25’s work with vulnerable women in Bristol. You can find out more about them by visiting their website at http://www.one25.org.uk/. You can also support them by visiting my fund raising page at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=JeanMutch where you can make a donation and suggest an idea for a short story or a post on the blog. Thank you.

 

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