Approaching Sainsbury’s at a jog last Sunday morning – passing on the way the house with eight solar panels and four air conditioning units cancelling each other out, and the discarded fridge wearing a toilet seat like a hat – and there was a small group of people dressed in green giving out leaflets. Hoping they were environmental activists I made eye contact before realising that they were Christian evangelists.
These are becoming increasingly frequent outside supermarkets and tube stations as the social crisis deepens. Depending on their given path to salvation they sometimes stand mutely awaiting lost souls seeking guidance – or they go out of their way to hassle possible converts with a leaflet, or an opening conversational gambit, whether they feel lost or not. They are a far more present feature of our streets than political parties are and generally argue with fixed smiles from within a labyrinth of arguments that can only be convincing if you accept their faith before you start.
I’m usually polite and don’t start a discussion, but having approached these people assuming they were something they were not, it would have seemed rude not to engage
Trying to have a discussion on what I hoped might be common ground about the world as it is, I asked one of them – with all due respect that they were not Church of England – for his view of the service in Westminster Cathedral to commemorate 50 years of the submarine nuclear “deterrent”. The long tradition of the C of E blessing battleships now at the level of sprinkling Holy Water over weapons capable of incinerating entire cities and killing everyone who lives in them. Blessed are the peacemakers? What would Jesus do? What hymns do you sing at a service like that? All things bright and beautiful? What prayer? “…Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”? What lesson? “Turn the other cheek?”
He hadn’t heard about it, but quickly interpreted it as further evidence of the “end of days”. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Book of Revelations can see why any apocalyptic period in human history could be seen in this light. For someone who believes in the literal truth of the Bible, this becomes an imperative , so real life crises – like the climate emergency that everyone should be putting energy into stopping – becomes reduced to nothing more than raw material for a view of the world that welcomes it as evidence of the upcoming rapture.
This provides the delusion of salvation for those who believe hard enough. This is an emotional imperative. Faith based on feeling. The problem is that if that faith is based on fear, any amount of trouble can result from it. Questions that are difficult to answer are simply put in a box marked “intellectualising”; because no one likes a smart arse, experts are not to be trusted, and questioning a faith is the road to breakdown if it is the rock on which your mental equilibrium is built; the port in the storm of uncertain times.
It is also, of course, deeply factional.
Each evangelical sect believes that it has The Answer, usually in the form of seeing The Bible as the “Word of God” and therefore “The Truth”. As any text is subject to interpretation – as they put it in Life of Brian ; “How shall we fuck off, oh Lord?” – each sect holds onto its own reading as the one true way and condemns all the others – with a sad shake of the head and sometimes an unmistakable glint of smugness while contemplating all that hellfire for those that are not saved- as lost sheep that have gone astray.
The next time I have this discussion I will try out a joke that was told to me by a Catholic friend when we were teenagers and see if they laugh in self recognition – as laughter often gets through where reasoned argument doesn’t.
Man dies and goes to Heaven.
He gets shown around by St Peter – clouds, harps, heavenly choir…all the drill.
After a while St Peter asks him if he has any questions.
He looks all around and says – “Yes, that thing.”
He points to a wall that stretches as far as they eye can see, up and down, and from one horizon to the other.
“What’s behind THAT?”
St Peter says “Oh! That’s the Catholics. They think they are the only ones here.”