In the heat of current political issues, is it possible to find a healing ethic of religious freedom? Might a fresh look at Christian tradition help us with this? The ideological use of notions of 'religious freedom' is certainly hardly new. Judaeo-Christian history is riddled with it and their consequences. Jesus himself was famously condemned, according to John 's Gospel (11.50). since it was argued that it was better for one person to die than for the nation to be destroyed (allegedly). Other faith expressions and Christian 'heretics' have met comparable fates. Meanwhile, in many places, Jews and Christians have experienced, and continue to experience, harassment, persecution, and even outright destruction. Yet the Jewish and Christian traditions are also founded on expansive ideas of liberty, grounded in the very being of God in God-self, and on liberative myths and symbols such as Exodus from slavery, return from Exile, deliverance from sin and evil, and the in-breaking and embodiment of God's reign of justice, peace and love. These have empowered, and continue, to empower people to achieve freedom across the world. Not for nothing then did Martin Luther call his seminal work 'On Christian Freedom'. Its use highlights three typical trajectories western society has explored in relation to 'religious freedom'. Its central message however points us deeper...
If Samuel Johnson were around today he might well feel that religion, rather than patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It certainly seems to be an excuse, or self-justification, for all kinds of bad behaviour, as well as a source of strength and inspiration to holiness in others. Not least this is the case in regard to some leading Christian approaches to LGBTI+ people and their vigorous intent on backlash. At times horribly distorting reality, they even hijack 'religious freedom' into its opposite - i.e religious privilege - thereby further diminishing religion's positive features and making life very difficult for those very many Christians who believe and act differently. Indeed, when it comes to the current contentious battle over 'religious freedom', as both a transgender person and a Christian, I consequently frequently find part of who I am dismissed by one contending group or another. When, instead, will we recognise that the real problem are the scoundrels? Just as Samuel Johnson was not attacking patriotism as such, only a false kind of patriotism, so we do well to call out those with 'bad faith', whilst finding a fresh consensus among those genuinely seeking balance of conscience and liberty, whether we are secular or not. ..
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the Pope’s horses and all the Pope’s men (and women),
couldn’t put Humpty together again.
For good and ill, the era we know as the Reformation has hugely shaped us. It involved immense fragmentation: both a breaking down and a breaking open. Like Humpty Dumpty, that which went before had ‘a great fall’ and could not be put together again as it had been. Especially within Christian life, it has thus bequeathed so many features we simply take for granted. Some have lasting value. Others are much more questionable. This includes the very existence of different Christian traditions, in what, from the 19th century, we have termed denominations. This was not, of course, an intended outcome. Indeed, it would have seemed anathema to any Reformer, as well as to the Church of Rome. Yet it is part of our Reformation inheritance. So what do we make of this, for God’s continuing mission? What is worth keeping? How might we move on together?
This reflection is not a traditional potted history. Nor does it seek to draw us into comparisons of our different Christian traditions, never mind reassemble past dynamics and rhetoric. Instead, it outlines briefly both vital differences and also important similarities between that age and our own. In doing so, it identifies a number of negative features which often mar our churches and world. It also suggests a number of positive features which can heal and take us forward. Hopefully, in the contemporary spirit of ‘receptive ecumenism’, these may then provide a basis for assessing which Reformation gifts we will own together and which we will leave behind. What else, we might then ask, do we need for our journey onwards today?...
From my early childhood, I have always been engaged in exploring what liberty means. I grew up fascinated by history for that reason and it is not for nothing that the pictures over my office desk resonate with some of the mightiest of English struggles for liberty: a copy of the Magna Carta, photographs and records of female suffragists, and, most poignantly of all, a facsimile of the Leveller Anthony Sedley's scrawled protest on the font of Burford Church (see picture to the right). Such epic battles, mixed in as they often were with religious identity and aspiration, both challenge and inspire. They are in parts a record of gruesome hurts but also witness to the Christ-like 'courage to be', to re-imagine, and to 'turn the world upside down' Imagine then my frequent puzzlement and dismay, when some people, in comfortable places, speak about religious liberty as merely the right to hold and publicise curious opinions and practices or to protect privilege. Of course I would not wish to deny others the first of those things. Yet liberty is so much more...
As we let go of one year and begin another, it is good to give thanks for all that has been and to open ourselves with fresh hope and compassion to the future. The two things are connected. My final visit in Berlin this year for example was a way of paying tribute both to past inspiration and to its continuing living 'subversive memory'. For in the Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery are the graves of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, among others commemorated at this Memorial to the Socialists. Other parts of the cemetery also house the graves of creative people, including the amazing artist Kathe Kollwitz. In some ways it is a sad place, not only as cemeteries typically can be, but also because of the failure of much of the vision and hard work of those buried there. Yet as the main commemorative stone has it Die Toten mahnen uns (The dead remind us), at their best, prompting us to renewing life and love.
My politics have never been quite those of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, but I have always admired their commitment to a better world, sacrificial solidarity with the poor and outcast, intelligence and vision. To lay a flower on each of their graves was thus for me to express a debt of gratitude and to pledge with others to renew their work in a new way. My guess is that, in Rosa Luxemburg's case for sure, if they had not been murdered by the Freikorps in Berlin in 1919, their work would have been betrayed by others, including those indeed like one or two of the East German communist party apparatchiks buried alongside them. For being of Polish birth and Jewish extraction, and a feminist socialist with a physical disability and a brilliant independent mind, Rosa was always an uncomfortable figure to so many. Her most famous words sum this up and remain a powerful challenge and inspiration, whatever group(s) we belong to:
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of a party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter. Not because of the fanaticism of "justice", but rather because all that is instructive, wholesome, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effects cease to work when "freedom" becomes a privilege.
For those words alone my pilgrimage would have been worthwhile, but there is much more. For to me, Rosa stands for many more, living and dead, who continue to believe in, inspire, and work, for another kind of world, however we imagine what Christians like me call 'the kingdom of God'. And so, for the coming year, in the words of the anarchist poet Pietro Gori, in Primo Maggio, written in 1890:
Green May of humankind,
Give your courage and your faith to our hearts.
Give flowers to the rebels who failed
Their sight fixed upon the break of dawn,
To the bold rebel who fights and works
To the far-seeing poet who sings and dies.
The other day at home I found a wonderful book, related to my doctoral studies, which i had not really looked at properly. It is entitled England's Voice of Freedom: An Anthology of Liberty. First published in 1929, it was edited by the radical journalist Henry W. Nevinson, an active participant, among other things, in the women's suffrage movement. He was, unhappily, married to Margaret Wynne Nevinson, a leading (Anglican) Christian feminist and one of my personal heroines. Not surprisingly, there are a number of first wave feminist entries in the book, among a treasury of inspirational texts on liberty.
Nevinson's book is a timely reminder, in this 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, of the amazingly deep, delightfully varied, and incorrigibly ingrained spirit of liberty in the history and very spirit of England. Of course there are other trends and spirits, not least: the arrogance, authoritarianism, and class-ridden contempt of many English so-called 'elites' down the centuries; an occasionally recurring mean and miserly insularity which can sap the soul of English delight and generosity; and the brutality and coarse violence which has often been close to the surface at home and, sadly, exported abroad. Living away from the land of my birth, I am well aware both of those failings and the danger of romanticising. All great peoples also have inspiring words and lived examples of liberty. Yet, for all that, there is something in the English heritage which, as Nevinson put it, is 'peculiarly English in the ideas of freedom' that have been passed down: 'something that appeals very intimately to the English man or woman born and bred... and nurtured unconsciously upon her ancient traditions as I have been'. Perhaps, at a distance, those unconscious elements can also become a little clearer?...
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.