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Fighting for the Faith
Fr Mark Waters, St Stephen's Day, December 26th, 2013

So after four weeks of preparation for this Christmas season, we’re only just into our mince pies when, liturgically, the festivities seem to be over. No sooner have we celebrated the long-awaited birth than we are caught up in the story of the first Christian martyr.

An accident of the lectionary perhaps? Someone not thinking very clearly when they juxtaposed these feasts?

I think not.

St Stephen is a reminder, at the very peak of the Christmas celebrations, that the boy-child was born into very turbulent times. Similarly, the feast of the Slaughter of the Innocents in a couple of days time, is another reminder – should we need it - that the Christian project is steeped in politics and surrounded by threat.

You might be surprised to know that not much has changed since then. It is estimated that up to 100,000 Christians are killed for their faith every year. And many times that number persecuted, in a long list of places: Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Egypt and Ethiopia.

There are three main triggers of anti-Christian violence:

- Firstly, religious radicalism and the rise of Islamic as well as Buddhist and Hindu extremism
- Secondly, states in which governments see Christians as a possible subversive danger
- And thirdly persecution linked to business, mafias, and paramilitaries who see Christian social teaching a threat to their interests

From its beginning the Christian faith has not been a private affair. Every single pope for the first 300 years of the church’s history was martyred, alongside countless, ordinary, unnamed Christians.

People in power see Christian faith as dangerous and threatening. And the main reason for that is that the lense through which Christians look at the world is that of the poor. It is the lodestar of our faith.

Our scriptures tell the stories of people suffering forced labour in Egypt, people trafficked in Babylon, and of the poor, the marginalised, the sick, the disabled, the mentally ill and homeless families in first century Palestine.

So however much politicians tell us that faith is a private affair and that we should keep out of public life – always their first response – our inheritance of faith says something else.

But historically, Christians haven’t been persecuted for charitable good works, or for encouraging people to go to church and pray, they have been persecuted because they sing to a different tune and they encourage others to sing to that tune. It is a tune that people who hold power almost invariably find hard to square with their own interests.

We Christians have inherited a vocation to be a thorn in the side of corrupt government and in a globalised world we are called to fulfil that vocation not just here at home, but on a much wider public canvas.

But caught up as we are in trying to maintain our structures, by being labelled as irrelevant by most people, and largely ignored by government we seem to have lost our way. Witnessing last week government MPs laughing at and ridiculing real life stories of people struggling in poverty in this country is evidence enough - if we needed it - that Christian public witness is very much needed today as much as in the first century.

Let us pray that we may follow Stephen’s example, and that of countless of our Christian forebears who have been prepared to fight for the faith by seeing the cradle through the eyes of the cross.

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