Even when I lived in Oxford between 1988 and 1999, the Church of England was rapidly becoming a rotting corpse. Church attendance was at such an all-time low that one survey claimed less than 5 percent of congregants were regularly in attendance. An embarrassingly high number of Church of England vicars were saying in surveys that they questioned the existence of God.
I recall how one Sunday morning I was the guest on a religious TV show debating the existence of the devil. Accompanying me was a Roman Catholic priest and a Church of England vicar. The priest said that Satan was real, I said that Judaism did not believe in the dualist proposition of a fallen angel that challenges God’s hegemony. The vicar said, “Since I’m not completely sure there is a God, at least as we normally understand it, I certainly cannot be sure there is a devil.” Once the shock wore off, we were able to continue the conversation.
Similarly, at Oxford, there was this dichotomy of the official chaplains of the colleges, all of whom were in the Church of England, being simultaneously the nicest people in the world – they would regularly assist me in locating the Jewish students – and also seemingly the least passionate about spreading faith. On the contrary, it was the evangelical Christian students, like those who ran Oxford Intercollegiate Christian Union, who did most to excite interest in Jesus on campus.
How sad and tragic that in addition to passionlessness, amorality has now become a central staple of a once great church.
Having had the honor of becoming the first non-Christian to win the London Times Preacher of the Year competition a few days before the millennium, I was invited in October 2002 by the Times to return to London to debate with five previous winners – nearly all from the Church of England – the morality of the proposed war in Iraq. I was the last speaker. All who preceded me spoke of the danger that such an invasion posed, how it was deeply immoral, and how a belligerent George Bush was a threat to world peace.
I got up and immediately disputed the premise, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” On the contrary, it was always those who fought evil whom history remembered as the greatest in their generations.
- George Washington who fought the tyranny of the British is the founding father of America, the world’s first democracy.
- Abraham Lincoln who fought the enslavement of God’s black sons and daughters rather than make peace with a secessionist South is today considered America’s greatest president.
- Winston Churchill, who was dismissed as a belligerent crank and an unstable warmonger by the British prior to World War II is today considered the single greatest statesman of the 20th century for having fought the rancid evil of Nazism.
- And today, I concluded, George Bush and Tony Blair would be remembered as the greatest leaders in their generation if they were to halt the single greatest murderer alive, Saddam Hussein.
The attacks against me came quickly and brutally. People hissed and booed in the audience. Many complained later to the editor of the Times, who served as moderator, that they had given a platform to an extremist. And my fellow panelists politely but firmly tried to discredit everything I had said, repeatedly claiming that America was only interested in Iraq’s oil.
I turned to my colleagues and said, “Am I missing something? If a man is walking down the street, and sees a woman being raped and beaten with a lead pipe, what should be his reaction? (A) I really should try and help, but there are many other rapists out there and since I can’t stop them all I won’t try and stop this one either. (B) I’d like to help but I know in my heart that I would be doing this only for the celebrity and financial rewards that would follow my heroic act. So I have to be true to myself and keep on walking. (C) This is a very evil deed, but it really is none of my business, after all, it’s not my wife who is being raped. Or (D) If I don’t intercede immediately, whatever the risks and however insincere, I am a highly immoral man?
Still, they attacked me as a warmonger.
Fast forward just a little more than a year later and supporters of the war in general, and Tony Blair and George Bush, in particular, have now been attacked by two of the Church of England’s most senior figures. First, the bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, accused evangelical Christians, who form the most important constituency of President Bush, of espousing “a very strange distortion of Christianity … For Bush and Blair to go into Iraq together was like a bunch of white vigilantes going into Brixton to stop drug dealing … they are not credible people to deal with it,” he said.
In a separate attack, the archbishop of York, David Hope said that Prime Minister Blair would have to answer to God – a “higher authority” – for his decision to go to war.
The archbishop then challenged Mr. Blair to show more humility rather than exercise power in an authoritarian manner. Concerning Saddam Hussein, the archbishop offered this spurious argument: “Undoubtedly, a very wicked leader has been removed, but there are wicked leaders in other parts of the world.”
Of course, these attacks come in the wake of the archbishop of Canterbury himself, Rowan Williams, stating that Prime Minister Blair would be “called to account,” an interesting inversion – by the most senior Church of England prelate – of God’s calling Cain to account after the murder of his brother Abel. Here Rev. Williams would have us believe that those who intercede to stop the slaughter of innocent Muslims will be held accountable before God, rather than those humble Christians who violated the biblical commandment to not to stand idly by the blood of one’s neighbor.
If there is one seminal thing for which the year 2003 should be remembered it is this: The year that the normally amoral game of politics trumped the usually moral teachings of religion.
A year in which a former baseball-owner-turned-president of the United States emerged as the greatest man alive by expending treasure, lives and risking all his political capital to cross the world and save 24 million people from the killing machines of a tyrant. If George Bush never wins another election, if he indeed never passes another piece of legislation, I will still remember him as one of my greatest sources of religious inspiration for teaching me to what lengths a human being must go in order to save human life.
And even in the worst case scenario, if he went to Iraq insincerely – if he did it to enrich the executives of Halliburton, or to avenge his father’s honor, or because America needs Iraq’s oil – I would rather have an insincere politician who saves lives rather than ostensibly God-fearing church leaders who do nothing to stop the murder of their human brethren.
Many of us wonder how Europe could have quickly become so immoral, how polls can show that the majority of Europeans believe that Israel and the United States – two outstanding democracies – can be identified by the majority of Europeans in opinion polls as the greatest threats to world peace, well ahead of Bashar Al Assad, the rotten House of Saud and Moammar Gadhafi. To answer this pivotal question, one need look no further than the hopelessly misguided shepherds of this forsaken and forlorn flock. For if the religious leaders are not rooted in morality, why would we expect the people to be?
For his part, Tony Blair, another great man, confessed in an interview that took place during the Iraq war that he had planned to end a televised speech, just before British troops stormed into Iraq, with the phrase “God bless you,” but was discouraged by his officials. Perhaps when God is finally allowed back into Britain, morality will come in with Him.