Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings

On Sunday mornings I take services in my local church, not far from Sheffield city centre. As with many inner-city churches the congregation is very mixed – by ethnicity, age and social class. It also includes students from overseas who have come to study at the city’s two universities. We are privileged in being able to hear at first hand about daily life in places as far apart as Romania and Malaysia, Brazil and Zambia.

What I find fascinating is the way these young, articulate and very thoughtful Christians use their faith to help them reflect on their different lives and home circumstances. I have been especially interested by what is said by those from largely Muslim countries caught up in the ferment of democratic ideas sweeping through large parts of the Arab world. How do Christians in, say, revolutionary Libya, or Tunisia, where they hold elections tomorrow, or Syria, which continues to implode, use their faith to help them navigate through turbulent times?

One young woman, talking about her hopes and fears, said how important it was for her to read words of Jesus that suggested that he understood there would be times when the struggle for truth and freedom might be fierce. It might mean a sword and not peace. It might set a young person against their parents.

Then she said something that helped explain why the movement for change often goes in fits and starts. What holds people back in their struggle for greater freedom, she said, is not only the fear of reprisals – frightening though that is – but also the fear of uncertainty. A regime kept its psychological hold over people because while it might be oppressive it guaranteed stability. You knew where you were - no change, a predictable future. Opting for a more democratic way of organising political life and, yes, a more liberal economy, opened doors onto unknown and unknowable futures – more freedom and greater prosperity, perhaps; but also the possibility of Islamist control or simple anarchy. That too was frightening. In such a situation, as well as the courage to risk beatings and bullets, people also needed the courage to opt for uncertainty.

‘The mistake you make in the west’, she said, ‘is to speak of democracy as the end of history. We know it’s just a beginning.’

So what she drew from her Christian faith was what she saw as the invitation of Jesus to take risks. Those words of his, ‘It was said by them of old, but I say unto you….’ she understood as the words of a risk taker – and his promise, ‘I am with you always to the end of time’, gave her courage - courage to take the risk for democracy and commit to a wholly open and uncertain future. Faith, in other words, can shape political as well as personal virtues.

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