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BBC Radio 4

Thought for the Day - Clifford Longley - 11/02/2013

Good morning
The debate about gay marriage was rather at cross purposes, it seemed to me, because neither side ever really understood what the other was saying. For instance while there were clearly two versions in circulation of what marriage was about, there were also two concepts of equality, which never really connected.

In Christianity there is a profound commitment to the equality of all human beings - because God created them equal, and they are equal on their deathbed when they return to Him. We find this thread running all through the New Testament, for instance when St Paul writes in his epistle to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

This religious imperative for social justice lay behind, for instance, the campaign against the slave trade. The initiative was largely in the hands of Evangelicals like Wilberforce, together with many Quakers and Methodists. We find a similar alliance against slavery in the United States before the civil war. And everywhere you would find them quoting St Paul's letter to the Galatians. "In Christ there is neither slave nor free."

Churches were at the fore of the civil rights campaign in the southern United States a century later, just as they were at the fore of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. The Dutch Reformed Church had supported apartheid on religious grounds, but once it changed its theology - thanks again to St Paul - apartheid was on the way out.

Today, while they don't quite know what to make of the call for gay equality, you find churches all over the world at the forefront of campaigns opposing racism, and demanding fair treatment for immigrants. To give just one example, the archbishop of Los Angeles declared a few years ago he would rather go to prison, than agree that Catholic hospitals should not treat illegal immigrants.

Where does all this come from? Where did St Paul get his version of it? It is a core belief of Christianity that human beings have infinite value because they were created in the image of God and redeemed by his Son. "In as much as you have done these things to the least of my brethren you have done them to me," as Christ told his disciples. And two things of infinite values are, of course, of equal worth.

This is a very strong ethic of social justice. But it doesn't translate easily into a secular "equality agenda". That's mainly about "identity politics" - a relatively recent development which I don't think the churches have yet fully grasped. That's not how their minds work. But identity politics also contains important moral insights, truths we need if we are to live harmoniously in a decent society. And that means taking all these ideas together, not setting one against the other.

Release date: 12 Feb 2013

3 minutes

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