Alex Salmond is no stranger to controversial comments, but his latest has got me scratching my head. The MP for Gordon and former First Minister of Scotland said in a video that he prefers "people of faith to people of no faith or people who have lost their faith".
In fairness to the ex-SNP leader, it seems like more of an offhand comment than a considered policy announcement. But it's an odd one, to be sure. To give it some more context, Salmond said: "I am biased, of course, because I am a Church of Scotland adherent and I prefer people of faith to people of no faith or people who have lost their faith...All denominations have a key role to play in society and we are very fortunate in Scotland because we have a tremendous ability, among religions and denominations, to come together and support good causes."
Clearly Salmond was trying to be positive and make a case for the good that churches and other faith groups bring to society. This point will be obvious to any of the 10 million people who use the community and social services provided by churches every year. It would be churlish to ignore Salmond's point here – churches in many communities are the glue that holds together the social fabric. Priests and pastors act as social workers, careers advisers, community development workers and much more besides.
If this was Salmond's main point, he could have made it more clearly. Instead, he talked about preferring people of faith. In itself, this could mean one of two things. Maybe he means that his fellow believers are generally nice people and he enjoys their company.
I'm sure many atheists and agnostics would take exception to the view that Christians or those of other faiths are inherently nicer. But certainly, many people I share a pew with on a Sunday are great! When I dislocated my shoulder the week before I was supposed to move house, who was it that came to my rescue and basically did the whole move for me? My church home group, of course. Christians are nice people – for the most part...
However, there's another possible meaning to what Salmond said which strikes me as more worrying. If, by saying he prefers spending time with people of faith, he really meant that he enjoys being in a 'holy huddle', I think he's missed a big part of Jesus' message.
Jesus crossed ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries with such regularity that there isn't space here to recount more than a fraction of the examples from the Bible. But let's look at a couple. One of the most famous examples from the Gospel of John sees Jesus interacting with a Samaritan woman. When He starts to talk to her she is astonished. She asks Him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" The text then contains the helpful signpost, "For Jews do not associate with Samaritans." Well, Jesus did.
It wasn't just the Jews' old rivals the Samaritans that Jesus had interactions with. He met and talked with the occupying military force – the Roman army. In Matthew 8 we read of His meeting with a centurion. Jesus doesn't simply tolerate this man. In fact, He commends the centurion in glowing terms. Verse 10 tells us: "When Jesus heard this, He was amazed and said to those following him, 'Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.'"
These interactions were costly to Jesus – in fact, far more costly and controversial than an SNP MP sitting down with a Labour or Conservative politician. Rumours began to spread about the company Jesus was keeping. In Matthew 19 He says of Himself, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.'" And who were the ringleaders of these rumours, who were eventually successful in having Him murdered? The Pharisees – the good 'people of faith' of their day.
If we say that we prefer people who are 'in our club' then we run the risk of being just as pharisaical as those who criticised Jesus. We need to reach out beyond our comfort zones and beyond the 'nice people' if we want to really imitate Jesus – which is the essence of what being a Christian must be about.
This will have real consequences for whatever kind of work or ministry we're involved in. Spending time with those outside our tribe can help us to learn new perspectives, to sharpen our own faith and ultimately, to represent Jesus to them. In my experience, it's also a lot of fun.
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