Owen Jones: Right about homophobia, wrong about religion

Screenshot | Sky News

As someone who is right of centre in my political leanings, I have to share with you a guilty secret – I really like Owen Jones, the left wing commentator and political activist. I disagree with him on many things but I have a growing respect for his writing and broadcasting because time and time again he pulls off clear critical analysis, sharing his left wing position with great erudition and passion. On his YouTube channel he interviews people from across the political spectrum and you get the sense the conversations he enjoys the most are with those diametrically opposed to him. His chats with Peter Hitchens and Jacob Rees-Mogg are a joy to watch and you can tell that Owen Jones has a disarming ability to separate the message from the messenger which lets him both enjoy the humanity in his opponent while engaging with their position effectively.

Of course, he sometimes gets it wrong. Last night on Sky News he stormed off the press preview when his fellow reviewers couldn't bring themselves to accept that the assault on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was primarily a homophobic attack and not just "an attack on the right of all of us to live our lives how we want".

On this particular issue I completely agree. He was absolutely right that Omar Mateen deliberately targeted a gay nightclub in the same way that others before him have deliberately targeted synagogues or symbols of Western economic power. This wasn't just an attack on us all, it was a deliberately attack on a particular group of "us". He was right to storm off the set when the primarily homophobic nature of this crime was downplayed.

But where he (and his fellow paper reviewers for that matter) gets it wrong is in his attempt to dissect why Mateen committed this horrendous crime. Jones says that "people like this will pick and choose from religion or otherwise to justify their bigotry" and this demonstrates a wider unwillingness in the media to allow religious beliefs to be a primary driver of actions. Note how neither Jones nor Julia Hartley-Brewer can bring themselves to root Mateen's actions in his interpretation of Islam (however wrong or right that interpretation may be). No, according to Jones, "people rationalise their hatred". Religion simply becomes a hook to hang one's bigotry on.

That idea might seem appealing at first, but let's turn the argument the other way and explore whether it works in explaining acts of charity and kindness by religious people. When I give to my local foodbank or support a child in India via an organisation like Compassion UK, am I using my Christianity as a peg to hang my generosity on or is it my faith in Jesus and his call on my life that leads me to acts of grace and love? If I see in the Bible my Lord and Saviour calling me to care for the homeless, the widows and the orphans, do I do that as a response to a command on my life or is the scriptural text simply a useful tool to articulate my underlying "niceness"? It's an interesting question to ask.

At one point last night Jones challenges the host Mark Longhurst with the belittling "You don't understand this because you're not gay" and naturally Longhurst takes offence at having his empathy with the victims in Orlando brought into question. At the same time though I want to say to Jones, "You don't understand this because you're not religious". Fundamentally Jones and others cannot relate to religiously motivated activity because they themselves are not religiously motivated. You see this problem all across the media discussion of the Israel / Palestine problem; time and time again you see pundits from the left and right trying to find a political solution to a problem that is ultimately religious, an argument over whether the descendents of Isaac or Ishmael are the inheritors of the promise to Abraham.

Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and many, many more men and women across the world act out their lives every day not using their religion as a convenient mask for their underlying motives but rather finding that their religious beliefs are the underlying motives. Most of the time that leads to acts of grace and love across the globe. Sometimes those religious beliefs drive men and women to do unthinkable acts of horror and Islam is not alone in suffering this problem.

Our modern western society is so averse to "doing God" that it simply cannot engage with this simple fact and instead has to rationalise away acts of atrocity like the one we saw two nights ago in Orlando and equally has to dismiss the deep religious motivation of some acts of charity. Sometimes that's because we as a multi-cultural society simply don't want to accept that some people's religious beliefs lead them to do terrible things because that then means we have to examine critically the underlying spiritual paradigm some people live in. Everyone has their own truth after all, but it's incredibly impolite to say "and that particular truth is an offensive load of rubbish" if it's shared by millions of people. At other times we dismiss the religious nature of people's charitable choices because they evidence surrender to a higher authority and for a Western society built on the sovereignty of the self that is equally a truly horrific idea.

I'd like to sit down with Owen Jones and explore these issues. We share a lot in common. We are both in our own ways part of the wider community of LGB identity and experience, though admittedly I sit very much on its fringes these days. We both have a clear passion for truth and wanting to play the ball, not the man. At the same time it's clear that we have a completely different understanding of why people do the things they do and what place religious authority plays in the life of men and women around God's world.

As a Christian I find that Jesus' call on my life drives (or at least should drive) my day to day actions. It's the reason I won't pick up a gun to kill those I don't like because I'm told to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me. I'll even pray for those I've never actually met but quite like, so today in my intercessions I'm lifting up Owen Jones. Of all the things I'm praying for him I'd love for him to meet with Jesus in the near future and to have his life built on that as a primary motivation – the YouTube video after that would really be worth watching.

Rev Peter Ould is a Church of England priest based in Canterbury. He blogs at www.peter-ould.net.