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  • Revd Kirsten Birkett

Christ is the answer


Recently, I read an account written by a young woman, describing an encounter with her company’s boss, at a yearly company dinner. The boss was making an effort to go around every table and talk to everyone. At her table, he struck up a conversation about the cricket with three men who were there; in the course of this, he turned to her and asked her opinion. She stammered that she wasn’t much of a sports follower, and he went back to his conversation. She criticised herself for being so hopeless; then started reflecting about exclusion and power politics, and the subtle, deeply engrained nature of oppression. And sexism. And racism, given her particular background.


Fair enough. The woman, it appears, was indeed disadvantaged compared to the men at her table, when it came to making a favourable impression with the boss (and she wrote about it insightfully). But that could equally have happened, at any time, to a white middleclass man who happened not to like, or follow, cricket.


One of the main differences between the situations is what the man might do about it. He might have recognised it and been secretly annoyed, even bitterly furious. He might have learned about cricket so he could talk about it and so blend in, and seen this as a necessary suffering for the sake of his job. He could have even embraced this as a positive tactic for getting ahead (I can well imagine ‘get to know about your boss’s hobbies’ as a recommendation in a book called ‘How to Win Promotions’.) But most likely he would just have to suffer it. He most likely wouldn’t have written an article about oppression and intersectionality as a result.


It is wrong to be partial in your dealings with people, especially if you are in a position of power over them. It’s wrong to be friendlier, and give more advantages, only to those who are like you. In the workplace, that was never a legal issue until there were people there not like the norm, whatever that is. In the professional world of the West, it pretty much means people who are not white middle class men. Now, there are laws preventing unfair discrimination against those who differ from that, in a range of ways.


Bosses could react by thinking that this itself is unfair. After all, they were never accused of sexism or racism or classism before, and are acting just they same as they ever did. But that is only because if they had favourites before, there was nothing really to accuse them of. Many, being human, most likely did gravitate to, and prefer the company of, and think well of, those who shared their views on cricket and football and stock markets or horseracing or opera or whatever else they might have liked. If a white middle class man happened not to be interested, he possibly wouldn’t get the same promotion opportunities, and probably saw it and resented it, but what could he do?


If that man is working class, however, now there is something to complain about. If he’s female, or of a different race, or religion, now being unfairly outside the favoured group is discrimination and illegal.


And so it should be. Because it was always immoral to act preferentially to those you happened to get on with best, or to judge people by the group they belong to. The Bible always said so, and said so in terms of race (Gal 2:11-12), and class (James 2:2-4), and education (1 Cor 1:26), quite overtly. All the secular world is doing, is catching up with what the Bible always said.


However, the secular world doesn’t stop there. As Chesterton said, the problem when you start advocating biblical virtues without a biblical framework for them, the virtues start to go mad.


When a religious scheme is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”


Like much of what Chesterton wrote, it was a great diagnosis. The Bible tells us how virtues relate to each other. In a world that seems more than ever to be going mad, it is more important than ever to sort out what the Christian virtues require of us. Sometimes the most fruitful thing to do, is recognise the virtue that is being promoted – and think about how it fits into a framework of other virtues. In this case, the virtue is that we must not favour only those who are like us. That doesn’t mean we have to accept everything everyone does. It doesn’t mean we have to hate those in power or see all power as oppressive. It doesn’t mean we can never forgive people. For those are virtues, too.


But even more importantly, the Bible forces us to recognise that people are sinful. Those in power, even with the best intentions, will still have tendencies to unfairness. And those not in power, those resenting the treatment – if they were in power, they’d do it too. What does that mean? That we just give up, accept that people are sinful, and leave them to it?


No. We must still teach and promote good ways to treat other people. But we also need to understand the context in which we do it. The answer isn’t in this world. Those who fight for justice in this world, however good and question, Christ is the answer’, were just too simplistic and cringey. But that just showed my own lack of maturity. Christ is the answer, because nothing, ultimately, in this world is.


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Kirsten Birkett has been appointed the Church Society's Theological Consultant. She was a Research Fellow for the Latimer Trust and worked as a lecturer at Oak Hill Theological College for 14 years, teaching Pastoral Care and Counselling, Church History, Ethics, Philosophy, and Doctrine. She is the author of different articles and books. You can find some of them here.


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