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crows nest
By Stephen Tomkins
More Crow's Nests here
Sueing for Christ
August 2000

Crow's Nest is excited to bring you a courtroom drama this month. We're in Munich, Germany, for the apocalyptic legal battle between the Son of God and the established church.

The vicars of Christ in this matter are three theologians. In his name, they have been sueing the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches for defamation of character.

There is, I imagine, little precedent for a person sueing his own body. But the theologians' point is that the churches are not fit to be called the body of Christ. Their record of bloodshed and warfare have, it is alleged, brought infamy on the name of a man who made it clear that he expected his followers to be nicer to people than that.

German law allows relatives of a deceased person to sue for defamation on their behalf, and so the theologians claimed to be his "brothers in spirit". I gather that rather than sueing for damages, their aim was to have the churches banned from calling themselves Christian. "In view of their bloody history," they argued, "it's a fraud."

You won't be surprised to hear that the action failed. The judge ruled that it would contravene freedom of religion and threw the case out. "Anyway," he added, "if you believe Jesus rose from the dead, what are you doing claiming him as 'the deceased'?"

We up in the Crow's Nest are intrigued by this lawsuit, which, you must admit, has all the hallmarks of being the product of an overly liquid lunch in the theological silly season.

For a start, imagine the legal precedent that would have been set if our heroes had won. Spiritual affinity would be recognised in law as an actual family tie, and the results would be far-reaching to say the least.

It would presumably be impossible to marry someone of the same religion without committing some illegally horrid perversion. A woman who converted her husband would become her own mother-in-law. And your children's Sunday school teacher would be legally entitled to take them with her when she moves to Peru.

All the same, despite the somewhat anarchic, civilisation-destroying side to this case, there is something heart-warming about it.

Maybe it's just an underdog thing - the idea of the little guy taking on the multinationals à la Erin Brockovich, even if the plan needed another few minutes on gas mark 7 before it was even half-baked.

But more than that, some of us up here feel they've got a pretty good point – apart from the dead spiritual mullarkey. The study of church history can be a thoroughly depressing pursuit (trust me, I'm a doctor in it). Century after century of persecuting Jews, Muslims and alternative Christians, of endemic corruption in holy places and of sponsoring every war going.

Is this really the kind of thing Jesus had in mind? You can't help wondering if his long-awaited return to gather the faithful up into the air shouldn't conclude with them all being dropped into the sea.

The problem is that as soon as you start deciding who's unfit to be called a Christian, it tends to raise the question of how fit you are yourself. If we have to live up to Jesus's teaching to earn the title, which of us finger-pointers do so when it comes to that unrealistic stuff about turning cheeks, loving God with all your heart and other bits, or – more to the point – not judging others?

Where do we draw the True Christian Line? Lower down than perfect obedience, lower than our own level, but higher than certain hypocrites who are a lot worse than we are?

Crow's Nest reluctantly declares that if you want to call yourself a Christian, you probably have to let anyone else who wants to do it, too. Sorry about that. Best leave judgment day to our alleged spiritual brother.
also see
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
strangely warmed
Andrew Rumsey's regular column about the religious life
loose canons
Stephen Tomkins' regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
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