Standing in front of the central symbol of Christianity at a Q&A for invited constituents in a Sheffield church last week, former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg gave an eloquent defence of freedom of thought and speech.
It was the day of the Islamist atrocity in Stockholm and Mr Clegg was asked about the danger of non-violent Christian counter-cultural views being lumped in with violent religious extremism.
With the Cross behind him, the Sheffield Hallam MP argued passionately that the State cannot suppress ideas in people’s minds and that the most effective way in the long term to counter destructive ideologies is through consistent refutation in an open society.
On this Good Friday, it is worth reflecting on Islam’s negative attitude towards the central saving fact of the Christian faith. The Koran asserts: ‘They denied the truth and uttered a monstrous falsehood against Mary. They declared: “We have put to death the Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of Allah.” They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did’ (Surah 4.157, trans. 1956 by N.J. Dawood, Penguin).
Though it is unclear here quite who the ‘they’ are - Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity? - the denial of the Cross is clear. The crucifixion of Jesus did not happen according to the Koran. It was an optical illusion. Jesus was lifted up into the presence of Allah without being crucified, the implication being that someone else was crucified who was mistaken for Jesus.
This denial of the Cross is at the heart of the difference between Christianity and Islam. It is why Islam is about power whereas Christianity is about love.
Certainly, some Christians have committed violence in the name of their faith but in doing so they were acting against its nature. The Apostle Paul, whom Christ converted from a violent religious extremist into a loving proclaimer of the Cross of Christ, expressed the right Christian attitude in the New Testament: ‘The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2v20 - Authorised Version).
Because they deny the Cross, Muslims believe in salvation by works with some of them seeing killing people in the name of Allah as a good work that can earn them salvation. Christians by contrast are commanded in the New Testament to believe in salvation by faith in God’s Incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who achieved redemption for mankind by his sacrificial death on the Cross.
The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer describes the ground of human salvation beautifully in its Order for Holy Communion. It declares that Jesus Christ made on the Cross ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.’
Seeing him standing in front of the Cross, one was inclined to hope that Mr Clegg might one day grasp the link between the ordered liberty he passionately believes in and the symbol of divine love behind him.
(Image: George Bannister)