Operation Nehemiah – towards the spiritual transformation of the UK
During many years of travelling across the UK to speak about the persecuted church, I have been asked again and again, ‘What about Britain?’
It might seem surprising that anti-Christian discrimination and persecution exist in Britain at all. The UK is a signatory to both the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
These documents affirm that everyone has the right to ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’, including the freedom to manifest one’s religion in teaching, practice, worship and observance, and also ‘freedom of expression’. Discrimination on the grounds of religion is illegal in British law.
But Christians in the UK have found themselves seriously beset on several fronts in recent years. On one side, we face an aggressive and strident secular humanism that is hostile to all religious faith, and that presents Christianity as outdated and Christians as ridiculous.
On another, we are confronted with the growth of Islamism (political Islam), which aspires to make Islam the dominant religion in the West and calls into question our British way of life. On still another, recent well-intentioned legislation on equality and incitement to hatred has threatened our basic freedoms of speech and religion.
The response of the church to these perils has often been hesitant and confused. Christianity in the UK is widely perceived as divided, often with good reason. The lack of an agreed stance even on basic theological and moral issues, and of the place of the churches in the social and political sphere, has weakened Christian witness and left Christians vulnerable.
When I have written and spoken about these issues, I have often heard the response, ‘But what do you suggest we do if persecution intensifies in Britain? And what can we do now to prevent that happening?’
After much prayer and reflection, I felt led to look at the book of Nehemiah as a model for today. In it we see the people of God in disgrace, their walls broken down, and facing an uncertain future. Like the church in the UK today, they lived in dark times.
But it is not sufficient just to observe the darkness; the Lord also calls his people to act (Exodus 14:15). Yet action can be very difficult, for our context has led us into apathy. In the book of Amos the people of God are castigated for complacency, as they enjoy luxury, food, music and lotions without realising what is happening to their society (Amos 6:1-7). They ‘do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph’.
Jesus our Lord expressed this point in a more graphic way: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’ (Matthew 13:13). He was quoting a prophecy of Isaiah about the people’s hearts’ becoming calloused and their ears and eyes closed, ‘Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them’ (Matthew 13:14-15; and Isaiah 6:9-10).
On another occasion, he spoke of the apathy of the people around him, who would neither rejoice nor mourn no matter what the stimulus (Luke 7:31-32).
Complacency and apathy easily lead to despair. So does a feeling of uselessness, a sense that the issues challenging us are so great that our individual contributions can have no effect. So does fear, that if we were to act we might lose friendships, reputation, job or income.
But the time to act is now. Isaiah spoke of thick darkness over the peoples, but also of a light that is coming (Isaiah 60:1-3). And it is on this light that we must now focus. Like the people inspired by Nehemiah of old, whose very name speaks of the Lord bringing consolation to his people, we too must rise up like a mighty army.
Perhaps we are able only to lift a shovel, or to pray, or to hold a spear – to be a humble worker – but we are workers and soldiers in the Lord’s army.
In light of these reflections, and following discussion with others, I and my colleagues at Barnabas Fund believe it is right under God to initiate and sponsor a new programme of action, Operation Nehemiah.
As part of the family of God, Barnabas Fund stands with our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world where they suffer discrimination, oppression and persecution as a result of their faith. So when these evils raise their ugly heads in our own country, we must raise our voice and hands against them here too.
Operation Nehemiah is grounded on the firm conviction that as a nation Britain has largely forgotten the Christian faith – the core truths and basic principles of the Bible that have shaped our national life – and that individual churches and Christians have shared to some extent in this collective amnesia. So the campaign aspires to nothing less than the spiritual transformation of the UK.
Operation Nehemiah will address issues that affect the whole country, and will counter opposition to the Christian faith from whatever source this comes. We trust that, with the Lord’s help, it will be delivered by a coalition of Christian organisations, churches and individuals.
Like those listed in Nehemiah chapter 3, who rebuilt the different sections of the wall of Jerusalem, we can achieve a much greater result by co-operating with one another than we could in isolation.
And in this great act of renewal every person had a part to play, however small. In the same way, God has placed each of us in communities, workplaces and positions in society where we can contribute to this campaign to rebuild the Christian foundations of the UK.
If you would like to play a part in Operation Nehemiah, and/or receive regular emails about the campaign, please contact us at [email protected] or write to Operation Nehemiah, Barnabas Fund, The Old Rectory, River Street, Pewsey, SN9 5DB.
A free copy of the introductory booklet, The way ahead: returning Britain to its Christian path, is also available on request.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director, Barnabas Fund