There are many disturbing and bewildering aspects to contemporary conservative Christianity but one of the most troubling is the phenomenon of ersatz martyrdom. In an age when people are still genuinely persecuted and even killed because of their faith, there are Christians in Canada, Britain, and the US who claim oppression from places of comfort and privilege. Their suffering is minimal, and often it is something they positively seek.
That’s surely the case with Enoch Burke, an Irish evangelical who was recently sent to Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. He, his supporters, and various irresponsible newspaper headlines claim that it’s because as a teacher he refuses to use a transgender student’s gender-neutral pronoun.
Actually, Burke was suspended from his school on full pay while a disciplinary hearing considered the case, which is standard procedure when a teacher’s conduct is called into question. The student and their parents had asked for “they” to be used instead of “he.” Burke refused.
Yet rather than remain at home, he insisted on coming to school and sitting in an empty classroom. The school secured a temporary court order which Burke broke, and then told the court that he wouldn’t observe any further injunction. The judge had no option but incarceration, which one can’t help thinking is precisely what Mr. Burke wanted.
“If this court so determines, I will never leave Mountjoy Prison if in leaving the prison I violate my well-informed conscience and religious belief and deny my God,” said Burke. “It seems to me that I can be a Christian in Mountjoy Prison or be a pagan and respecter of transgenderism outside of it. I know where I belong.”
Or be a Christian who obeys an entirely reasonable law, and enjoys full pay while he waits for his school to consider how to best deal with a situation provoked entirely by his own bloody-mindedness.
From a Biblical point of view the language issue is far from absolute. The Hebrew word “Adam” is ambiguous, and in Genesis 5 is gender nonspecific, more “man and woman” than specifically masculine. It’s also used in a collective sense, to signify humanity. The Gospels themselves call for empathy and kindness, which one would think would include listening to a young person likely going through an extraordinarily difficult time.
But in all honesty it’s not really about what scripture says or Jesus taught but what conservative Christians want. And that’s to combat what they regard as a secular, threatening, and immoral world.
But in all honesty it’s not really about what scripture says or Jesus taught but what conservative Christians want
Burke is a member of large and well-known family in Ireland, whose members have campaigned against abortion and equal marriage, and launched legal challenges based on alleged religious discrimination. Similar cases have occurred in the US and here in Canada too. We’ve had anti-abortion types breaking bubble zones outside clinics, and sometimes even walking into them to make their views known. The courts, the judges, give repeated warnings but in the end have no option but to reluctantly send these people to prison. Not for being opposed to abortion but for breaking the law. As is likely with the Irish case, incarceration is what they want, for a whole variety of reasons, some of which would require a therapist rather than a columnist to define.
This legal and political distinction is very important because it rests on the fundamental nature of a free and ordered society. We have a separation of powers, with an independent judiciary. The executive and the legislature — Premier and Prime Minister, and provincial and federal parliamentary assemblies — consider, pass, and implement laws. If enough people want those laws to be changed, that are allowed, even encouraged, to campaign within the democratic system.
There are of course unjust laws, but in the Canadian system there are numerous checks and balances, and the argument from conservative Christians that they are powerless to change things without breaking he law is simply fatuous. Also, it’s extreme and self-obsessed.
The irony is that the Christians who suffer because of this aren’t those being celebrated for spending a few night behind bars, but those of us who—believe it or not — work for understanding rather than conflict, and cringe in shame each time this happens. Society is unfolding and improving, and that can be surprising even to those who embrace it. The shock of the new, as it were. But change is necessary and, for many and perhaps people of faith, long overdue. There will always be critics and complainers, and that’s their right. It’s the law’s right and duty to be enforced.
Rev. Michael Coren is an award-winning Toronto-based columnist and author of 18 books, appears regularly on TV and radio, and is also an Anglican priest.