There are many disturbing 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 the UK and North America who claim oppression from places of comfort and privilege. Their suffering is minimal and, sometimes, one wonders if it is something they embrace.
That’s surely the case with Enoch Burke, an Irish evangelical who is currently in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. Burke, his supporters and various irresponsible newspaper headlines claim he is in prison 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; Burke broke it, 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 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 best to 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 non-specific, more “man and woman” than specifically masculine. It’s also used in a collective sense, to signify humanity. The Gospels call for empathy and kindness, which one would think should 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.
Burke is a member of a 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 Canada, and I guarantee that however this one ends, it won’t be the last of its kind.
The irony is that the Christians who suffer in this instance aren’t the ones spending a few nights behind bars and being celebrated for it, but rather those of us who – believe it or not – work for understanding rather than conflict, and cringe in shame each time something like this happens.
[See also: Writing in the age of Big Data]