The idea of someone infiltrating one religion in order to advance the priorities of another may seem a little far-fetched.
The notion of ‘religious espionage’ might simply conjure up strange images of certain church members in comic disguises fumbling through rituals they don’t understand or trying to pick locks.
300 years ago, however, this wasn’t too far from the truth. After the apostasy of the Messiah members of a small Jewish sect, the Sabbatians, infiltrated Muslim communities through pretended conversion.
A group in Poland, the Frankists, also began to imitate this practice, encouraged by the added bonus that if a Jew converted to Catholicism they could pay less tax.
I love this story, because it seems so utterly ridiculous. The man who started it all, the self-proclaimed Messiah Sabbatai Zevi, with his love for dancing and sweeties and the ease with which he converted to Islam, holds a special place in my heart.
However, the more I think about it, the more I realise there are parallels between the Sabbatians and my own life.
On the one hand, I love being a Christian; I love knowing Jesus, I love being part of a Church, I love the sense of purpose it gives me, and I want my friends to feel that too.
Then on the other, there are plenty of things that embarrass me about being a Christian; the Church often drives me crazy, people have opinions which they express as inherent to our faith and I don’t hold to them, and the prejudice that all Christians are dull (which I discovered, is probably one of the worst things you can be accused of) haunts me.
Consequently, I find myself trying to portray an image which at once ‘fits in’ with what everyone else thinks is right and good, and trying to practice my faith.
I end up with a dual persona, a personality which subtly transforms depending on the company I’m in.
It is ‘religious espionage’ in the sense that I try to hide one part of myself, push it to the side, so that I fit in, then when it’s appropriate I can pull out the fact I’m a Christian, shout ‘Surprise!’ and hopefully everyone will suddenly realise that Christians aren’t crazy or dull.
I am as bad as the Sabbatians because I’ve been pretending to get people on my side; and, like the Frankists, while I may have confessed pure intent, (I’m not after all doing it for the tax benefits as they were), it is because I want to be well-liked.
The key part of the story though, is that both Sabbatians and Frankists had only a choice of one of two ends.
They where either discovered and shunned, or they ended up genuinely converting.
(There is also the magic third option of being seconded as a spy in the French Revolution, but that doesn’t help my allegory).
People can tell when you’re pretending, you just end up looking like a hypocrite.
What’s worse though, is that, according to Plato, acting is dangerous, he thought you would end up becoming that which you pretended to be.
Now, I find that often-place, there isn’t much to hide with my friends who aren’t Christians, I’ve assimilated myself enough to their opinions, lifestyle and even beliefs. The people I end up pretending with are people at church, it is the person I am despite my faith which is the part of me which now has to be forcibly put aside.
Sabbatai Zevi didn’t convert out of some deep religious conviction, whatever his followers thought. He did it out of fear during his imprisonment (albeit in a rather nice place) by the Ottoman Sultan. I need to remind myself that the concessions I make, are not in service of God or even out of loving liberalism, they’re out of fear of what people will think.