As Peace in Ulster Flags….

This issue takes my blog right back to its roots.  I was at University in the late 60s when the previous (or arguably the still current) round of Ulster’s ‘Troubles’ kicked off, and up till then I had been rather vague about the specifics of church/state relations.  Watching Ian Paisley in action on TV news from Ulster, or denouncing Catholics in an Oxford Union debate forced me to think hard.  On the face of it, I agreed with way over 90% of Ian Paisley’s theology (though in Baptist Confession rather than Westminster Presbyterian form) but how he applied this to politics, and the behaviour of ‘Protestants’ in Ulster was – well, frankly, appalling.  Did the Bible really teach the kind of thing being practiced in the name of Jesus in Ulster?

Now I do accept that there is more to Ulster/Ireland than just the religious issue – particularly an English or originally Anglo-Norman colonialism that went back way before the Reformation and the Catholic/Protestant division.  But I also find it very clear that once the ‘religious card’ had been played by the various parties[i]  it considerably aggravated the other grievances and made the whole thing intractable.  It still does make things intractable and I am amazed that mainland UK politicians seem to think that they can just ignore the religious issues and try to solve things by political tinkering alone.

My investigations led me to a rather surprising conclusion (and please note that what follows is only a summary – to do full justice to the complexity of the situation would require something a lot longer than this blog; I nevertheless think I’ve got the basics right).  In the religious area the cause of the fighting and violence in Ulster was not the various things Protestants and Catholics disagree about; Mass or Communion, prayers to saints, etc.  The cause of the fighting was a point they agreed about!  Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that point they agreed about, with only detail differences, was the concept that there should be ‘Christian countries’; which led in turn to the idea of ‘Protestant Christian countries’ or ‘Catholic Christian countries’, and inevitably to one form of Christian ruling and being favoured and privileged in their state, and the other being second-class citizens disadvantaged and discriminated against in various ways – jobs, council housing, even fair voting.  Unlike the theological issues, these are the kind of things which cause real grievances and which people might think worth fighting about.  When Irish ‘Home Rule’ came along, Ulstermen faced a possible change from being part of the ruling Protestant majority in Britain to being a minority discriminated against in a Catholic Ireland, and they weren’t willing to give up their dominance; whence their insistence on remaining part of the UK.  In contrast, setting up Ulster, the ‘six counties’ with a Protestant majority, to remain in the UK as a separate province, meant that Catholics in Ulster would not share the freedom of their fellow-believers in Eire but would remain victims of discrimination in the province.

[The Christian country notion has a further distorting effect on the situation.  Of course you find people who are truly and sincerely Christian but are misguided, through their belief in that notion, into doing terrible and un-Christian things.  I’d regard Ian Paisley as such a case, rather than the ogre many English people think, and though I couldn’t give names, I’m sure there are similar people on the Catholic side.  Many good men and women on both sides who believe they are doing right, but are misled by the belief that they should establish and defend ‘kingdoms of this world’ for the Lord Jesus.

But as well as these sincere but misguided folk, the doctrine also produces other problematic followers.  By the nature of the case, the ‘Christian’ country contains many people – many, many people – who are not genuinely Christian but think they are Christian because they are born in that ‘Christian country’.  They superficially conform, of course, but they are basically just worldly people.  This is not so good when we are talking of the thousands and thousands of nominal Christians in England who put themselves down as ‘C of E’ but have never been seriously challenged by the need to be ‘born again’ spiritually.  But it’s worse in Ulster, where there is a divided culture, with two parties in conflict over the kind of Christianity the country should favour, and with serious discrimination facing the un-favoured party.  In this mix are many thousands of people who count themselves on one side or other because they were born in either Protestant or Catholic culture; they are involved in the consequences – the effects in society of the divisions and discrimination, the fears on both sides, and so on.  But because they are not truly born again, they have an essentially worldly approach to their situation – and if they are discriminated against, they will respond in a worldly manner, by physically fighting back; or alternatively if they are the dominant culture but fear losing that dominance, again their response will be at a worldly warfare level.]

While I understand that there has been some discrimination against Protestants in Eire, they are a relatively small group that isn’t really threatening, much as the Catholic minority isn’t threatening to the mainland UK.  But it was – and still is – different in Ulster; there was a quite large Catholic minority in the ‘Six Counties’, encouraged by the existence of a Catholic majority over the border in a country to which they thought Ulster should belong anyway.  Ulster’s Protestants were more extreme than mainlanders; many had been deliberately ‘planted’ as part of an anti-Catholic movement by the English government, and in many cases they were of the Puritan faction, almost as much opposed to England’s established church as they were to the Roman church; for many of them moving to Ireland as government-supported ‘planters’ was similar to the more drastic emigration of groups like the Pilgrim Fathers, escaping from Anglican persecution on the mainland, while the government was quite happy to have dissenting nuisances from the mainland diverted to opposing Catholics in Ireland.  Not only were Ulster’s Protestants descended from those Puritan extremists, but the pressured situation of Ulster combined with the mistaken doctrine of the ‘Christian country’ kept that extremism alive.

Ulster’s ‘No surrender!’ sounds harsh to the average mainland Englishman; but in original intention it is the same as Peter’s declaration (Acts 5; 29) that ‘we must obey God rather than men’ – you cannot surrender about what you believe is the will of God.  Combine that with the idea that God’s will is for his people to rule in the nations of the world, and the enemies of the gospel to be discriminated against … the result is inevitable; I think the slogan was “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!”  Catholics, Puritans and Anglicans all had similar doctrines and so a religiously based willingness to lord it over or actually fight those they disagree with.

Mentioning Peter helps to show why the ‘Christian country’ or ‘Christendom’ position is wrong.  When he said “We must obey God rather than men” he was not contemplating a dominant situation in defence of which he would fight to impose his will on any state; on the contrary, he was on trial before the government of his nation (the Jews) who wanted him to stop preaching the gospel and were threatening to imprison him if he didn’t.  Peter was saying they could threaten him all they liked; he would have to go on preaching the gospel, precisely in order to obey God.  Not “Do as I say or I will violently rebel against you and fight you in the name of God” but instead “I will peaceably accept martyrdom at your hands rather than disobey God as I would have to if I obey you”.

Peter in his first epistle portrays the church as God’s people living on earth as peaceable ‘resident aliens’ (one of his Greek words translates almost exactly to that), subject to the state authorities, not murdering, fighting and robbing like the ‘Zealots’ of Palestine or their modern paramilitary equivalents like the IRA or UVF of Ulster, not even being ‘allotriepiskopoi’, ‘managers of the affairs of others’. He had learned the lesson from his Lord who had said before Pilate ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, and who had instructed Peter personally to put up his sword because ‘they who take the sword shall perish by it’.  Paul gives similar teaching including that our warfare is not with worldly weapons and powers but by spiritual power.  In short, no Christian countries!

Apply that to Ulster, how does it work out?  Well, you may be a Roman Catholic who believes Peter to have been the first infallible Pope; or a Protestant who simply believes I Peter to be part of God’s infallible Word.  Either way, if you are setting up a Christian state, or defending such a state by force, or taking up arms in God’s name, or rioting and throwing petrol bombs in the cause of being a Christian ‘allotriepiskopos’, then you are disobeying Peter (and his Lord) and by that fact disobeying God; simples[ii]!!   The irony of the Protestant position is that in accepting the basic ‘Christian country’ idea, they are accepting an unbiblical Catholic belief which arose centuries after Jesus!  Arguably indeed, the fundamental Catholic belief, because there is a case for saying that the imperial church came before the development in a divided empire of a special place for Rome and the idea of a special authority supposedly derived from Peter as Rome’s bishop.

My title of course makes an ironic pun on the cause of the recent renewal of violence – the Belfast council Union Flag decision.  Why is this so important?  Basically, it’s about the ‘Unionist’ and ‘Loyalist’ aspect of Ulster; Ulster’s Protestants are ‘loyal’ to mainland Britain, and want continued ‘union’ with mainland Britain, because they see mainland Britain as a ‘Protestant country’ which will protect them in their privilege in Ulster and preserve them from neighbouring Catholic Eire.  That the politics of Ulster capital Belfast have so changed that the council don’t want to automatically everyday fly the symbol of that loyal union is a real blow to Protestants, threatening a slide away from the Union.

It is perhaps ironic that even as Eire received Home Rule and Ulster was separated from Eire, mainland Britain was already moving away from Protestantism of all varieties towards liberal pluralism, plus the churches themselves were often becoming theologically liberal and very different from the traditional Protestantism of Ulster.  Basically the Unionist/Loyalist/ Protestants had allied themselves to a country increasingly out of sympathy with their aims, and which often reacted with bewildered dismay to the late 1960s renewal in Ulster of a conflict almost forgotten on the mainland.  It didn’t help that the Catholics were now Post-Vatican II Catholics who actually looked a lot more politically liberal and democratic than the Protestants!

But the key point here is that the flag in question is ours – that is, the flag of the mainland UK.  It puts the ball rather in our court ….

A digression – has the ‘peace process’ really solved the problem?

While I was preparing this I happened to catch on the BBC Parliament Channel a programme in which a PSNI Police Federation leader was answering questions in a Stormont committee.  Basically he was complaining, obviously in light of the flag protests, but also more generally, that police provision was being changed (reduced!!) as if there already was peace in Ulster; no, he said, it’s not really so.  The ‘Good Friday’ peace process has secured a fairly wide ceasefire in terms of classic terrorism, but it hasn’t actually resolved the underlying issues; all the sectarianism, he said, is still seething away under the surface ready to emerge in response to provocations like the Union Flag issue.

To me this confirms something I’ve been thinking for a while.  The current peace process has indeed not resolved the issues.  It has however lasted better than some; in my opinion this is because of external factors which have made terrorism both harder to do and less desirable except to the hardest of hardliners.

First of these external factors was simply 9/11.  With Western states, including the US and UK, fighting a global ‘War on Terror’ there is no longer the same support from the US for the IRA; Ireland’s Republicans could seriously lose American support if it seemed that Irish-American money for Irish causes was funding terrorist activities rather than the peaceful Stormont process, and such activities would now attract much more attention from Federal US authorities.  Similar but generally lesser support for Protestant paramilitaries has been likewise reduced.  The international climate in the West no longer favours terrorism as a means in Ulster.

Secondly, there’s been a change in the nature of terrorism itself.  Most 20th Century terrorism was really a branch of the Cold War, in which the nuclear powers of the USA and USSR fought their battles by proxy in third world countries or occasionally in Europe through terrorist groups.  Much terrorism in the Arab world was less Islamist and was supported by the USSR or China.  Some at least of the Irish Republican cause was significantly left-wing socialist rather than Catholic as such, and fought for Irish liberation from the Imperialist/capitalist Brits rather than for Catholic Eire.  As part of this, Soviet-supported Arab states like Libya would smuggle arms and explosives to the IRA, and there were cases like a young soldier I knew who, while on service in Germany, was lucky to survive being shot up by a German left-wing group whose public statement claimed they had done it in support of the IRA.

This background has changed massively with the changes in Russia since Glasnost, and indeed in China since the death of Mao.  International left-wing terrorism is massively reduced and no longer much funded by the states which used to support it, while Arab terrorism has become almost entirely Islamist in nature; either way, the Irish Republican cause is no longer on anybody’s list of kindred causes to support.  Again, the international situation makes Irish terrorism for Irish causes harder to fund and supply.

But, as the PSNI spokesman pointed out, the underlying issues have not gone away at all, indeed have barely been meaningfully discussed let alone resolved!!  And gradually they seem to be bubbling back up; I keep some track on Ulster affairs via BBC Teletext, and bombs, gun attacks, protests etc. seem if anything to be slowly increasing….

And it’s our flag which is the centre of the new protests….

So as I said, this rather puts the ball into our mainland court.  And if my analysis above is correct, UK politicians are singularly ill-equipped to deal with it; they don’t even know how to ask the right questions.  They don’t know how to really resolve the issues, only how to superficially tinker.  The only way to resolve Ulster’s issues is to tackle head-on the issue of Church and State relationships, and this can’t be done by a mainland UK in which that issue is still distorted by the existence of an established Church and a general position of privilege for the Christian faith.  Therefore to resolve Ulster’s problems we need first to tackle and resolve the Church and State problems of the mainland.  UK groups which are not speaking against privileged Christianity on the mainland can’t consistently offer a better approach in Ulster.

A Specific Resolution

We aren’t simply after ‘disestablishment’ here.  We need to tackle the underlying theories and arguments, so that people both in and out[iii] of Christian churches understand that Christianity was never intended to be established.  We need a situation where the issue of establishment is so forcefully argued that the Anglicans actually accept that they shouldn’t be established and actually want to be free of their state entanglements.  And also a situation where other churches that have sought various kinds of privileged status for Christianity in the state recognise that Christian states are simply inappropriate, that the only ‘Christian nation’ the world has or needs is the international Church itself, Jesus’ followers throughout the world.

To achieve this, we here in Britain need to challenge all those who believe in the ‘Christian country’ idea to demonstrate that it actually is the teaching of the New Testament; and I have to tell you that there isn’t much teaching in the NT that can support that idea, and very much that contradicts it.  It is not so much a biblical doctrine as just a worldly assumption that ‘surely God must want it that way’; an assumption which ignores the much better way of doing things that the NT actually positively teaches!  Check it for yourselves….

As I said at the start, this idea of the ‘Christian country’ is the underlying religious problem of Ulster; challenge it, and they might finally be able to find their way to peace over there….


[i] Originally I understand by Anglo-Norman Irish nobility rebelling against Elizabeth I, to encourage support from their native Irish serfs.

[ii] (I’ll be dealing with Roman Catholic issues in other items on this blog-site, so apart from underlining the point that if Catholics really mean it about Peter’s special authority they should take his clear writings in the Bible seriously, I’ll leave that aside for now).

[iii] May I point out to any atheist readers I may have that fighting established Christianity head-on with atheist arguments tends simply to make the establishment dig in; you want disestablishment, your best chance is to convince the various ‘Christendom’ churches that establishment is contrary to the New Testament and so unChristian!

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