Marching as to War

Another night of riots over parades in Ulster.  As near as I can work out, what has happened is that last year a ‘Loyalist’ parade provoked considerable disorder in a ‘Republican’ area.  As a result, the authorities (The Parades Commission?) revised the route of this year’s march.  Loyalists complained that this was ‘rewarding’ the Republicans for the previous year’s violence so they called for a protest which more or less inevitably descended into violence and riot despite calls for peace from the Orange Order and various politicians.

Now the democratic right of protest/demonstration I’m quite happy with.  But this particular cause of violent protest I’m very unhappy about.  Why?  Because these people purport to be ‘Bible-believing Christians’, and their conduct doesn’t fit with biblical teaching.

The basic purpose of these parades is to commemorate the ‘Protestant’ victory of the 17th Century.  The practical effect in modern terms is that the Orange Order and similar bodies stage triumphalist marches whose message is that we won and you Catholics and Republicans lost and are second-class citizens in our state.  Obviously there is no major disorder problem when these events take place in ‘Protestant’ areas; but there are places where the routes run through ‘Catholic’ areas.  I don’t know how much this is original intention – i.e. that the routes always ran through Catholic enclaves with provocative intent – or how much it may be because populations have shifted over the years; but clearly staging such triumphalist parades in Catholic areas is provocative in itself.  Complaining at the Catholics for being provoked is … not really a fair complaint, is it?  Staging your own riot and bomb-throwing in response, at great cost to the public purse and great risk to the police (most of whom are still as individuals Protestants and theoretically on the same side as the rioters), seems a rather strange reaction.

Worse, it’s an unbiblical reaction in all kinds of ways.  Two straightforward quotes just to start with, one from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, one from Paul in Romans 12.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called God’s sons.

In no case paying back evil for evil, determine on the noblest ways of dealing with all people.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Now can someone please explain to me how staging these provocative triumphalist parades can possibly be interpreted as ‘peace-making’?  Simply on that ground, Bible-believing Christians should have nothing to do with them in the first place, let alone be claiming that they are for a ‘Bible-believing Christian’ cause!!  Should they not be seeking to receive the blessing as peacemakers, rather than risking the implicit judgement upon those who break the peace?

In no case paying back evil for evil” – even if you are unhappy at having your parade shortened, the rioting looks to me remarkably like paying back evil for evil.  It certainly doesn’t look like what Paul says about following the noblest ways in dealing with people, or ‘living at peace with everyone so far as it depends on you’ ; still less does it look like what he says at the end of that chapter…

Do not revenge yourselves, dear friends… instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; in case he is thirsty, give him drink.  For by doing so you will pile burning coals on his head (i.e. you will make him feel guilt and shame for his evil at your expense).  Be not overpowered by evil, but master evil with good.

Furthermore, defying the Parades Commission and other authorities brings this conduct under Paul’s words in the next chapter, Romans 13.

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been appointed by God.  Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

So the authorities curtailed your parade – be subject to them and let it go!  Now I am aware of ‘the one exception’ to this, which is Peter’s statement in Acts 5; 29 that “We must obey God rather than men”.  I have on my bookshelves Robert Haldane’s massive tome on Romans in which he clearly states that one exception; and I also have on my shelves Ian Paisley’s commentary in which he quotes Haldane on that point.  Or rather, misquotes him, for the one thing Haldane makes clear is that Peter’s words still do not justify ‘resisting the authorities’ by military or other force.  If you have access to a copy of Haldane, check that out for yourself.

Let me explain; it isn’t fully obvious in the English, but Paul in fact is using Greek semi-puns here, words which have a common root.  A bit ago for a sermon I paraphrased the text to bring this out, losing I grant a bit of accuracy but showing the common roots

“Everybody must be subject to the state authorities, because there is no authority except under God, and those that do exist are part of God’s project.  Whoever objects with violence to the existing authority opposes that divine project, and by opposing brings divine judgement upon himself.”

I phrased it ‘object with violence’ because I recall a querulous ‘I violently object ’ as being a somewhat comic or even ‘camp’ phrase not giving quite the right impression.  Paul’s actual word means something on the lines of ‘stand in array against’ like an army, whether a formal army of a state or the less formal forceful opposition of rioters.  It is precisely about resisting the state by force.  Of course Paul recognised the idea of ‘obeying God rather than men’ and in instructing us to ‘be subject’ he is not advocating a servile obedience to whatever wrong the state might require us to do.  But our obeying God does not justify a forceful or violent response; hey, this is the same Paul who clearly told us that “…we do not war with carnal weapons.  For the weapons of our warfare are not physical weapons, but they are powerful with God’s help for the tearing down of fortresses.”

Peter has the same basic position as is clearly shown both by the context of his statement in Acts and by the teaching of his First Epistle.  In Acts, Peter is not raising a rebellion, or gathering Christian paramilitaries to oppose the authorities; he and his fellow apostles were simply preaching the gospel!  When they were arrested, they did not fight back – Peter had learned better on the night of Jesus’ arrest – they peaceably allowed themselves to be arrested and would have clearly submitted to/‘been subject to’ any penalty the authorities might have inflicted.  And Peter teaches the same in his epistle.

Read for yourself the sequence starting in I Peter 2; 12 through to 3; 17 (and echoed in much of the rest of the epistle).  Peter repeats Paul’s admonition to ‘be subject’ to the authorities, and then not only with the authorities of government but also with the lesser authorities of slave-owners and unbelieving husbands, he instructs his readers to be willing, following the example of Jesus, to suffer unjustly.  Again, not to rebel, not to riot – not even to be ‘allotriepiskopoi’ or ‘self-appointed managers of other people’s business’ (4; 15), but to be peaceable ‘parepidemoi’ which almost literally translates to our modern phrase ‘resident aliens’ (i.e. citizens of the kingdom of heaven living on earth).

Applying this to the parade situation; well, stop the inflammatory parades!  They aren’t ‘obeying God rather than men’; there is no biblical command or other requirement for Christians to conduct themselves that way, and much to say we shouldn’t.  And likewise, no riots about the authorities limiting the parades; because in addition to the parades being wrong in themselves, the protests are far from obeying the teaching to be ‘subject to the authorities’, and the riots even further from what Paul and Peter instruct us to do.

What might we do?  Well, Christians could obey God by getting out there and preaching the gospel.  Peaceably, humbly and respectfully, and with no retaliation if they meet hostility.  If the authorities intervene, preaching the gospel would be a properly biblical case for saying ‘we must obey God rather than men’.   And if then the authorities decide to imprison or otherwise penalise you – well, the Bible says suffer unjustly following the example of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.  And beyond preaching the gospel, how about some of that turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry enemy, giving the thirsty enemy a drink, going an extra mile.  At simplest, just free your enemy of the fear and aggravation of your noisy provocative parades – show your enemy followers of Jesus who themselves follow the self-sacrificing example of their Lord.

Of course for this preaching and this practical love of the enemy to be credible, you’ll have to give up the idea of Ulster being a ‘Protestant country’, and of needing to defend that country by any kind of force.  It may take a long time, and a great deal of gentleness, to convince Catholics/Republicans that you represent the biblical loving Jesus rather than an enemy who hates them and wants to dominate them and have them as second-class citizens.  You will have to follow Jesus in rejecting a ‘kingdom of this world’ for your party, for your ‘Protestant culture’.

But I submit that if you start on such a road you will be even more ‘Bible-believing Christians’ than you already are; you will be fighting the Christian fight as Paul said you should, not with ‘carnal’ or ‘physical’ weapons, but with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  The worst damage you can do with that weapon is to raise guilt and shame in your ‘enemy’; and if you love him as Jesus said you should, you won’t take glee or satisfaction in piling those ‘burning coals’ on his head – you’ll be too busy bringing Jesus’ healing to him.

PS; As I prepared this for final posting, the news was that the Orange Order had actually applied for a fresh march down the contested streets.  It has been refused and I suppose we will have to wait and see whether that provokes yet more riots.  But seriously – by what twisted logic could that possibly be considered compatible with Jesus’ teaching to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’?  Teaching which Jesus backed up with a parable, ‘The Good Samaritan’, set against the equivalent in Israel in his day of the sectarian divide in Ulster….

PPS; The Orange Order apparently did march but no further than was allowed; three lodges had been accompanied by some 1000 supporters who eventually dispersed peacefully in the late afternoon.  I’m obviously glad there was no further violence; but a radio news item showed that one leader had been concerned there would be such a result.  And in any case, how does a march with 1000 supporters square with showing love to your opponents or ‘living at peace so far as it’s up to you’?

And even since then they’ve applied again to do the march next week.  Of course nothing has changed and the Parades Commission are unlikely to allow it, so presumably there will be another march to the brink with the attendant risk of further violence – which of course the march organisers will blame on everything but ourselves.  How can they believe this is biblically justifiable????

PPPS; Though still short of full coverage, these issues are further discussed elsewhere on ‘Steve’s Free Church Blog’, particularly the item ‘As Peace in Ulster Flags’.  Detailed discussion of Romans 12 and 13, and of much of I Peter, is also in preparation.

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