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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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!

4thought on Ulster

This item was prepared as a response to the week in which Channel 4’s ‘4thought’ strand dealt with the issues of the Ulster ‘flag protest’.  I’ll be saying more about Ulster in future posts, but for now here’s a basic idea to think about….

4thoughttv

I first looked into the problems of Ulster in the late 1960s when I was at Uni and the current troubles kicked off.  As an evangelical Christian I obviously had a lot in common with Ulster’s Protestants, but was appalled by what was going on there.

My analysis then was that oddly the religious aspect of the violence was not in the many things that Catholic and Protestant disagree about, but in one of the few things they broadly agree about.  Thing is, you could have real ding-dong arguments about issues like mass v communion, prayers to saints or not, papal infallibility v biblical infallibility – and yet the argument would remain just that, a verbal debate; these issues would not provide cause for riots, guns and bombs.  But the idea they agree about is the notion of having a ‘Christian country’, albeit with detail differences in each faith.  And by the nature of states, this means that they have to accept real physical fighting – war or police action – to establish or defend that Christian state, and social discrimination in the state in favour of one religion and against others; practical discriminations in areas like jobs, council housing, even fair voting arrangements; and those things lead to fighting  This also creates a dynamic of fear; the Catholics obviously want to change a fearful situation of being victims of discrimination, but Protestants fear losing their dominant position and becoming themselves underdogs.

The other thing I realised was perhaps the ultimate irony; despite the agreement of both Irish ‘sides’, the idea of a Christian country’ is actually not a Christian idea.  It is not taught in the New Testament and arose only three hundred years later when first Constantine formally tolerated Christianity but also supported it and tried to exploit the faith politically, and then about 70 years later another emperor decided that he wasn’t willing to have his subjects disagreeing with him about religion and made Christianity effectively compulsory.

In the New Testament, Jesus disclaims the idea of Christian states by saying ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, and by teaching the need of a spiritual rebirth which of course cannot be achieved by human legislation.  Paul and Peter both portray the international multi-ethnic church itself as the real Christian nation, citizens of heaven who live humbly on earth as ‘resident aliens’ even in their native land, whose warfare is ‘not with physical weapons’ and who are not meant to be ‘managers of other people’s affairs’.  (this is only a sketch – there’s lots more similar teaching)

On the one hand, so long as Catholic and Protestant retain this idea of a Christian state, ongoing conflict is pretty much guaranteed; on the other hand, if both would recheck their beliefs against the Bible and discover this original alternative teaching which rejects the Christian state of either kind, then there would be a hope of taking the religious element out of the conflict.  That wouldn’t totally resolve all the issues, but as far as I can see many of the other original issues are now out of date, and compromise would be a lot easier if people were not thinking that they were doing the will of God and upholding a religion rather than just secular issues.

Sadly neither Eire nor the mainland UK can help in following that course because both are themselves nominally religious states, Eire Catholic and England with an ‘established’ Protestant church of which the Queen is earthly ‘supreme governor’.  ‘Unionism’ and ‘Loyalism’ are basically about Ulster’s Protestants wanting to remain part of ‘Protestant’ England, which is why the Union Flag is such an emotive symbol and the decision to stop flying it has caused such protest.