Rethinking Ecumenism

It was a good sermon from a guy who is a hospital chaplain, based on Acts 15.  That’s the episode now rather grandly known as the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ though it can’t in reality have been much like the later Nicaea or Vatican II; in this council the mostly Jewish early Christians tried to work out how to accommodate an influx of Gentile Christians, and decide how much Jewish customs they needed to impose on these new recruits – circumcision, kosher diet, and so forth.  I’ll leave you to read the details of the ‘Council’ for yourselves, I want to focus on the principles the preacher drew from the passage and consider their implications for the ecumenical/church unity project.

One principle was “Talk about it”.  Now I recall the ecumenism of the 1960s when everyone was really keen to resolve the differences between Christians by discussing them; but that doesn’t seem to happen much now.  Rather, we seem to have decided that where we differ, we won’t talk about it, just each denomination carry on as before and, well, just not discuss differences.  Now of course in a lot of cases the differences really don’t matter all that much and the churches can just carry on with their different customs; but the trouble is that this silence is also meaning that the important differences don’t get discussed – and one very important one in particular, the relationship of the Church to the world or the ‘Christian country’ issue.  

This issue is particularly important just now because of the difficulties the world is having with Islam.  It really matters, at a life and death/possibility of warfare level, whether Christianity is a religion which expects the kind of dominance in the state that Islam aspires to, with Sharia law to be imposed on all, or some lesser kind of privilege or favour in the state compared to other religions/faiths, or perhaps Christianity doesn’t work that way at all but the NT teaches us some other way to relate to the world around us….  We need to be talking about it, and in talking about it, other ideas from that sermon seem relevant.

Two of the points were actually almost the same thing from different angles – “Stick to basics/essentials” and “No ‘Jesus AND… some other thing’ such as the circumcision and kosher food issues of the original council”. 

The case for ‘Jesus AND circumcision’ or ‘Jesus AND kosher diet’ was plausible in a faith which had grown out of Jewish roots and Old Testament promises, but the apostles and church were able to see that these things were no longer essential in the new covenant.  It might be thought that as Israel not so much had a state church as was a state church, there would be a plausible case for the ‘Christian country’ too.  But interestingly that doesn’t seem to have been considered in the early church.  Partly because the issue wouldn’t arise anyway while the church was only just starting, but more importantly because Jesus had ruled it out.  The Church knew of his trial before Pilate and the implications of his declaration that his kingdom was not of this world, and of his rejection of the sword because those who take it up perish by it, and so on.  They knew they were trying to set up a different kind of kingdom to either the Roman Empire or the old ethnic Jewish kingdom, a kingdom of those who heard and followed Jesus rather than those who were forced by worldly power, those spiritually re-born rather than just born once. 

In line with that they positively set up, and taught as the ideal, a church which was not connected to particular nations, but was itself God’s holy nation throughout the earth, not confused with the surrounding society but called out from it as a witness to God’s ways.  In the context of that kind of thinking, ‘Jesus AND Christian states’ is really impossible, not just non-essential.

“Don’t make things difficult” was another principle our preacher highlighted.  The idea of ‘Christian countries’ makes things difficult for ecumenism and also in many other directions – indeed the other things it makes difficult are a difficulty for ecumenism too, as in how much are you willing to be united with churches that make things difficult for both non-Christians and for other Christians?

As a fairly simple example – obviously I want to be united with my fellow-Christians who are Anglicans, and informally I very much am, in fact.  Not only in religious terms either, a couple of months ago I was showing off one of my model railways at a ‘Model Railway Extravaganza’ at a local parish church, letting the visitors to the show actually drive my trains.  Again, the Baptist church I go to is currently involved with several other local churches, including the Anglicans, in setting up a ‘community café’ in the local high street.  But while the Anglican church is deeply constitutionally entangled with the state, and the head of state is its earthly ‘supreme governor’ and so on, formal union is going to be a bit difficult – union with my fellow Christians, fine; union with England as a supposed ‘Christian country’ carries a lot of real difficulties, just starting with the fact that Christian states are a Bible-defying concept anyway!  

There are also issues of warfare; even if I didn’t anyway believe the Bible teaches pacifism, what am I to make of all the past situations when Christians fought one another – for example WWI, with the Kaiser’s ‘Gott mit uns’ (“God is on our side”) set against similar slogans from the nations allied against Germany, and Christians shooting at each other not even in a properly religious cause (though I’d regard Christians fighting for their religion as worse, actually!).  The Church is God’s holy nation worldwide; are the members of that body to end up killing each other because some local churches have got themselves entangled with the world?  How can we have it that our unity as Christians can depend on the rivalries of worldly states?

How are English Anglicans and, say, Swedish Lutherans to achieve a formal unity while both are deeply embedded in the constitutions of countries which in worldly terms may have all kinds of competing interests?  I’m not even going to try and work that one out…!

Much of the concern in the Council of Jerusalem is with difficulties caused for unbelievers/other-believers/potential believers/ new converts; in a particular form then, related to the Jewish origins of our faith, in slightly different ways today.  .  These issues also have implications for our unity, because they cause confusion about the gospel, they interfere with the work of evangelism.   Remember that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his people applies to their relations to the world!  Also the difficulties can reflect on Christians who don’t practice them as well as on those who do.  And in some cases that actually risks the lives of fellow-Christians for inappropriate reasons, especially when dealing with adherents of other state religions.

For the difficulties posed to atheists and agnostics by the state church kind of set-up, just look at the writings of people like Richard Dawkins.  Huge areas of their objections to ‘religion’ are not about the theology/philosophy but about the antics of various state religions and the warfare, discrimination and so forth not only of the past but still continuing in places like Northern Ireland, and of course also in Islam and other non-Christian religions.  Also I often these days find myself talking to people worried by the state-religion/Sharia-law aspect of Islam and also saying that they don’t want a Christian equivalent.  The shenanigans of the Anglicans about issues like women priests and gay marriage are a major problem precisely because they remain a state church and it can appear that they are therefore the state still discriminating in those areas, and their past conduct, like it or not, has kept such issues unnecessarily heated.  For church unity the issue is whether it is really practical for the rest of us to even work with such bodies, let alone be formally and organisationally united with them, when their position about the state can needlessly hinder our mission to the assorted non-believers around us?

With other religions, the problem is often that like Islam, they are themselves national or state religions in one way or another, and have theologies about warfare which ‘free church’ Christians may find unacceptable.  This brings many issues.  Just for starters, it’s not easy to complain about other religions practising things like national Sharia law enforced on non-Muslims if Christians themselves appear to want something similar.  Unfortunately the argument that it’s all right for us because “We have the true religion” isn’t going to impress anyone else!!  That way round it’s not the difference that poses the difficulty, it’s that some Christians are agreeing with them about the religious state issue and setting a bad example when they shouldn’t!

War is another problem.  Biblically, according to the New Testament, Christians don’t have ‘Christian countries’ with armies to threaten others, we ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than defending ourselves, so we just aren’t in the warfare business – well, shouldn’t be, anyway!  Christian countries fighting wars are a fairly obvious problem to the states adhering to other religions in which the wars take place, and by reflection to adherents of those religions who live in the UK.  A great deal of the difficulty in recent wars has been, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the perception of the West as ‘Christian countries’ and therefore of our armies in the Middle East being ‘Crusading Christian armies’ rather than the liberal democratic armies we perceive.

This is bad enough for the British and other western armies who find themselves fighting a war made intractable by such perceptions and the resulting cross-purposes, and for Britons at home facing terrorism.   But it is even worse for native Christians in Muslim lands throughout the East and Africa, because they are seen as allies of those ‘crusading’ armies of those ‘Christian countries’ and are persecuted for it.  It isn’t easy at best to be a Christian in a Muslim country, there are considerable discriminations and restrictions under Sharia law, but there is supposed to be some basic tolerance.  That tolerance doesn’t work when there are ‘Christians’ at war with Islamic countries.

So there’s the thing; how great an idea is it to be united with Christians whose ambitions for a Christian state are not only unbiblical but put our fellow Christians in unnecessary mortal danger?  Christians being persecuted for being Christians, despite being peaceable, is bad enough; but being persecuted because of unbiblical worldly power and influence seeking by other Christians is surely unacceptable, and the said worldly power-seekers and their unbiblical ideas should themselves be unacceptable in turn.

Also, many of those eastern Christians derive from western missions – missions often by those state churches in their state’s colonies.  This means that they have often inherited those same ‘Christian country’ ideas from the parent churches; and that in turn adds to their problems from the Muslims (or other religions) around them.  In many former Western colonies, Christians and Muslims are effectively at war – real shooting war – because the Christian country idea legitimates that kind of conduct in the same way that the Muslim equivalent does.  You could sort of argue that such Christians ‘deserve’ their problems – but of course they’re just following what they’ve learned from the Western missions.  The whole situation is a mess.

If we take Christian unity seriously, shouldn’t we be trying – REALLY HARD – to get rid of this whole problem??  Shouldn’t we be challenging those who hold this bad idea – seeking to persuade them that it isn’t at all essential, but very much the reverse??  That a comfortable situation in a Western country bought at the price of unnecessarily persecuted brethren overseas is a disgrace, not a benefit.

Another big problem state churches bring to ecumenism is in the history; essentially, most of the things that divide mainstream denominations are things that arose not from the Bible but as traditions in the ‘Christian countries’ back to the Roman Imperial church.  For purposes of this essay I’ll take for granted the Reformation view that over the thousand years since Constantine the Roman Catholic Church had gradually become more corrupted.  As I see it, much of this corruption arose from being a state church, first as part of the wider body that included the later ‘Eastern Orthodox’, and then as the surviving authority of the old Empire in the mixed states that arose in the west from the barbarian invasions. 

Things like monarchical bishops, which had only been trends, became fixed because they suited an imperial church.  Infant baptism was another such trend – before Constantine, this had been sporadic and generally about infants not expected to survive to exercise adult faith, but obviously it suited the Imperial church that everybody was automatically ‘christened’ soon after birth.  Once Theodosius made it a rule that ‘Everybody in my Empire is a Christian or else’, the church necessarily became a mixed body with many members who were just ‘once-born’ rather than spiritually reborn, and whose approach to Christianity was really worldly, including that often people would be seeking high church office because it had become a worldly advantage, and that all kinds of pagan superstitions infiltrated the church with these rather nominal members – and so on….

Come the Reformation, a raft of traditional accretions which had been added to the simple gospel over the centuries were challenged.  Unfortunately the link between church and state wasn’t challenged in far too many places; people had just got too used to thinking of the church in such terms, or if it was raised, there was fear because the state authorities wouldn’t support an independent church and they thought such an independent church couldn’t stand up against the worldly power of the Catholics.  (In honesty they were kind of right about this; at this time Anabaptists were able to grow in a way previously almost impossible in the ‘space’ created by the rivalry of Catholic and Protestant states)  But with a secular authority to satisfy as the new Reformed churches were integrated into their states, there wasn’t freedom to be fully biblical in other areas either, so instead of full reform the state churches ‘settled out’ in various semi-reformed conditions as reformers and governments accommodated to each other.  Some went further than others, but the continued ‘Christian country’ thinking was a hindrance.

Looking at the major things that divide the mainstream churches, there is the link between church and state, there is the style of government/ ministry, and there is baptism, infants vs believers’ (‘Paedobaptism’ vs ‘Credobaptism’).  Most of the other differences are pretty insignificant.

The Church/State link is the main subject of ‘stevesfreechurchblog’ anyway, so not too much detail in this post.  Just to point out that this can range from full establishment of a church as with the Church of England  to various other ways a particular church or Christianity in general can be favoured or privileged in the state and expect the state to conform to our faith.  Ian Paisley, for example, wouldn’t want a fully established church, but he still wants a ‘Protestant country’, with the resulting ‘Troubles’.

Church government; basically most of the state churches have a ‘top-down’ government of some kind and elaborate bureaucracies – the kind of thing you’d expect of a state religion.  The Anglicans and some others have preserved the episcopalian structure of the former Catholic Church, and many would believe in some kind of ‘apostolic succession’ in which clergy appoint clergy and ordination is considered quasi-magical rather than any democratic appointment.  While the NT is arguably fairly free about church government, some of these systems are unhelpful and certainly are ‘non-essentials’.

It is fairly simple fact that when people start from the NT and do ministry as that suggests they all tend to produce very similar patterns, while so many of the other patterns are clearly ‘hangovers’ from the age of state churches.  So again the state church poses a seemingly unnecessary difficulty for unity among Christians.

Baptism; obviously all churches practice believer’s baptism for converts old enough to do their own believing (which can be surprisingly young, though I’d hesitate to follow Spurgeon who I think once baptised an 8-year-old).  Baptising babies is a very different thing and needs some dubious biblical interpretation to justify it.  I think the practice originally arose from two factors, the baptism of children not expected to survive and an understanding of baptism as a quasi-magical washing away of sin rather than a response of faith to God.  But again, the state church with the desire to ‘christen’ everybody for social conformity, and the social ‘rite of passage’ angle (in state not just the church) distorts the argument.

On these ‘big’ differences and also other smaller differences which have arisen in and from the Christendom era, the need is to recognise them as such later developments and to apply to them the tests implied by the Council of Jerusalem and the sermon that triggered this blog – tests of how essential/basic are they, and of the difficulties they may make and whether those are inherent difficulties of the faith or unnecessary difficulties arising from illegitimate traditions. 

At five pages this is about enough.  Our preacher’s message about not making difficulties in the church or with potential converts and so on applies very much to this situation.  This whole Christian country is no part of ‘Mere Christianity’, of the real basics, the real essentials.  Over the centuries it has caused massive distress and mayhem in the name of Christ, and it still does.

LET’S START THINKING OF CHRISTIAN UNITY IN TERMS OF GETTING RID OF IT.

Then we can be united God’s way….

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A Beast Revealed – an update

Unfortunately I’m withdrawing this post, though I will be returning to the basic idea of it in future.  Trouble is that since I posted the item I’ve become aware that there is more than one Facebook page representing the ‘Protestant Coalition’ and at least one is being denounced by another as ‘fake’ – and it’s probably the ‘fake’ one that I’d hung my comments on!  In view of this it seems both wise and fair to withdraw the comments I made.  As I hint above, there is nothing wrong with the principle I was stating and I’ll come back to it – just that through no fault of mine (except a bit of naivety) I’d made the comments on a dubious foundation….

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!

“We’ve come to exterminate the Crusaders….”

That’s what was reported by an Algerian worker at the gas plant where terrorists had taken hostages; “Don’t worry”, they told him, “As an Algerian Muslim we haven’t come to harm you – we’ve come to exterminate the crusaders!” And that statement says much about the messy situation between Muslims and the West at present.  The extremists, and many other Muslims, interpret the western armies currently in their lands as a renewal of the old Crusades, with Christians again attempting to destroy Islam by war.

We westerners don’t see it that way; to us, the western armies, including the Brits, are not Christian Crusaders at all, but the armies of pluralist democracies defending ourselves against terrorists and if anything defending the freedoms of Muslims.  But it’s understandable that Muslims misinterpret the situation.  Take the UK; we have a national established church whose earthly ‘supreme governor’ – the Queen – is also the head of our state and the effective Commander-in-Chief of our armies.  It is all too easy for Muslims to see the Queen as the equivalent of a Muslim ‘Caliph’ – a religious head of a religious state – and therefore see her country’s armies as Christian armies pursuing Christian aims.  America may not have an established church, but is nevertheless a largely ‘Christian’ nation, very vocally so among the Republican Right/Moral Majority wing of their politics, so again it can appear in Arab eyes that they are ‘Crusaders’.

So long as this mutual misunderstanding prevails, it’s hard to see how the West can win the various wars; our opponents cannot surrender what they see as Allah’s cause, and we can’t, compatibly with our own principles, just exterminate them.  And anyway, killing them tends just to confirm their view of us, and convinces more and more Muslims to join the extremists.

There is another serious consequence of this.  Many Muslim lands have Christian minorities.  In theory, Muslims should be tolerant of Christians as fellow monotheists, but – quite logically – this doesn’t fully apply during war with Christian states.  With Christian armies ‘crusading’ in Muslim lands, those Christian minorities can be seen as allies of the ‘crusaders’; and therefore as fit targets for persecution of all kinds.  We occasionally hear of that persecution; including cases where Christians have been forcibly circumcised, and are then in a terrible position – they have not freely chosen Islam, yet if they return to practising Christianity, they will be treated as ‘apostates’ and may be subjected to the Islamic death penalty for apostasy[i].

Many of the Christians involved – those belonging to the various ‘Anabaptist’ groups, for example – would reject the whole idea of ‘crusading/holy war’, and even the idea of a ‘Christian country’; they haven’t the slightest intention of being ‘allies’ of the supposed crusading armies.  Yet sadly they will still be persecuted, because the Muslims don’t understand that – Islamic thinking makes it difficult to understand a separation of religion and state.  It is also the case that others of these persecuted Christians belong to churches which support the idea of Christian states, or even, as in the case of Anglicanism, are ‘established’ in some way in the western country where their denomination originated.  I’m not going to say that such Christians therefore ‘deserve’ persecution – but I will say that it is understandable that Muslims interpret such Christian-country-minded groups as being allied with the ‘Christendom’ with whose ideas they agree.

Ironically, the supposedly ‘crusading’ West is also having trouble understanding the situation.  We are so accustomed to our pluralism and democracy, with its freedom of religion, that we don’t easily grasp the idea of a religion and state being effectively one entity, so we can’t see the problem the Muslims have with us.

Disentangling the mess

In disentangling it’s a good start to admit that there is a tangle!  Sadly neither politicians nor church people in the west seem to want to make that admission.  Many don’t even appreciate the real nature of Islam; they don’t seem to realise that the idea of a unity of religion and state is built into Islam from square one, as is the idea of holy war.  In the lifetime of Muhammad he both ordered and personally led military expeditions; exiled from Mecca he returned with an army big enough to scare the Meccans into surrender, to set up a Muslim state with himself as effectively king.  It is significant that in Islam the big division is not over creeds and beliefs; Shi’as and Sunnis are divided over who, at a certain time, should have succeeded Muhammad as the ruler of the Muslim state.  I will agree that many of the modern extremist Muslims are probably doing things Muhammad would reject; but the key ideas are deeply embedded in Islam and aren’t going to change.  Muslims who try to go ‘back to basics’ will find that the totalitarian religious state, and war both to defend and expand that state, are among the fundamentals of their faith.  It is a myth of political correctness that there are ‘good Muslims’ who have western values in such matters; such people do exist, but arguably they are not fully faithful Muslims, but Muslims failing to follow the original Islamic teaching.  Because this is so, extremist Islam is not going to go away in a hurry.

Christianity is different; in Christianity, the totalitarianism and warfare are an alien graft, not going back to the original but only to over 300 years after Jesus.  I once saw Nick Griffin in a party political broadcast for the BNP portraying the idea that Christianity started as a violent and intolerant religion like Islam but we wonderful British had changed it into the more tolerant body we know today; he couldn’t be more wrong!  Christians who go ‘back to the Bible’ will not find instructions on setting up a Christian state, but teaching that ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (II Cor 10; 4), that Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18; 36) and instructions to ‘be subject to’ the governments of the various non-Christian states they live in (Rom 13; 1ff, I Pet 2; 13ff).  They will find teaching that people become Christians by a spiritual rebirth beyond human power and legislation (John 1; 12-13), not simply by their natural birth in a supposedly Christian state.  They will find the Church itself described as “God’s holy nation” – yet not ruling this world but living humbly in exile from their real home in heaven  (I Pet 2; 9, 1; 1), and commanded indeed not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi – managers of other people’s affairs’ (I Pet 4; 15).

Nobody can be sure how things might have worked out if Muhammad had faced a Christianity still operating in that spirit; unfortunately he saw in Arabia only a somewhat heretical group whose ideas on the Trinity seemed pagan to him, and beyond Arabia a mainstream church which had changed drastically from the original after some 300 years of being nationalised into the Roman Empire and operating as the imperial state religion.   So he rejected Christianity, while in the end copying the idea of a state faith using military means – well, maybe not exactly copying, just that he never seems to have seen any other model of Christianity to inspire him to act differently from pagan national religions.

Christians let Muhammad down at that time (and let themselves down if you think about it!)  They continued to set Islam a bad example as they fought tooth and nail to hinder the advance of the Islamic empire, in Spain for example, and then actually attacked the ‘Holy Land’ in the era of the Crusades, whose atrocities are effectively coming home to roost as Islamic terrorism in the West.  More recently the interference of ‘Christian’ states in the Middle East as colonial powers stirred up much resentment, and caused many Muslims to go ‘back to the Quran’ to seek Allah’s favour by being more fundamentalist.  In particular arrogant handling of Palestine stirred things up.  Essentially Britain promised the land of Palestine to both the Arabs (as led by Lawrence of Arabia) and the Jews in order to gain their support in the First World War (1914-18) and then muddled through till a rather disgraceful abdication of responsibility in the aftermath of World War II as immigration of displaced Jews to Israel grew and friction between Arab and Jew increased.  The subsequent tendency for the US and UK to favour Israel stoked things up further.  Then we became dependent on Arab oil and the balance changed, leading to a Muslim resurgence.

What now?

We – and I mean Christians, rather than the various states we live in – need to set straight the issue of the Crusades; indeed we need to firmly disavow the Crusades.  We must also recognise that such disavowal won’t mean much unless we also disavow the ‘Christendom’ set up by Constantine, and all the subsequent variants – from Anglicanism and Lutheranism to Ian Paisley and his fellow Unionists in Ulster – which seek to give Christianity a special place in the state and inevitably lead to the idea that it is proper to set up ‘Christian’ states by force, defend them by force, and even use force to spread the faith.  The Roman Catholic Church particularly needs to rethink.  It was that church which actually sponsored the Crusades, and I seriously think that supporting the Crusades casts doubt on the fundamental Roman doctrine of papal infallibility; I mean, what real use is ‘infallibility’ which couldn’t recognise the total wrongness of the Crusades and of that warfare in the name of  Jesus??  Where indeed supposedly infallible Popes personally promoted the Crusades?  The RC version of ‘Christian country/establishment in the state’ is not quite like the Anglican or Orthodox or various other Protestant variants, but all lead to the same kind of position on the use of state power to defend religion.    Only a Christianity separated from the state can be an adequate disavowal of the Crusades.  And only a disavowal of the Crusades will enable us to counter Islam with a truly Christian alternative message.  So actually we, even more than the Islamists, need to ‘exterminate the Crusaders’!

What?!!  Are we to get an army together and start a civil war among Christians, killing those we disagree with?  No, very much NOT!  Our warfare, remember, is not with physical weapons.  But we do need to clear that Crusading spirit, and its holy war ethos, from our churches.

Consider this; I don’t know what language was used by the terrorists themselves in Algeria, but that Algerian being interviewed on TV in French used the word ‘exterminer’, in English ‘exterminate’.  Ironically this word originated in Christendom.  It is derived from the Latin ‘ex terminis’ – literally ‘beyond the borders’.  Originally that was what was supposed to happen to heretics – you exiled them beyond the borders, removing them from your ‘Christian’ society.  The trouble was that the borders of Christendom were continent-wide, making exile difficult in practice, and gradually ‘extermination’ came to mean sending the heretics ‘ex terminis’ in a more absolute way, by burning at the stake or other forms of death penalty (drowning was particularly favoured to deal with Anabaptists).   This was yet another way that Christendom distorts the original teaching, in which the Church was meant to live peaceably among their pagan neighbours, and those who were unacceptable to the church were simply excluded from the fellowship (and even then, with a hope of ultimate restoration); of course those excluded from the church would carry on living in the surrounding society.

 

And that is the kind of ‘extermination of the Crusaders’ that we need; not to kill them, but to simply exclude them from the church, to clear up the confusion that has existed since Constantine about the place of the church in the state and the association of the church with warfare.  It won’t happen overnight, and it needs to be done in a Christian way, by loving persuasion, that recognises the good intentions of those we disagree with.

 

I’ll leave it there for now; obviously there’s a major discussion to be had about ‘the next step’ … blog readers please contribute ….


[i] Yes, another practice which Islam seems to have shared with ‘Christendom’.  Jews or Muslims in Spain had often been coerced into accepting baptism, and then if they continued to practice their original faith, were treated as apostates to be burnt at the stake.  Or indeed, having been coerced, they were simply never trusted by the surrounding ‘Christians’.