Ian Paisley is a Catholic….

…though obviously not a papist!  Anyone expecting me to reveal that Dr Paisley has been secretly attending Masses and/or negotiating with the Pope for a cardinal’s red hat, buzz off and wait for some tabloid to discover/hack/invent that story.  This item is a serious discussion of how the word ‘catholic’ is to be interpreted.

The word ‘catholic’ is derived from the Greek phrase ‘kata holos’, meaning something like ‘according to the whole’, as in the New Age buzz words ‘holistic/holism/etc.’  (The ‘holic’ bit is nothing to do with ‘alcoholic/ workaholic/ chocoholic/etc’ which are derived from the Arabic ‘al cohol’ meaning, well, alcohol)  ‘Catholic’ can fairly be translated as ‘universal’.

Way back, the word ‘catholic’ is used in early creeds like the Apostle’s Creed to describe the Church – ‘We believe in the holy catholic Church….’  At that time of course the Church was not entangled with the state but had voluntary membership, so ‘kata holos’ meant on the one hand that as God’s Church it was universal as God himself is, but with voluntary membership meant more like ‘for everybody’, ‘applicable to everybody’, or ‘open to everybody’ without distinction – ‘As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  No Jew or Greek there, no slave or freeman, no male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus’  In that kind of sense I’ve no objection to saying the word ‘catholic’ in the creed myself, though I admit I prefer, to avoid unhelpful associations, the English translation ‘universal’.

Things changed after Constantine, and even more so after his successor who made Christianity compulsory in the Roman Empire.  With everybody in ‘Christendom’ assumed to be ‘Christian’ following their infant baptism (apart from Jews whose status was grudged and under threat), ‘catholic’ ended up meaning something a great deal more like our word ‘totalitarian’, similar to Nazism and Stalinism, and ended up with the biblically dubious practices of Inquisitions and Crusades to enforce the faith.  With the splitting of the Roman Empire ‘Christendom’ was divided between ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and western ‘Roman Catholic’, but the state church principle remained, and both sides of the split were ‘Catholic’ in the totalitarian sense.  The Eastern Orthodox can still be pretty totalitarian – see ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia and attitudes too often seen in Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Reformation the western church split between Catholic and Protestant, but both continued the practice of being totalitarian state churches; Protestants vary between the established national Anglican and Lutheran Churches and some Presbyterian/Reformed churches with varying degrees of connection with the state.  Even Cromwell, an ‘Independent’ in church government terms, nevertheless believed that the state should be ‘Christian’ in some sense.  The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ might have sought freedom from Anglican tyranny  this side of the Atlantic, but the Puritan state they initially set up in the New World was – let’s say it wasn’t so free if you weren’t a Puritan…!

In the modern world few churches are as intolerant as used to be the case; a non-Catholic won’t have the Inquisition set on him if he goes on holiday to a Catholic country.  But the idea of a ‘Christian state’ in which the Christianity is generally privileged and assumed to be the norm still exists, and with different versions of Christianity so, sadly, does the idea that ‘our’ version be privileged and others ‘second-class citizens’ still exist.  And this, essentially, is the post-Constantine version of the ‘catholic’ idea still running and still causing damage.

I recall seeing Ian Paisley giving a speech somewhere circa 1970 and he said “This is a Protestant country!”  It is this belief in a Christian country that makes him ‘Catholic’ in the bad sense of the word; and it is that kind of Catholicism on both sides there which leads to the fighting and terrorism and the current marches, riots and protests.  As I’ve said before on this blog, it is not the theological disagreements but ironically the point the two sides are agreed about which causes the trouble. 

In contrast were the Anabaptists.  They realised that Christianity required a voluntary spiritual new birth that couldn’t be imposed by worldly legislation, and so any state including Christians must be pluralist, consisting of the born again and the still unconverted.  They realised too that therefore church and state should be separate – it wasn’t the church’s job to ‘Christianise’ worldly states, but to spread the gospel and bring people into the kingdom of God.  That kingdom consists of those who follow Jesus because they hear and believe him (i.e., not merely because some earthly ruler passes a law declaring his people to be Christian), and so instead of existing in this world as a regular geographical state, or as an ethnic entity like the Kurds or the Basques, Jesus’ kingdom exists as a worldwide body of ‘resident aliens’ – citizens of the kingdom of heaven living as ‘expats’.  

For Anabaptists and anyone else who accepts that basic idea, ‘catholic’ means what it meant in the first centuries of Christianity; universal in a sense of suitable for everyone, freely offered to everyone, open to all regardless of race, gender, or nationality in this world[i].  Such a church does not need a conventional worldly state based on worldly physical power and so does not need worldly warfare such as we see in Northern Ireland. 

It is ironic that this central value of Ian Paisley is also the key value of the Roman and Orthodox Churches; it is not the Bible teaching that Protestantism is supposed to stand for, but an unbiblical tradition going back only to nearly 400 years after Jesus, and actually actively contradicting the Bible itself.  But note that although the two sides in Ulster have slightly different formulations of the ‘Christian state’ idea, they still have that idea in common, and the resulting implication that they can engage in warfare for their version of a Christian state and so against each other.  Both sides need to do some serious thinking about this, including that Catholics need to recognise that their ‘totalitarian’ past, until such time as they disavow it, gives some valid reason for Protestant opposition. 


[i] Because Anabaptists rejected the ‘totalitarian’ interpretation of ‘catholic’, apparently many of them would refuse to use that word or its German/Dutch equivalent ‘gemeinde’ when saying the creed; the Inquisition would use that to identify Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists would not reject the word in its original sense, but probably didn’t realise in those days that the meaning had changed over the years.  Likewise the Inquisition; for them also the ‘Catholic Church’ meant their totalitarian body.   

Advertisements

Northern Ireland; the cost of ‘abnormal policing’.

An item on teletext tells me that the policing of protests and riots in Northern Ireland is costing £3m per month; just one ongoing incident – which appears to be protests about that banned march in the Ardoyne area of Belfast – is costing £300,000 per week (£1,200,000 a month on its own!!), and has done so since ‘the Twelfth’.  That six-figure sum – weekly – because a band and their supporters want to stage a provocative and offensive march.  There’s a further difficulty shown by comparing arrest rates in the province to previous years; policing all these protests has massively cut the number of arrests for ‘normal’ crimes and presumably the province must be suffering considerably from this failure to deal with the regular crimes.

The problem for me is that the people responsible for this disorder, for the expense and the obstruction to ordinary policing, claim to be my fellow-Christians and to be defending a strongly Bible-believing form of the faith at that.  But I also take the Bible seriously, and in the New Testament I can find text after text after text that says Christians shouldn’t be behaving like that, and/or presents emphatically a different course of behaviour.  And these are not obscure texts, they’re very plain and straightforward; simple stuff like ‘in no case paying back evil for evil’ or ‘love your enemy’ or ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ whether those weapons be swords, guns, tanks – or thrown bottles and stones. 

In contrast, texts justifying these marches, riots and protests are to say the least thin on the ground.   And those which are sometimes produced do not seem to be plain and straightforward either.  Indeed I often find that the texts don’t say anything that supports such conduct at all, it’s just that those quoting the texts aren’t happy with what the text actually says and have produced a rationalisation that says, without biblical grounds, “surely there must be an exception….”

Much of the justification for the marches, riots and protests seems to depend on first believing that Northern Ireland is or should be a ‘Christian country’ (whether ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’) which these actions are defending.  Again, I’m still waiting for someone to produce actual texts supporting that proposition, either for Northern Ireland or any other country; and those texts would need to be very clear and emphatic to counter or be a legitimate exception to the large number of rather explicit texts rejecting the Christian state and commanding a somewhat different course of action – I’ve quoted lots of these texts in the blog already and more to come, so I’m not going to repeat them all here….

To justify harming your country (and mine, while NI is part of the UK!) on a scale of £millions a month, Christians don’t just need a ‘good excuse’ – they need an extremely good reason.  Excuses about ‘defending our culture’ really won’t do, especially for a ‘culture’ which is rather obviously not about God’s values of ‘loving your enemies’ etc.; you have to be able to say you are positively obeying God, yet clearly you aren’t.  On the contrary there is clear disobedience. 

Even accepting that ‘being subject to the authorities’ doesn’t mean unqualified obedience to them, there is no biblical authority to disobey the state when all they have said is you mustn’t stage a provocative and intimidating march offensive to your neighbours of other beliefs.  It’s not like they are forbidding you to preach the gospel, and even then a violent response would be biblically inappropriate!!  To set yourself against the authorities in the attempt, by repeated demonstrations, to force your march through after all… that fits almost exactly the literal meaning of Paul’s words in Romans 13 – “Do not ‘set yourselves in array against’ the authorities”; and Paul warns that if you disobey that word you are setting yourself against God’s purposes, against God himself, and that God will respond in judgement against you.  Indeed, from where I’m standing, it looks very much as if God actually has responded in judgement, as Northern Ireland is ‘given over’ (to use a Pauline concept) to suffer the natural consequences that follow such disobedience.   Among those judgemental consequences, though far from the worst as we have seen over the years, is the hurt when the acts of misguided Christians cost the nation and its people a needless loss of millions of pounds that could be much better spent!! 

PS; since I originally posted this I’ve seen a further news item suggesting that the ‘flag protests’ have cost Belfast’s shops about £50million in trade. Again I can’t see any justification for Christians to be involved in such damaging activity at the expense of their community; yet these protests seem only to make sense on a supposedly ‘Christian’ basis. This has to be wrong!

But Seriously (6) – Romans 13… starts in Romans 12….

 

The chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are quite handy for finding references; but they weren’t put in till centuries after the texts were originally written, and sometimes they can be a bit misleading.  The division between Romans 12 and 13 is just such a case – all too often we start with Romans 13 as if it were the start of a new bit of the epistle not directly connected to what went before, whereas in reality it is part of a longer exposition which begins… well, really at the start of Romans 12, though it does shift focus significantly partway through that chapter. 

In Chs 9-11 Paul has dealt with the relationship between Israel and the Gentile Church as represented by the Romans, and has also taught a great deal about God’s sovereignty, ending in a paean of praise to God’s wisdom and rich grace.  Then he moves on; “I beg you therefore (i.e. in light of that teaching, appreciating the wonder of God’s grace to you as Gentiles now incorporated into his people)… present your bodies a living sacrifice… do not conform to the present world scheme, but be transformed by a complete renewal of mind, so as to sense for yourselves what is the… perfect will of God”. (I really like the JB Philips translation in v2, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould”!)  Then Paul expounds how this will work out in various areas….

He warns them not to value themselves higher than they should, but to be humble.  Then he looks at how to apply this in the Church, among your fellow-Christians….

For precisely as in one body we have many members, but not all the members have the same function, so the many of us form one body in Christ, while each is related to all the others as a member, but possessed of varied talents according to the grace bestowed on us

Though this is true of the local congregation, Paul clearly also has a wider meaning; this one body is the worldwide church – ‘the many of us’ throughout the world ‘form one body in Christ’, on the one hand united in our Lord, on the other hand very practically acting as his body in the world, his feet to go to people, his hands to do his work.  The state we live in may well try to claim our primary loyalty – but as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, our first loyalty must be to God, to Jesus as Lord, and to the body of Christ the church.  We must not let the world divide us from our fellow Christians, or set us against one another.  Paul spells out the ‘church-and-state’ issues more specifically in chapter 13, but when we get there, remember that this point about the body of Christ must be part of that context.

Paul then briefly refers to various gifts including prophecy, teaching, charity work, then shows how we must love one another….

Let your love be perfectly sincere, clinging to the right with abhorrence of evil; joined together in a brotherhood of mutual love; allowing one another to enjoy preference of honour; never slacking in interest; as the Lord’s servants keeping spiritually aglow; joyfully hoping as you endure affliction; persistent in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; practising hospitality.

Much of this also applies to or affects our relationships with people outside the Church; now in v14 and to the end of the chapter he moves on to consider those external relations, which is why these verses are part of the context of the teaching that continues in chapter 13…

Bless your persecutors; yes, bless and do not curse.

‘Bless’ is ‘eulogeite’; the same basic word as ‘eulogy’ or ‘eulogise’, though presumably in this context it means ‘good speaking’ to and for the persecutors rather than merely about them as in a funeral eulogy, and so means ‘wish them well’.  I think, though my NT Greek skills are limited, that this is not just that we individually bless our persecutors – the church is to work together in this, supporting one another in avoiding the temptations to hatred and ill-wishing which arise from persecution, together in wishing well to the persecutors (though not wishing them ultimate success, of course!), together in loving the enemy as Jesus taught.   

Share the joy of those who are glad, and share the grief of those who grieve.  Harmonise with others in your thinking; do not aspire to eminence but humbly adjust yourselves to humble situations; do not become wise in your own conceits.

Sharing the grief and joy of others; Paul may have written elsewhere that Christians are to ‘come out from among the pagans and be separate’ but it seems he is not advocating that Christians be totally separate from the surrounding society

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.

This is basic; it looks back to Jesus’ teaching and example of ‘turning the other cheek’.  ‘Living in peace with everyone’ constantly comes to my mind when I’m hearing news from Ulster of those parades and the civil disturbance which so often attends them.  There is no New Testament command or requirement to stage these triumphalist and intimidating events, and much including this passage that says we shouldn’t.  How is it ‘living in peace with everyone’ to have hundreds, occasionally thousands of Protestants marching noisily through a Catholic neighbourhood celebrating, in effect, that Protestants won the 17th century wars and now dominate over their Catholic fellow-citizens?  Neither the marches nor the massive protests when they are refused sound to me like ‘providing for good things before all men’ (as my ‘interlinear’ Greek/English version literally renders the phrase about ‘noblest ways’), even when the protests are peaceful, which too often they aren’t! 

Of course, if Christians are following the idea of a ‘Christian country’ it seems natural to do such things; that’s how ‘kingdoms of this world’ operate!  Those who thus break peace with their neighbours think that in asserting their ‘Protestant country’ they’ve got a legitimate exception to passages like Romans 12; but all they’re actually doing is contradicting the Lord who said explicitly that His kingdom is ‘not of this world’!

Do not revenge yourselves, dear friends, but leave room for divine retribution, for it is written “It is Mine to punish; I will pay them back, the Lord says.”

Instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; in case he is thirsty, give him drink; for doing so you will pile burning coals on his head.  Be not overpowered with evil, but master evil with good.

I don’t really need to add much to that!  The ‘burning coals’ refer to the shame that should be induced when the enemy finds his evil met with such generosity; though it may also refer to the ultimate judgement awaiting an unrepentant persecutor.  We should remember that as a former persecutor Paul will have felt that shame when Jesus met him on the Damascus road, and would understand better than most the effect on the persecutor of victims who love in return.  In this context ‘Be not overpowered with evil’ seems to me to mean not letting the evil of revenge overpower us and make us as evil as the enemy.

This seems an appropriate place to tell one of the classic stories of Anabaptism.  The Anabaptist leader Dirk Willems was on the run in wintry Holland; with pursuers close behind, he ran across a frozen river on the ice.  One of the pursuers fell through the ice and was at risk of drowning.  While the man’s colleagues were fearful and hung back,  Dirk Willems rescued the man and hauled him out – and the rescued man then arrested Dirk, who eventually suffered martyrdom!  That is the way of Christ; holy wars, riots, the bombs and guns of paramilitaries, are the exact opposite.  As Paul said elsewhere, ‘Our warfare is not with physical weapons’, and as Jesus said and showed by example we are to love our enemies even to the point of dying for them.  Theories of ‘Church-and-State’ which lead us to other courses of action should be regarded with extreme suspicion….

And when we come to Romans 13, this chapter is its context; we must be careful that we do not interpret Chapter 13 in ways which contradict chapter 12.  That in turn means don’t isolate chapter 13, don’t treat it as a separate subject. 

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!

Religion causes war?

 

(This is a lightly amended version of another contribution I made in an online forum elsewhere; nobody else seemed to pick up on this idea – maybe it was just too serious for the forum in question – so I’m floating it again via this blog)

The point almost everyone in the original forum seemed to be missing is that to have a war involving religion, the religion in question must be involved in a state or nation – or trying forcibly to be so.  Also the religion must accept warfare as a valid ethical option.  Given that presupposition, yes there are times when religion causes war, times when it is used as a pretext, and times when different religions on each side of a war means that a dispute which is perhaps really about something else becomes extra-intransigent because neither side can surrender a cause they have come to see as their god’s cause – as witness the cry ‘No Surrender’ in Ulster.

Most religions have started as national and so are integral with initially a particular ethnic group and later a large territorial state, and so naturally become involved in their state’s wars (including, as in 17th Century England, civil wars).  Of what might be called the classic religions, only two are not thus limited, at least in their origins – Buddhism and Christianity.  Buddhism has become a national religion in some states (e.g., Tibet) and so involved in wars, but really should be pacifist because of its philosophical view of the world.

Christianity should be pacifist because Jesus said at square one his ‘kingdom’ is not ‘of this world’, and the subjects of the Kingdom are those ‘born again’ through faith of any race or nation.  The New Testament depicts Christians living as peaceable ‘resident aliens’ in whatever nation, their native land or another, a people who may be engaged in a spiritual war but their warfare is ‘not with physical weapons’.  So long as Christians stick to that New Testament view of their faith the Christian religion cannot cause wars – though they may be persecuted for their non-conformity in many states.

Only some 300 years after Jesus did Christianity get ‘nationalised’ by a Roman Empire trying to replace a pagan religion which had lost credibility.  Only then could Christianity become a war-involved religion – but of course in serious disobedience to the Christian God.