How a €40 Cake Ended Up Costing Over €500,000

The UK’s Supreme Court has finally, and unanimously, ruled that Asher’s Bakery in Northern Ireland was not acting unfairly or practising discrimination when they refused to fulfil an order for a custom-baked cake featuring two Sesame Street characters and a slogan supporting gay marriage.

Taking the case through its various legal stages has cost over £450,000 (€510,000) in legal fees. Making the lawyers the real winners in this controversy.

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The Supreme Court judgement recognised what was glaringly obvious to most people, that the bakery were not discriminating against the customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, but were rather choosing not to produce a piece of propaganda for a message that went against their deeply held beliefs.

We should not expect a Palestinian baker to be compelled to produce a cake decorated with a Star of David to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. A printshop owned by a Northern Irish Catholic should not be forced to print election posters for the DUP. Nor should an LGBT publisher be forced to publish a book that argues that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. Whether we agree with the beliefs of the business owner, or indeed of the proposed customer, in each of these scenarios is not the issue. In each case both the business owner and the customer have the right to hold their individual beliefs. The issue is that we should not deliberately and provocatively place an order with a particular business, with the express intention of causing offence or creating controversy. Particularly, as in the Belfast bakery case, when there are plenty of other companies that would gladly accept the business.

I don’t think anyone genuinely believes that the customer in question just happened to choose a bakery which is well known as a business owned by evangelical Christians, and whose very name, ‘Asher’s’, is taken from the Bible. This was clearly a calculated attempt to provoke a response, and then to claim discrimination.

The ruling from the Supreme Court made clear that it is unacceptable for any business to discriminate against a customer on the basis of their race, religious beliefs, political views or sexual orientation. That is as it should be. But it has also made it clear that free speech and equality do not give us a mandate to behave like jerks. And that is a lesson that all of us, including Christians, need to take to heart.

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The Promotion to Glory of an Authentic Christian

On Monday I travelled to Belfast for the funeral of an authentic Christian. Jackie Boyd, a life-long member of the Salvation Army, suffered from dementia in recent years and died last week. He was, in the Army’s terminology, “Promoted to Glory”. As is customary, the flags at his funeral were decorated with white (not black) ribbons, signifying the celebration of a life that has now transitioned into victory and homecoming.

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Sitting once again in a Salvation Army service, listening to the brass band, and seeing many familiar (if older) faces brought back a flood of memories.

In February 1981, I attended my first Salvation Army service. I was 18-years old, homeless and desperate. I genuinely believed that the downward trajectory my life had taken for the last few years – characterised by alcohol and drug abuse – was going to end in an early grave. Some of my drinking buddies had started placing bets with each other on how long I would live – and none of them gave me more than a year. I was experiencing increasing blackouts, and the cuts and scrapes you pick up from life on the street were all turning septic and refusing to heal, as if the poisons I kept pumping into my body had suffocated the body’s natural healing mechanisms.

I arrived early for the service, and felt as out of place as any human being could ever feel. I looked around and felt I had made a terrible mistake. I was getting ready to leave when a guy in Salvation Army uniform came up to me, gave me a huge smile, and pulverised my hand with a bone-crushing handshake. “It’s wonderful to see you,” he boomed, “I’m so glad you decided to come tonight.”

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out who this guy was, or why he was so glad to see me. He obviously knew me from somewhere, but I couldn’t remember ever meeting him before. Was he a friend of my family? Had I encountered him during one of the blackouts that were gaping holes in my memory? Was he a cop or a lawyer that knew me from one of my court appearances? I thought I’d better hang around and see if it came back to me.

So I stayed. And at the end of the night I responded to an offer to accept Jesus into my life. And my life was changed for ever. And after a long struggle I was free of my addictions. And I ended up going to Bible College. And I met a wonderful wife. And we had two beautiful daughters. And I served as a Salvation Army Officer, and then subsequently as a Pentecostal pastor. And I still have the incredible privilege of getting up every morning to do something I love doing – trying to help other people to have a similarly life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.

It is no exaggeration to say that Jackie Boyd’s handshake saved my life on that cold February night in East Belfast back in 1981. And guess what? It turned out he didn’t know me from Adam! He welcomed every visitor to the Salvation Army in the same way. Sometimes the other musicians would be checking their instruments were in tune, and making sure they had their music in the right order. They would be looking down at Jackie, wondering if he would make it to his place in the band in time for the opening hymn – but Jackie still took his time in enthusiastically welcoming every visitor. And I, for one, am so, so grateful that he did!

 

 

 

 

The Morning After an Abortion Referendum

I am writing this reflection early on Saturday morning after a referendum campaign that has highlighted great divisions in Irish society. The official counting has not yet begun, but the exit polls show so wide a margin in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment that it seems inevitable that abortion will now be legalised in Ireland in a wide-ranging fashion.

In recent months I have invested a huge amount of time and effort into spreading the message that every human being, including unborn children, deserve to be cherished and protected. So obviously I am profoundly disappointed that the Irish people have, by a significant margin, apparently voted to remove all Constitutional protections for the unborn child, thereby paving the way for the Government, as an initial step, to introduce abortion for any reason whatsoever in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

But we need to remember that the Christian Church has, for most of its history, proclaimed the message of Christ in the midst of empires, kingdoms and cultures that followed values and practices that were totally unchristian. From the Day of Pentecost to the present, most Christians have lived their entire lives and borne faithful witness in societies that practiced persecution, discrimination, slavery, racism, genocide, child abuse, oppression and extreme cruelty to both people and animals.

Of course we have an obligation to fight injustice, making a difference where we can. William Wilberforce succeeded in his battle against the slave trade, and he also positively impacted future generations by helping found the first national animal welfare organisation (the RSPCA) and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I had hoped that Christians in Ireland could make their voice heard on behalf of the unborn with similar effect, but that has not been the case, and for the foreseeable future, abortion is set to be a part of our society.

So how do we respond to this disappointment? It is certainly appropriate to grieve for the increased numbers of unborn children who will be killed. It is only honest to acknowledge that a disregard for the infinite value of life will inevitably have a knock-on effect in many other areas of our culture. Ireland’s future looks a bit darker for all our children today, born or unborn.

But our task, as the Church, is not to retreat into a corner where we can issue angry denunciations and imprecations against those who don’t hear our message. Instead, we are called to respond with love and grace and declare an alternative Kingdom where life, compassion and hope triumph over death, selfishness and despair. When I look at the early Church after the Day of Pentecost, I don’t see that their main priority was to make Rome great again, nor were they trying to create a Christian Empire. They were not even primarily focused on challenging the many evils that characterised Roman society. They had a mandate from heaven to live out their radical discipleship for Jesus and to shine as lights in a dark world. And the darker that world got, the brighter their light shone.

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For example, when Roman models of family life were chaotic and violent, the Church simply provided a better alternative by living out a different kind of family that proved attractive to others. History tells us that women and slaves, excluded from many areas of Roman society, found meaning and significance within the community of the church. Indeed, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we understand that the greatest tragedy wasn’t that the Church lacked the power to initially change the status of women and slaves in society – but that later on, when it did have that power, it still took centuries to effect such change!

Many of us, as Christians, have been very vocal recently in pointing out that abortion will impact disproportionately on unborn children with disabilities such as Down Syndrome. I believe it was correct and appropriate to point that out. But how many of our churches are now prepared to work to be welcoming spaces for families with children with disabilities? Shining as a light in a dark culture must, more now than ever before, include providing welcome, support and encouragement for such families.

So, while the referendum result looks to be extremely disappointing, our mission remains to worship Jesus, to point others to His truth and grace, and to demonstrate His kingdom in our lives.

Speaking at a Baptist Church in Dublin a few weeks ago, I said that I would wake up on Saturday the 26th of May waiting to hear two things. The second most important thing would be to hear that Ireland had voted to protect the human rights of all. The exit polls suggest that is something that I will be extremely unlikely to hear! However, I went on to say that the most important thing I wanted to hear was the confirmation from the Holy Spirit that we had represented Jesus well in this campaign, and that we had manifested the truth and grace of Jesus Christ in equal measure. I do believe that I can hear that this morning.

In my role as a church pastor I will continue to serve God, and the people of our community, with joy and passion. I am committed to seeing the Church of Jesus Christ shine brighter and brighter as a beacon of light and hope.

In my other role, as an Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I remain passionate about equipping, connecting and representing evangelical Christians. There isn’t any other time in history where I’d want to be alive, any other country in the world where I’d want to live, or any other message that I’d want to be proclaiming.

Yes, Ireland does feel somewhat darker this Saturday morning. But the Church’s opportunity to shine is greater.

Recognising a Fellow Human Being

Tomorrow (Friday 25 May) Ireland goes to the polls to determine whether their Constitution should continue to grant the fundamental human right to life to unborn children, right up to the point of birth. The key question, as I see it, is whether we recognise an unborn child as a human being, a person, or whether we view them as a thing with the potential to later become a human being.

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If you are 100% certain that an unborn child is a thing rather than a person, then it follows that it should not be afforded human rights. In that case abortion is purely a medical procedure.

However, if we allow for the view that the unborn child is a person, a human being, then everything changes.

Even though the majority of abortions carried out are for social reasons, the referendum debate has focussed on the very small percentage of abortions that are carried out in very traumatic circumstances – the victims of rape, or where the baby has a very serious abnormality or disability. These cases are indeed heart-rending, and the Irish government has argued (untruthfully, in my view) that the only way to address such cases is to permit abortion on demand for any reason.

But, once we view the unborn child as a human being, even these ‘hard cases’ look very different. Of course any decent person grieves for rape victims, or for parents who have received a devastating pre-natal diagnosis – but do such situations really justify taking the life of another human being? Is the killing of another innocent human being really an appropriate response to the gross violation that is rape?

So who decides whether an unborn child is a human being in their own right or not? The concept of personhood is philosophical, not scientific. We don’t actually have any scientific criteria that determines when somebody becomes a person. Religions offer dogmatic answers, as do the advocates of abortion, but dogma does not make good law.

I would suggest that we look to how we view unborn children in contexts other than abortion. Think of how new parents gasp in wonder when they see the first ultrasound scan of their child. Think of how we congratulate couples when we learn that they are expecting a child. Do we talk about their ‘foetus’, or do we ask after the health of their ‘baby’? When we suffer the heartache of a miscarriage or a stillbirth, are we mourning the loss of a life that never was? A prospective person? Or are we mourning the death of a tiny person?

The fact of the matter is that most of us, irrespective of whether we are religious or not, instinctively view an unborn child as a human being in all contexts other than when we are trying to rationalise its deliberate destruction. And that is very telling indeed. We are, as human beings, hard-wired to recognise other human beings with a sense of kinship. For me, one of the most effective posters that I have seen in the current referendum campaign has not mentioned abortion at all. It simply portrays an unborn child in the early stages of pregnancy with the caption “One of Us”.

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We instinctively recognise unborn children as part of our common humanity. Mothers, in particular, tend to feel this bond much earlier than the rest of us – and we should learn to trust mothers.

Is Ireland really going to vote to amend its Constitution so as to reduce the scope of human rights and exclude a particular group of human beings?

Vote NO.

No Vincent, Being Human Matters Very Much

 

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Former television presenter, Vincent Browne, made an extraordinary claim on Monday in an article in the online Irish newspaper ‘The Journal’:  http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/vincent-brown-eighth-amendment-yes-vote-4026621-May2018/

Other advocates for abortion on demand have attempted to deny the status of the unborn child as a human being. Browne argued for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland, but he claimed that it doesn’t actually matter when human life begins. “The argument about when human life begins is also confusing. The truth is we don’t know – but it doesn’t matter.”

Just think about that for a moment. Browne is saying that it doesn’t actually matter whether an unborn child is a human being in their own right or not. Instead, he used a hypothetical and untestable argument that if men, rather than women, gave birth, then we wouldn’t have laws against abortion. Therefore, his reasoning continues, in the real world where men don’t get pregnant, it is unfair to women to have laws against abortion.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious fact that we have no way of knowing what the laws would be like in Browne’s alternative world where men could get pregnant. Let’s look at the actual thrust of what he’s saying. He is arguing that discrimination (even imaginary discrimination in a non-existent hypothetical world) is so wrong that it justifies taking the lives of other human beings.

This argument is remarkably similar to justifications of slavery prior to the American civil war. It was argued then that the Northern states in the US had very different economies to those of the Southern states. Northern states, so the argument went, would not be opposing slavery if their own economies depended upon slavery. Therefore it was discriminatory for them to object to the practices in Southern states where the economic well being of so many whites depended upon slavery. It didn’t matter whether slavery was morally repugnant or not. Nor did it matter whether African-Americans were viewed as human beings or not. All that mattered, according to this argument, was that any hint of discrimination between Northern whites and Southern whites should be avoided, and if that meant that other human beings were denied basic human rights then that was acceptable.

To see such ‘logic’ rearing its ugly head in 2018 is shocking indeed. Human rights do matter. And it is vitally important whether we see unborn children as being human beings or not.

Discrimination is wrong. It is wrong on so many levels. That is why civilised nations should have laws and protections that prohibit slavery, oppression, or any other denial of anyone’s human rights. But discrimination is not tackled by inventing imaginary worlds and then using that as a basis for justifying the killing of another human being. Discrimination is tackled by defending the human rights of all, irrespective of anyone’s race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, age or stage of development.

Like so many other pro-abortion arguments, Browne’s claim is bogus and should be rejected. Voting ‘No’ still represents the least discriminatory way forward for Ireland.

Nick Park: Learning from Celtic Christianity

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Nick Park, Executive Director of EAI, looks back, and also looks forward, to the best days of Irish Christianity.

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The Irish-American historian, Thomas Cahill, refers to certain key events as ‘the hinges of history.’  These are periods in time when the world changed forever in a fundamental way, with no going back to the old order of things.  Such events might include the Renaissance and the Reformation, or the Industrial Revolution.

One such ‘hinge of history’ was the collapse of the Roman Empire. A system that had imposed its will upon most of the known world began to collapse, and the uncertainty and chaos which resulted impacted on everyone’s lives. Economic crises were accompanied by barbarian invasions and widespread predictions that the end of the world had arrived.

In the midst of such widespread fear and instability, Ireland assumed a place in history way out of proportion to its tiny size and population. Cahill has written about this in his popular book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”

On Easter of 433 AD, Patrick stood on the Hill of Slane in the Boyne Valley.  The druids had decreed that no fires were to be lit in the Kingdom that day until the King himself lit a fire in honour of his pagan gods.  Patrick lit a bonfire, causing the druids to cry out, “This fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished.” The fire continued to burn and Ireland experienced a national revival.

A Celtic Church grew out of Ireland and established monastic centres in Iona in Scotland and Lindisfarne in Northern England that would exercise great influence across Europe for several centuries.  These monastic centres were not places of retreat from the world, as in Eastern Christianity, but rather missions stations that prepared missionaries to go out into the world.  This missionary effort coincided with a period of confusion and lawlessness in Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and invasions by various barbarian tribes.  Pioneers such as Columba, Aidan, Columbanus and Kilian spread the Gospel far and wide.  Celtic missionaries travelled as far as Iceland and Russia, and it is even thought that one missionary, Brendan the Voyager, may have reached America in the Sixth Century.

Some historians have questioned how much the Celtic Church was really distinct from Rome in matters of doctrine, but that is to miss the point of what made the Celtic Church so significant.  The uniqueness of the Celtic Church was not its doctrinal differences, but its distance from the seat of political power.  The Celtic monasteries were perched on the edge of, and even beyond, the Empire’s crumbling borders.  This meant that their energies were able to concentrate on the conversion of unbelievers to Christ rather than in justifying or supporting Christendom’s Church/State project.  The Celtic monasteries became centres of learning where the Scriptures, and indeed many other manuscripts, were copied, distributed and preserved.  Eventually, as Christendom re-established itself across Europe, Celtic Christians were persuaded to toe the line and lost their missionary zeal.  In the Twelfth Century King Henry II of England was authorised by the Pope to invade Ireland and to force the Irish Church to conform to the rule of Rome and to adopt the practices of the English Church.  This was officially achieved at the Synod of Cashel in 1172.

Now let’s fast forward to the year 2017. Once again we find ourselves in a place where Irish Christians have fundamental choices to make. We are living through one of those ‘hinges of history’ – witnessing the collapse of Christendom and the onset of secularism.

It is important that we do not confuse Christendom with Christianity. ‘Christendom’ refers to the Church’s domination of society and culture, often through an alliance with the political powers. It refers to Christians enforcing their will upon others. True Christianity is something very different. Christianity does not need political power or the patronage of the State in order to flourish. Indeed, some of the greatest periods of Christian growth have occurred in the face of outright hostility and persecution.

Europe, for a variety of reasons, finds itself at the cutting edge of secularisation and the collapse of Christendom. This has led some to refer to ‘Post-Christian Europe.’ However, it may well be that true Christianity, by which we mean the faith of those who have chosen to follow Christ rather than just conform to an outwardly Christian culture, is healthier in Europe than it has been for many years.

So where do we fit in? Do we believe that God still has a place in history for the Irish Church? This question has particular relevance to Irish Evangelicals who, if we are honest, have often been content to copy what seems to be working for our brethren in other countries, particularly the United States. What should an authentically Irish expression of the Church look like today?

I would suggest that it should have some of the following characteristics:

  1. A radical commitment to putting Jesus first, laying aside every other loyalty based on nationality or ethnicity.
  2. A consistent emphasis on sharing the Good News about Jesus in ways that genuinely care for people. Not just getting people to pray a ‘sinner’s prayer’ – but showing them how to follow Jesus in ways that are life-changing and transformational.
  3. The humility to listen to other people, even when we find what they say to be profoundly uncomfortable.
  4. The ability to ask the right questions, instead of trying to always be the people with the right answer.
  5. Identifying with the weak, the marginalised and the oppressed.
  6. A servant spirit, rejecting the temptation to corrupt the Gospel by building our own power and prestige.
  7. An emphasis on inspiring, equipping and releasing every Christian to fulfil their purpose and calling.

Ruth Garvey-Williams: The state of the Irish Church … and how it is addressing the needs of Irish society

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Ruth Garvey Williams, Editor of VOX magazine, draws on observations from five years of Finding Faith tours.

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Blind men and women were led up to a unicorn. Each one encountered the animal in a different way. One touched the hard, sharp horn jutting from the unicorn’s forehead. Another stroked the creature’s silky sides, while a third held the rough strands of its tail. Hard, soft, rough, smooth… each person would describe the animal differently.

Introduction

One of the privileges of travelling all over the island of Ireland, visiting every county and a huge spectrum of denominations, types and styles of church, has been the opportunity to experience different perspectives. I have heard (and shared) your stories, asked a thousand questions and seen for myself what is happening. The resulting issues of VOX magazine have been hugely encouraging and inspirational but they have also highlighted common themes – some exciting and some troubling. We are facing a rapidly changing society, which brings both threats and opportunities… the church itself has been through seismic changes, especially over the last 40 years… and our attitude to all this depends on where we are standing.

Here I bring together some of the key themes that have emerged from my travels and meetings with so many of you over the last five years. These observations have been shaped and informed by comments from church leaders and individual Christians that have been repeated so many times, in so many different contexts, that I could not help but take notice!

Throughout scripture, the prophets were often asked the question, “What do you see?” Reflecting prayerfully on what I have seen and heard, I sense once again God’s passionate love for His bride and His longing that we will fulfil our calling to “go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19 – 20). I believe there is cause for rejoicing and encouragement, but I also believe there are reasons for lament and repentance. If we can embrace both, then we are truly men (and women) of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32).

A time of opportunity and expectation

Irish society, our cultural context and the spiritual atmosphere have changed dramatically over recent years. Christian leaders in every county are expressing a sense of expectation and even excitement. There is a new optimism that was missing a decade ago. At community level, especially in rural areas and smaller towns, many churches have experienced increased acceptance and credibility as they live out their faith in action. In cities, there has been a rise of curiosity and a willingness to engage.

Here are just a few of the comments:

  • There is a sense that something is stirring.
  • We’ve had a sense that something is about to happen.
  • I think at this time there is a real openness. When you talk to people there are not the same barriers there once were.
  • I believe the spiritual atmosphere is changing rapidly.
  • People are spiritually hungry. They are saying, “Show us your God” not “Tell us about Him.” 

    First things first – getting back to basics

    One of the threats to growth that was highlighted repeatedly was the risk of losing our “first love” as individuals and as leaders. Too often, burnout and discouragement are hidden behind a veneer of spirituality, and not just in the traditionally “tough” rural areas. Busy “successful” pastors as well as struggling church planters were among those I’ve met who are battling weariness of heart and soul.

At the same time, there is a renewed commitment to exploring ancient rhythms of retreat, contemplation and reflection, which is healthy and exciting. Can we learn from our past and re-discover something of our rich spiritual heritage?

Here’s what some leaders had to say about this:

  • The most important thing about ministry is my own personal relationship with Jesus.
  • If things get too busy, we won’t have time to spend with God. I feel God is saying to us, “I’m more interested in you as an individual than in anything you can ever do for me.”
  • Sadly ministry can be a hindrance to a vibrant personal walk with the Lord. You can be reading the Bible for the next sermon rather than for yourself. It is vital to be continually seeking to renew yourself.

    We need to stop thinking, “This is a good thing to do,” and ask, “Is it a God thing?”

    Breaking down barriers – the challenge of unity

    There are some good news stories of Christian unity and united efforts to reach out and /or pray together from around the country but in my opinion, disunity stands over and above all other issues as a fault line in the Irish church that too many are content to side-line or even ignore. There are divisions north and south, between Catholic and Protestant, between old churches or denominations and new(er) churches, between Pentecostal and reformed traditions, between urban and rural, between Christians in different social classes, between Irish and immigrant-led churches and between individual churches, leaders and individuals. Even “united” events are still tending only to attract particular tribes, flavours or traditions of the church. We have a long way to go – some feel optimistic, others are struggling with this issue.

    Here are a few of your comments:

  • There is more of an understanding that we have our flavours but the gospel is something that unites us. In the past, our divisions were detrimental to God being able to move. Now the barriers are starting to come down and we are starting to see more and more unity.
  • I really do believe that God works through the local church. He loves the church. It’s not about the name across the door, whatever that is!
  • The church needs to come together, stronger, to do the work we need to do. The only way to do that is in brotherhood and unity through prayer.
  • It is heart-breaking when the attitude is “my way or the highway.” Too often if you don’t do what I say or believe what I believe then I will have nothing to do with you and I will feel that I have every right to disrespect you, denounce you or even question your salvation.
  • I want to see a growth of trust and solidarity, which will lead us to reconciliation

    I long to see unity in our diversity, which springs out of humility and reconciliation.

    Relationship / authenticity

    Recognising the importance of relationship and authenticity in Irish society has been crucial to seeing lasting impact in individual lives and communities. Wherever Christians and churches are prioritising relationships over programmes and genuine love and long-term commitment over one-off outreaches, they are starting to see transformation. When clear and courageous proclamation of the gospel accompanies and flows out of these priorities, lives are being changed.

    Here’s what you said:

    • You might impress people at a distance but you impact them up close!
    • Superficiality won’t cut it. People are looking for reality!
    • When you talk to people there are not the same barriers there once were. We need to reach out and make connections with people. There are a lot of broken and hurting people.

      People are craving authenticity. They are tired of the image and pretend and falseness. They are tired of religion. We are seeing a culture crumbling. They want something real.

      Fear or faith? Christendom or salt?

      “We asked people what they thought about Christianity. They were bitter, even venomous when it came to talking about Church!”

Rampant secularism, media bias, erosion of Christian values, divisive referendums on moral issues, rapidly changing “norms”… for many Christians, Ireland is an uncomfortable place to live and many church leaders have expressed deep concern (even fear?). Social changes in the last 40 years have had the effect of a tsunami on much that the church holds dear. However, there appear to be two distinct ways of approaching the changes.

Fear tends to breed defensive and even aggressive attitudes, especially when long-held freedoms and privileges are snatched away. This can lead to a siege mentality or “us and them” culture wars. Perhaps it is important to note that it is Christendom, rather than Christianity that expects a position of power and privilege. The way of Jesus and the way of the cross are characterised by humility, sacrifice and weakness.

Faith approaches changes in society without panic and with a recognition that the church in minority and the church under fire is often at its most vibrant and influential. We may, or may not, be able to change laws and governments. We can, however, “shine like stars;” we can live such “salty” lives that people will take note that we have been with Jesus!

Here’s how a few Irish leaders expressed it:

  • We are pleasantly out of step. We are very much counter culture… a voice crying in the wilderness. And it is okay!
  • I think there is huge opportunity for the church as we come out of kilter with society. It is increasingly easy to be distinctive as Christians but the challenge is to be credible. If we are out of kilter but credible, that is exciting.

    Bad news has gone viral. We need to celebrate any good news there is.

    Church without walls / whole life mission

    There is an increasing understanding and embracing of whole life mission among churches across Ireland. It is here that we see exciting areas of growth and development within the church in recent years. Finding creative and innovative ways of reaching out and addressing the needs of the community is increasingly the norm, rather than exception. A growing theology and understanding of how our faith can be worked out in every sphere of life and influence has helped to fuel changing attitudes and break down the faith /life divide that was prevalent in previous generations.

    There are myriad examples probably best read in the pages of VOX magazine than in a bullet list but suffice to say that this is an area where many Irish churches are doing well. There are always dangers of “treating symptoms rather than causes” or simply jumping onto the latest trendy idea as a quick fix but overall most churches are doing more than they think!

    In cities, towns and villages around the country, the church is actively addressing the needs of Irish society and although it is unnoticed and unheralded by the media, it doesn’t have to be. Those who benefit do notice, and that is what matters.

    Here are a few of your comments:

  • There are always pressures but there are also lots of opportunities to be Christ-like.
  • We need to be living out church in our community. Sunday morning service is that sacred cow that we should probably slaughter every now and again.

    In a place like this, talk is cheap. As a church we want to be the hands and feet of Jesus!

    In for the long haul

    Taking a long-term view of ministry has proved important, especially outside the large urban centres. Where churches have carried out research, followed community development principles and addressed the deeper symptoms rather than just the causes of societal problems, they have seen the greatest impact. One of the unmet challenges is a deeper understanding of how to engage with the past, as well as the present. Wrongs perpetrated by the church as a whole have seriously undermined the work of the gospel and often continue to do so. Can we address the past in a way that is healing and transformative?

Here are some of your comments:

  • We experience lovely highlights but we need to keep the long view. People are sick of quick fixes.
  • Persistence overcomes resistance. We need to keep at it and keep at it; if we keep sowing we will reap. I don’t have to be the one who sees it. We need to have a 100-year vision, passing it on from one generation to the next.
  • Irish people are curious but they are also innately suspicious of anything. They don’t trust the church. They will wait you out. You have to stay there a long time and you have to become part of the community. You have to [mess] up and let them see how you deal with real life and how you own up to your mistakes.Still only scratching the surfaceThe success stories of vibrant growing churches in our cities (while wonderful) can mask the reality that there are still significant areas of rural Ireland with little or no effective witness and major urban centres where life-giving, Bible believing churches remain a tiny minority. Here are a few of the challenging comments you made:

    • Too often we’re so busy focusing on our (tiny) Christian community and we neglect the vast majority of people outside the church. When we supply Christian resources to Christians we are pandering to the minority. It’s time we took risks and got out of our bubble.

    Why are we not more dissatisfied with our tiny impact? Reaching / touching 1% of the population is not good enough when there are 99% who are lost!

    Generational divide

    Highlighted through the VOX magazine Young Adults survey in 2015 (data available on request) and the recent Barna Research conducted on behalf of CIY (Christ in Youth), there is a significant generational gap within the Irish church as a whole. While some newer churches continue to attract young adults, in many other churches there is an on-going decline in the numbers of younger members. And those who stay within the church often have different priorities to the older generations leading to conflict or disillusionment. These are telling comments by young adults taken from the VOX survey:

    • Ease off the religion and turn up the love. Get out of the pews and into the streets and love people even if (especially if) it hurts. Stop worrying about the hot topic issues of the day (and looking foolish) and add some practicality to the theology by reaching out to people.

    • I want to see everyone actively engaged and serving as a response to what God has done in their lives.

    I would love to see us move away from the “but-that’s-how-it’s-always-been-done” attitude and instead think more strategically about how we do church.
    What would most benefit those who are outside the church?”

Luther – Trick or Treat? An Essay to Mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

trick-or-treat-it-s-martin-luther-j6ybksys

On the 31st of October 1517, the greatest Trick or Treat in history occurred. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, triggering a Reformation which reshaped the map of Europe, creating categories of ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ that would dominate Irish history for centuries to come.

We might expect this anniversary to see Catholics decrying the Reformation as a Trick, and Protestants celebrating it as a Treat – but reactions have been much more nuanced. Pope Francis kicked off the year of commemoration at Lutheran services in Sweden, praising Luther as “a great reformer”. The Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, coordinating the Ecumenical Bible Week for 2017, chose to place a special emphasis on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. Many Protestants and Evangelicals also see Luther’s role in history as being a bit of a mixed bag.

One problem is that the Reformation, in much of Europe, simply replaced Catholic Christendom with Protestant Christendom. It didn’t ask the hard questions of Christendom itself – whether the political alliance between Church and State really represented the New Testament Gospel of Christ.

Many Evangelicals see themselves as part of the Anabaptist tradition, where the Church should be a minority that speaks as society’s conscience from the margins, not occupying seats of wealth and power. Luther, of course, enthusiastically supported the persecution of Anabaptists in his day, suggesting that since they were so fond of baptism then they should all be drowned! A significant portion of Protestant Christians in Ireland today practise baptism for adults, not infants, and so would have been considered by Luther as similarly dangerous heretics who deserve to be suppressed.

Given the increasing incivility and name-calling of modern politics, all Christians should repudiate the invective and vitriol characteristic of Luther’s disputes with Catholicism. One of his hymns contained the line: “Lord, shield us with Thy Word, our Hope, And smite the Moslem and the Pope.”

Any consideration of Luther’s influence should also take into account his appalling antisemitism. His 65,000-word treatise ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ was quoted extensively by the Nazis as moral justification for the Holocaust. It seems to me that an appropriate way for Evangelical Christians to mark Luther’s anniversary would be to repent for his antisemitism, and for those Christians who failed miserably to oppose Hitler and his policies. To be sure, there were notable exceptions such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. Yet the majority of German Protestants and Catholics either supported Hitler or remained silent, and Luther’s contribution to this should not be excused or minimised.

So, given all these negatives, should we celebrate Luther’s anniversary at all? I would argue that we should, because he emphasised one important principle – that each person should have the freedom to interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than unthinkingly accepting the dogma of any religious institution. This provided the impetus for religiously motivated human rights reformers such as the anti-slavery abolitionists, those who fought poverty and people trafficking in Victorian London, and Martin Luther King’s campaign against racial segregation.

Indeed, even those who reject all forms of religion have good reason to celebrate Luther’s 500th anniversary. When Galileo wanted to share his scientific research, revolutionising how we all think of the universe around us, the Inquisition prohibited its publication. Galileo’s friends smuggled the manuscripts to Holland where, due to the Reformation’s greater tolerance for new ideas, they could be published freely.

My atheist friends might also reflect on theologian Alister McGrath’s claim that Luther was partly responsible for the development of modern atheism! Once you allow the freedom to interpret the Bible for oneself, you inevitably pave the way for an environment where others can ultimately choose to reject the Bible altogether without fear of persecution.

Here is a good reason why we can view the Reformation, with some qualifications, as a Treat rather than a Trick. Despite Luther’s own personal intolerance, the core principle of his Reformation has helped shape a more tolerant society where those of all faiths, and those of none, have freedom of belief. And that, for all of us, is surely something worth celebrating.

Park

Nick Park is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.

Fraser Hosford: God & the Cultures of Modern Ireland – Luke 15

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Fraser Hosford, Pastor of Dublin West Community Church, ties Ireland’s current cultural divide in with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Prodigal

Ireland has changed enormously as a country over the last three decades. We have become a wealthy country, notwithstanding the recent economic crisis, and also an increasingly secular country with the Catholic Church losing its hegemony over society. These changes are not just tangential details about Ireland but defining issues that have dramatically changed the culture of Ireland, how life is lived, the values that are held and how the country feels. And while these changes are clear they have not been absolute and it can be said that there are two Irelands today, the old Ireland with its religious feel and a new Ireland more secular and notably materialistic. Furthermore, the sand is shifting as one culture continues to replace another one over time. Many people stand with a foot in either culture or would disassociate themselves from both and, of course, different subcultures exist within the broader culture providing its layers, subtleties and tensions. But two cultures do co-exist albeit not peacefully as demonstrated by the recurring culture wars over social issues like marriage, divorce and abortion. Neither culture is perfect, each containing its own blind spots. What is key from a faith perspective is that God continues to love people of both of these, and other, cultures, and that God has got good news for both of these cultures.

One of the favourite stories of Jesus is the story of the Prodigal Son recorded in Luke 15. It is better titled the parable of the two sons as it contains a message for both the parties which the sons represent. Intriguingly the two sons mirror the two Irelands outlined above, with the old Ireland similar to the older son and the new Ireland similar to the younger son.

The Older Son

While traditionally the focus is placed on the younger son, the prodigal, this story really is about the older son. Luke 15 begins with the grumbling of the religious leaders at Jesus’ interaction with those deemed sinners. Jesus’s three parables are told in response, and so the Pharisees are the intended audience.

The older son is presented as a religious person, religious in the bad sense of the word. He comes across as stern, anti-fun, and puritanical in terms of focus on behaviour. We are told that he was angry and refused to join in the celebrations. His attitude to his younger brother is judgmental, he has squandered the father’s property and that is not forgotten despite his return. This attitude is clearly portrayed as negative in Jesus’ story.

What is revealing is that his words to his father concentrate more on himself than his brother. His words evoke a tone of resentment as he focuses on his own work on the estate and his lack of reward, “not even a young goat”. His case is overstated because as the oldest son he would have been entitled to his inheritance and thus was ultimately working for himself, in a longer term perspective. The culture of the time was that he would receive two thirds of the estate, with the younger son having already taken one third as his “share”, hence why the father points out that “everything I have is yours”. This overstatement shows a self- righteousness where the older brother’s emotional reaction is driven by his own sense of deserving more. This is the brother who stayed with the father yet he too is far away despite his geographical proximity, distant relationally as his association with the father is characterised by “slaving” and “never disobeying”. When talking to his father he doesn’t call him by name or even by title, just by the impersonal pronoun “you”. Here is a son who does things for his father, rather than enjoying being with his father and sharing in his joy, such as at the party that is being thrown.

This view of himself and his work is presented in contrast to the profligacy of his younger brother. His work centred life distances him from both his brother and father. There is no fraternal excitement or hug, by not entering the party there isn’t even a personal reunion. He is called “this son of yours” almost eschewing all direct connection with his brother, they merely share the same father. This is contrasted with the attitude of the father who was searching for the son, even though his leaving was a more personal betrayal to the father than to the brother. Surely the eldest son should have been involved in the pursuit of his younger brother.

There is much of the old Ireland in the older son. The Irish state that evolved post- independence was an overtly religious nation. The 1937 constitution included a special place for the Catholic Church. The vast majority of the country belonged to this one religious tradition and mass going rates were amongst the highest in the world. This religiosity continued for well over half a century with the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979 attracting over 1,250,000 people, over one third of the population of the Republic of Ireland. Ireland’s nature as a religious nation was not just shown in spiritual observance but also in political power. The Catholic Church wielded unmatched influence over moral and social policy. This was best evidenced in the infamous ‘Mother and Child Scheme’ of 1951. The Catholic hierarchy opposed the introduction of the scheme for moral reasons and philosophical reasons, fearing it increased the power of the state too much. They wrote to the Taoiseach John A. Costello and, together with the support of the medical profession, succeeded in having the scheme abandoned and the minister responsible, Dr Noel Browne, resigned. In the 1980s as the culture wars developed the Catholic Church were the prime opponents against referendums to liberalise the laws on divorce and abortion.

The culture associated with this religious practice also has shades of the older brother and the Pharisees. The caricature of faith in the old Ireland fits with that of the older son: working for God became slaving, and living for God became obeying. With faith so embedded in the culture it was inevitable that people’s experience of faith was through ritual. Similarly, with faith so dominant numerically it was natural that its morality became a cultural norm. And so faith tended to focus on ones adherence to religious rituals and requirements rather than on the person of God. Anecdotally many Irish people’s dissatisfaction with faith, across denominations, revolves around an experience of law-keeping, and a theme of the culture wars is the danger of religion telling us what to do. Furthermore, only such an outward based faith, as opposed to an inward heart faith, could explain the dramatic falls in mass attendance in one generation.

Alongside this, many would testify to a sense of the judgementalism of the old Ireland with regard to the moral expression of faith. It is seen in the sad and dark parts of our history where those who didn’t live up to the standards of the church, the younger sons who broke the rules, were punished and hidden from society. In fact these tended to be our younger daughters, as young unmarried mothers were sent in great numbers to mother and baby homes, not allowed to keep and rear their own children in full view of the broader society. The 2009 Ryan Report detailed the lives of disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children who were again hidden, sent to industrial and reformatory schools where they suffered neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. These events continue to cast a long shadow over the Irish church today.

The Younger Son 

The younger son lends his name to the traditional title of the story, the parable of the prodigal son. He is the first character in the story we meet properly, and we are introduced to him with his opening demand “Father, give me my share of the estate”. He asks for and receives his share of the family property and heads off far from home. It is this leaving of the Father, the God character in the story, that resembles the new Ireland. One of, if not the, key distinctive between the old and the new Ireland is the attitude to faith and religion. It seems that Ireland has abandoned God just as the younger son abandoned his father in the story of Jesus.

Ireland in the last few decades has gone quite far down the path of secularisation. This is seen most clearly in religious observance with mass attendance having decreased by two thirds. As recently as the 1970s, mass attendance in Ireland was above 90%. Recent research suggests that only 30% of Irish Catholics attend mass on a weekly basis. And in Dublin this figure has dropped to below 20%, according to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.ii Census data shows that those who identify as Catholic has dropped form 94% in 1971 to 78% in 2016.

But in Ireland this secularisation is not just a drift away from the church, but a revolt against it. Nearly half of people view the Catholic Church in an (mostly or very) unfavourable light; and only amongst the over 55s does the church have a strong ‘favourable’ ranking. While these statistics don’t translate into a full rejection of the church, as it receives more favourable ratings on its teachings, it is still a dramatic change from the Ireland of old. These views are largely driven by the scandals, including child abuse, that have engulfed the church since the turn of the century.

Returning to Luke 15, it is clear that money plays a large part in the story. The younger son’s initial demand is for his share of the father’s wealth. Enjoying the lifestyle money brings was clearly part of the plan as He leaves when he receives the money, and squanders the wealth. The cultural background to this part of the story is very interesting. Ken Bailey shows us that in a Middle Eastern culture where an inheritance was only received on the death of a father, and elders were honoured and respected, asking to receive an inheritance now was akin to wishing that your father was dead.

This juxtaposition of the father and property makes clear that the son wanted wealth more than his relationship with father. And a large part of the secularisation of Ireland occurred alongside a ground-breaking decade of increasing prosperity. Ireland in the late 1990s and early 2000s became known globally as the Celtic Tiger as soaring economic growth helped it catch up with the income levels of Western Europe. This led to a great surge of materialism as what was once out of reach was now accessible. And coinciding with the loss of religious observance and trust in the church, the offer of prosperity, comfort and career success was on hand to fill the spiritual and moral gap that had emerged in many Irish hearts.

These Tiger years of course ended in an infamous property crash that brought a large scale recession to the country. Does this mirror the famine experienced by the younger son? That seems to be stretching the parallels too far. If anything the devastation of the crash years continued the focus on money, albeit with making ends meet as unemployment soared, wages were cut and taxes were increased.

The Father 

The final character in this story is the father who represented God to the original audience and still does today. And he paints a picture of a truly loving and graceful God.

This father assents to the wish of the younger son for his inheritance and so divides up his property; an act that grants freedom to the person of His son. Then after the son leaves we see a father who actively seeks for his lost son. We are told that “while he was still a long way off his father saw him” which speaks of a father who was out looking, scanning the horizon trying to find his son. Not only was there a longing for the son to return, but it was an active longing. The American preacher Tony Campolo uses the example of a parent who carries a picture in their wallet of their child to convey the heart of this father who misses his son.

Joy is the emotion which shines through this father. He acted in joyful abandon when he finally saw his lost son, “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son …”. The word translated compassion here means ‘innards’ or insides and is telling us that the emotion the father experienced was uncontainable, it just rose up within him, instantaneously and he just had to run to his son. This run of the father went against what was culturally acceptable for a man in his position: to literally ‘race’ meant he had to hold up his gown at the front exposing his legs which was considered humiliating. But this father didn’t care, he wasn’t self-conscious in front of the rest of the village, he just wanted to be with his son. He was simply excited to see his son again and ran to him, hugged him, kissed him and threw a party for him. It evokes images of parents with their younger children where the joy and fun of the toddler years makes parents throw caution to the wind. I think of holding up my own little boy above my head and spinning him around when he was about 18 months, it was a dangerous game as the drool flowed freely but it was all worth it just to see his smile and his giggle.

This joy is expressed again when the father cuts short the son’s speech as he tries to apologise, in a desire just to get the party started. It is an extraordinary welcome. There is a kiss of reconciliation, which prevents the son from kissing the father’s hand or feet. The son is fully welcomed back in as a son given status and authority with a ring and a special robe, and a party is thrown for him. This would all be in stark contrast to the slander that the local village would have thrown at him (Bailey).

The importance of joy is further emphasized when we consider the three stories in Luke 15 together. In each story there is joy when the lost treasures are found; all three stories end in rejoicing; and the joy is over the individual in each story, there is one lost sheep, one lostcoin, and one lost son.

This joy is in the person of the son, simply in the fact that he returns and he is present. As such it overlooks his actions and indeed his betrayal in the past. The theological term for this is grace, a love and mercy that is undeserved, that the father seeks the son and then rejoices in the son despite his actions. The son only returns out of self-interest because there will be food to spare at home and he is starving to death. He is clearly aware of the manner in which he left and has a speech rehearsed and intends to work for his keep. But the father welcomes home back as a son and doesn’t even let him finish the speech, his joy overflows even before the apology can be finished. A full apology is not necessary for the son to experience the joy of the father.

Implications for Ireland

So where does this leave the church in Ireland today? Are people rejecting the older son, when it should have been the father who is on offer? Are they turning away from religion, and not necessarily the God of grace presented in this story? The contrast between the two is dramatic within the story, they represent entirely different types of faith and indeed different types of God.

If this parallel is true, or true for significant sections of society, then it changes the simple western narrative of a religious nation losing its faith as it modernises and becomes more progressive. First, it defines the nature of the initial faith and highlights its flaws. The older son in the parable didn’t have a right relationship with the father either. Second, it suggests another reason for the loss of faith: it was an inevitable reaction to a self-righteous expression of religion. A faith based on rules and the rituals is a faith based on human elements making it inherently unstable. It is no wonder that the new Ireland departed from the God that was presented by the old Ireland. A God interested in the external only can never capture the heart. Just as a baby smiles when their parent smiles at them, so an experience of heart faith has to be rooted in a God of the heart.

The good news for Ireland is that a loss of faith is never final, the father of this story continues to seek out the younger lost son. Grace means that the longing the father has for the son overrides the son’s leaving, and he will be welcomed back in with joy. The rest of the scriptures show us that God uses his church to reach those who are lost. And so the Irish church will be used to help find those who have moved away from faith, but the Irish church needs to move from the attitude of the older son to that of the father. Integrity will be paramount after the scandals of recent years; humility will be necessary in recognition of the this past; a non-judgemental attitude will be required and this will be sorely tested with a new abortion referendum on the horizon, but grace after all is about a disposition of love no matter how emotive our disagreement is with people. It will be costly, love always is: witness how the freedom the Father allowed the son led to huge loss for him. But the joy eventually came.

So a revival of faith in this country will not signal a return to the past, as the father’s conversation with the older son makes clear. Rather the nature of faith needs to change. This change cannot happen simply as a matter of how we present the faith, it has to be a genuine inward change. The contrast between the father and the older son is one of emotional reactions that flow from the heart.

 

Critically, the grace that flows from the father is on offer to us too. The father doesn’t rebuke the older son for the humiliation of not entering the party; instead of punishing him for his insolence, the father leaves the party to plead with him outside. He is still a son and one the father longs to join the celebration. It is sinners after all that Jesus welcomes and this parable shows that the religious son is as much a sinner as the irreligious son. For us, both Irelands are lost but God still loves and seeks out both Irelands.

And here the story ends unfinished with the listeners left hanging awaiting the older son’s response to his father’s words. And the readers of the Gospel are left wondering what the response of the Pharisees will ultimately be to the ministry of Jesus. And the story of Ireland remains unfinished for us today too. The door remains ajar, that is in the nature of grace.

Patrick Mitchel: Reflections on Evangelicals in Post-Christendom Ireland

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Patrick Mitchel, reflects on how Evangelical Christians can bear faithful and effective witness to Christ in a post-Christendom context.

postchristendom

REFLECTION 1: OUR POST-CHRISTENDOM CONTEXT

These notes are reflections and questions for Christians living in an increasingly post- Christendom Ireland.

By ‘post-Christendom’ I mean that the socio-political consensus that placed Christianity at the controlling centre of social, political, and religious affairs, is fast evaporating. Contemporary Ireland, as with most of Western Europe, is moving from a Christendom mode to a post-Christendom mode.

Christians in Ireland cannot avoid having to do business with the baleful legacy of Christendom ‘Irish style’. Such has been the horror associated with a church exercising freely given and virtually unlimited, religious, social and political power, that many people in modern Ireland are convinced that ‘religion is bad for you’ and are determined to construct a society free from its negative influence

There is a strong hermeneutic of suspicion’ regarding religion in Ireland today. As one author puts it, religion and theology are ‘viewed as a trivial, if not malign, influence in political life and are largely ignored in political deliberation.’ That’s an astonishing reversal from the days of ‘Catholic Ireland’.

So the shaping assumptions of a post-Christendom liberal secular democracy include a commitment to values which are optimistically understood as providing a path towards a healthier, fairer and more advanced society than that of the religious past. They include:

– Pluralism: where the reality of the plurality of cultures, religions, and beliefs within modern societies makes it a necessity for the state to accommodate all and privilege none. Political liberalism seeks to achieve this by making the state ‘neutral’ in terms of religious preference and therefore, in effect, intentionally non-religious.

– Tolerance: where all beliefs and behaviours within the law should be tolerated.

– Individual choice and human rights: Of critical importance here is the liberal belief that human freedom of choice is an ultimate right. Since individual choice is ‘a good thing’, the more individual freedom any society has, the better or freer or more advanced that society will become.

– Increasing separation of church and state: in the sense of dismantling the legacy of Christendom where churches had central and controlling positions

– Equality: where by law citizens must all be treated equally regardless of their beliefs or lifestyles.

So, if this is a reasonably fair description of affairs, some questions:

What expectations and ambitions should Christians have in terms of influence and impact within a post-Christendom culture? As a local church?

 

REFLECTION 2: CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT

Some Christians seem to assume their job is simply to assert Christian truth and (somehow) expect society to order itself to Christian principles and all will be well. This is what Oliver O’Donovan calls (in the quote below) ‘abstract idealism’.

Other Christians appear afraid of speaking with a distinctly Christian perspective. What other voice does the church have but to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ the living Lord? This failure of nerve leads to what O’Donovan calls ‘colourless assimilation.’

“The church will frame its political witness with authenticity, avoiding the characteristic evils of abstract idealism and colourless assimilation, when it stands self-consciously before that horizon and confesses that it looks for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” (Desire of the Nations, 288)

So the question at the heart of any cultural engagement is how to be ‘in the world but not of it’. Or how to live out the tension between O’Donovan’s ‘colourless assimilation’ and ‘abstract idealism’.

Similarly, John Stackhouse, in his Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World, talks about ‘cultural transformers‘ versus those advocating a form of ‘holy distinctness’ .

The ‘cultural transformers’ tend to have a ‘take it over’ approach. In other words, it is the pursuit of the goal of shaping society according to Christian values. Generally, more established Christian denominations have had this approach.

An opposite stance to cultural transformation is what John Stackhouse labels as ‘refuse all entanglements’. It leads to a vision of ‘holy distinctness’, of a definite Christian community living in contradistinction to the rest of society. Think some forms of Pentecostalism and older Anabaptist communities like the Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish. The Anabaptist tradition finds its most eloquent voices in the writings of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

‘Holy distinctness’ thinkers criticise cultural transformers as pursuing a vision that is both unrealistic and undesirable.

It is unrealistic in that the cultural tide that swept the church into power and created over a millennium of Christendom culture in the West is fast receding. If Christians imagine that it can be stopped or reversed, they will be disappointed.

It is undesirable in that, while it is certainly a gross simplification to say that everything to do with Christendom since Constantine was a disaster, untold damage has been done to the authenticity of the church’s witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ by boundaries between church and state becoming blurred. Just look at the contemporary legacy of Catholic Ireland for an example.

What is your goal and dream for your area? What is your church’s attitude or ‘posture’ to Irish culture? To your local town or city?

 

REFLECTION 3: Five realities of life and witness in a post- Christendom Ireland

I’m suggesting that Christians need to engage with at least 5 political, cultural and spiritual realities as they engage with Irish culture. Here’s the first:

1.Realism about the ambiguity of faithful Christian discipleship in a post-Christendom culture

A challenge for Christians is how to deal realistically and faithfully with the ambiguity of life in a plural democracy. In The Bible in Politics, Richard Bauckham makes the following interesting observation

“… we need to recognize that the political material in the Bible consists largely of stories about and instructions addressed to political societies very different from our own … The adaptations needed to transfer biblical teaching on personal morality from its cultural situation to ours are comparatively easily made, but a more imaginative and creative hermeneutic is necessary for the Bible to speak to modern political life.’

An authentic theological engagement must have a dual nature as it negotiates the tension between an eschatologically orientated faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and a simultaneous active commitment, shaped by kingdom of God values, to working for the wellbeing and renewal of contemporary culture. In other words, walking between what O’Donovan called ‘abstract idealism’ and ‘colourless assimilation’.

2. Realism about the implications of Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’

Jesus’ commanded his followers to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ and to love those that do not love in return (Luke 6:31-32). Yet, there is often little or no discussion of what it means in practice to love the ‘Other’ in many Christian responses to life within a plural democracy despite its absolutely central place in biblical ethics (Lev.19:18; Matt.19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27; Rom.13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas 2:8).

This is an important and complex question, but one that needs to be thought through and seriously engaged with by those who are following Jesus. Neighbour love isn’t an optional extra of less importance to ‘defending the truth’ or arguing for your own rights.

The whole point of Jesus’ parable in Luke 10:25-37 is that neighbour love is costly, radical and shocking since it is generously offers grace across deep gulfs of hatred, suspicion and alienation. ‘Neighbour love’ does not pretend profound differences do not exist but rather, in the face of such difference, says ‘I love you as I would wish to be loved’ or ‘The rights we desire for ourselves, we are glad to affirm for others.’

Christian love is not self-centred, fearful or defensive. Rather, since love is relational, it should also involve a sacrificial commitment to meet, talk with and listen to the ‘Other’.

Since love is not equivalent to mere toleration or unthinking acceptance, how it is expressed in different contexts will require significant wisdom and discernment.

What constitutes ‘neighbour love’ towards others who hold opposing political and ethical views to your own? How as a local church can you ‘love your neighbours’ – especially those radically different to you?

3. A realistically positive attitude to pluralism

Christians, I suggest, should not only be willing to live with difference but should actively support the construction of a plural society where difference is tolerated. Baptist theologian Steve Holmes writes

‘we have demanded too often that the law be brought into accord with our moral intuitions, without exception or reserve. Evangelicals have probably been worse at this than most.’ Yet, he continues, ‘The intuition … that it is the moral duty of government to maintain a studied neutrality on certain matters, and to offer space and protection for its people to live in the way that they might choose, is a natively evangelical one.’

Christians cannot construct the ‘New Jerusalem’ here on earth by law or coercion. There are biblical sins that it is not realistic or desirable to treat as crimes. For example homosexuality, heterosexual adultery; greed, anger, selfishness and so on should not be legislated against in the courts.

As Christians seek their own religious freedom within a plural democracy, they need to realise that tolerance works both ways: the ‘rights’ we seek for ourselves we should also seek for others.

Christians’ defence of religious liberty should not be narrowly self-centered and self- interested. Rather it should defend the right of others to use God-given freedom to make choices about spiritual matters, even when this leads to actions antithetical to the gospel. This form of tolerance is a civic virtue. Irish Christians should welcome some aspects of pluralism.

However, let me be clear that this does not mean Christians simply embrace relativism or endorse beliefs contrary to their conscience. Living with difference within a fallen sinful world is quite distinct from affirming that difference. Contemporary debates about sex and gender in society and within the church take us right into the heart of this tension.

What does it look like for your church to be seeking not only our own rights and freedoms, but the rights and freedoms of others in a plural democracy?

4. Realism about Ireland’s Christendom past: the need for humility and a listening ear

As Christians in Ireland, we need to be realistic about the baleful legacy of Ireland’s recent past as well as political liberalism’s associated fear of privileging any one voice (especially a religious one) in the public square.

In such a context there is a need for humility, listening and dialogue by Christians, given Christianity’s negative associations with self-interest and power in Ireland.

As Christianity moves to the margins of Irish public life, evangelical Christians cannot assume that their views will be either heard or understood, especially given their status as a tiny minority of under 1% of the population.

This raises questions for Christians in terms of how and where they are engaged in building relationships with government, politicians and with individuals and organisations across the spectrum of modern Irish society.

On this point John Stackhouse proposes,

… we should use what influence we have left to help construct the sort of society in which we ourselves would like to live once our power to effect it has disappeared … How unseemly it is for Christians to fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honors and advantages of Christendom. There is no more prudent time to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

How can your local church ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’? How can we be taking steps to build relationships and listen to voices and groups for whom Christianity is irrelevant or malign?

5. Realism about the need to defend and argue for religious liberty

Christian Realism should, by definition, not equal naivety. Certainly post-Christendom will be significantly (and probably increasingly) less ‘hospitable’ to Christianity than Christendom. It is perfectly possible that an absolutist secularism will progressively encroach on religious freedom. Christian Realists will be aware of the spiritual ‘powers’ behind fallen human systems of thought and action.

Christians should be forthright defenders of religious liberty since deep in the heart of the biblical narrative is the pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the marginalised. Christians can make the case that agreeing boundaries to human behaviour leads to freedom, not oppression. For in a plural democracy not everyone can ‘win’ and it is destructive if one group does so.

A realistic Christian response will therefore have a healthy distrust of the human propensity to seek control and impose one’s values on others. Christians should resist a ‘hard secularism’ that criminalises, marginalizes, denigrates or dismisses religious views as illegitimate and results in legal actions like suing people in court for holding Christian views or forcing Christians to retreat from religiously motivated service in the public square – especially if it threatens the rights and dignity of the weak, vulnerable and powerless by the assertion of competing ‘rights’ by the powerful.

One way of resisting is by coherent persistent articulation of the need for a truly inclusive pluralism and exposing the inherent flaws in an ‘illiberal liberalism’ that leads to the oxymoron of an enforced mono-pluralism.

What are the trends in Irish secular democracy that threaten religious freedom? When and how should local churches and organisations like EAI be speaking out to defend religious liberty and give a voice to those on the margins?

prm1

Dr Patrick Mitchel
Senior Lecturer in Theology
Irish Bible Institute
http://www.ibi.ie http://www.faithinireland.wordpress.com

patrick@ibi.ie