‘Genocide’ – A Word That Matters

Last week, the US Congress, by 405 votes to 11, finally passed a resolution recognising the slaughter by Turkey of up to 1.5 million Armenians between 1914 and 1923 as ‘genocide.’ The Armenian genocide was a truly horrific attempt to exterminate an entire race of people. While it lacked the industrial efficiency of the Nazi Holocaust, it more than made up for it in savagery. As in the Holocaust, Armenians had their property confiscated, were herded into concentration camps, subjected to gassing and medical experimentation, and forced on death marches into the Syrian desert. Tens of thousands were burned alive in sheds and haylofts, taken out in boats and drowned in the Black Sea or the River Euphrates, thrown from clifftops or crucified.

It is somewhat ironic that Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who lost most of his extended family in the Nazi death camps, originally coined the term ‘genocide’ in 1943 to describe the Armenian experience, rather than the Nazi Holocaust.

It might seem long overdue for the US Congress, over 100 years later, to acknowledge that such actions constitute genocide. Shamefully, the Irish Government has yet to make such a statement, preferring instead to refer to “terrible events.” Political relationships and trade deals are undoubtedly important – but at what cost? What does it say about us as a nation if we are willing, for diplomatic or economic reasons, to gloss over one of the darkest chapters in human history?

Some might question why this matters today. It was all so long ago, and surely the use of a word like ‘genocide’ is simply a matter of semantics – isn’t it?

Earlier this year I joined Ireland’s small Armenian community for a Service of Remembrance in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. For them, their genocide is a very present cause of grief and pain.

Furthermore, refusing to acknowledge genocide for what it is facilitates similar atrocities in the future. In recent weeks, Turkey has used the same language it has historically used to deny the Armenian genocide to justify atrocities against the Kurds in Northern Syria. In 1939, a week before the invasion of Poland, Hitler asked his generals, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

In my own religious tradition (Evangelical Christianity) I have had cause to remind my fellow religionists that Martin Luther’s disgusting anti-Semitism (albeit on theological rather than racial grounds) was seized upon by the Nazis in partial justification for their crimes. I also see a disturbing tendency in right-wing Catholicism to rewrite history so that the senseless butchery of the Crusades becomes ‘a reasoned response to Islamic terror’!

This week marks the anniversary of another milestone in man’s inhumanity to man. On 9 November 1938, more than 1000 synagogues were burned or damaged in a concerted attack across Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and herded into concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. More than 7,500 Jewish business were looted. So much broken glass littered the streets that it became known as Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass. It was not just windows that were shattered, but any remaining hopes that Jews might have a future in the Third Reich.

This Tuesday, together with other Christians, I gathered with Ireland’s Jewish community to remember Kristallnacht and to listen to Susan Pollack, a Holocaust survivor. In conversation with Susan, I was moved to hear her say that Evangelical Christians are key to remembering the Holocaust. As she addressed the gathering, I found myself sitting beside one of the most inspiring speakers I have ever heard – the inimitable Tomi Reichental – a survivor of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. On Saturday 9 November, at 7pm, more Christians will be gathering in the National Boxing Stadium on Dublin’s South Circular Rd for a similar event to listen to Tomi. If you have never heard the firsthand testimony of a Holocaust survivor, I strongly urge you to make a point of attending.

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The passing of years and the limitations of human longevity mean we will only have limited opportunities to hear such testimonies first hand. But all of us, whether religious or not, have a responsibility to ensure that events such as Kristallnacht or the Armenian genocide are remembered for what they were.

Movie Review – ‘Unplanned’

On Friday night I went to the Omniplex cinema in Dundalk to watch the first showing there of ‘Unplanned’. This is a film that shares the story of Abby Johnson, director of a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Houston, Texas, and at one time Planned Parenthood’s employee of the year. Abby came to the realisation that she was not supervising the removal of clumps of cells, but rather that she was supervising the killing of unborn children.

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The film is certainly not light entertainment, not that you would expect it to be given the subject matter. There are several gory scenes – not showing an abortion in detail, but blood running through tubes, and blood dripping down legs, feet and onto the floor, and a representation on a black-and-white ultrasound screen of an unborn child being sucked out with an empty space left behind. Most of the procedures are left to the imagination, but you can understand why the censors gave it a 16 rating in Ireland. So not a film to take young children to.

Our views on films are often coloured by our expectations – for example, by the reviews that we read. I had heard glowing reports from pro-life sources about ‘Unplanned’ – so I made a point before viewing the film of reading a variety of reviews from international newspapers, magazines and film critics. These included pro-abortion websites that use euphemisms such as ‘reproductive justice’ (roughly translated as – ‘freedom to abort unborn children’). But I wanted to hear different perspectives so I could be more informed when deciding how effective this film could be when viewed by different kinds of people.

I came across three major objections to the film, so I went to watch it with these objections in mind. Because, if they were true, these objections would cause a serious problem if, for example, I wanted to take someone with me to view the film. I am passionately for the protection of all human life, but I despise dishonesty. I could not endorse a pro-life initiative that used dishonesty or misrepresentations to make its case.

The first objection was, according to a number of reviews, that the film portrays a foetus (unborn child) as moving around during a suction abortion procedure and trying to evade the doctor’s implements. Quite a bit has been made of this in certain newspapers, with it been claimed that this is medically impossible. A spokesperson for a pro-abotion group in Northern Ireland loudly protested that such a thing was not possible.

The second objection was that Planned Parenthood is portrayed in the film as a multi-billion dollar company, whereas it is really a non-profit.

The third objection was that the film exaggerates the numbers of abortions that go wrong – whereas the vast majority of abortions are perfectly safe (if not for the unborn child, then at least for the mother).

I have to say that, once I actually went and watched the film, I discovered that all three of these objections were not just unfounded, but dishonest. The film does not say that the foetus (unborn child) tried to avoid the doctor’s implements. Rather, the film shows the unborn child, on the ultrasound screen, wriggling around inside the womb, and the doctor says, “Oh, they all do that, that’s why we use the ultrasound.” Abby’s character is greatly impacted by these movements because it looks to her as if the child is trying to evade the abortion. Later in the film, when recounting why it made such an impact on her, she says, “It’s as if the baby was trying to get away.” The film nowhere claims that the unborn child really was taking evasive action, it simply gives Abby’s own perspective, that God used the movement of the child to give her such an impression and to open Abby’s eyes to the barbarity of the procedure that she was witnessing. So the allegation made in antagonistic reviews was extremely dishonest against the film.

The second allegation is that the film portrays Planned Parenthood as a multi-billion dollar company rather than as a non-profit. In fact, the film says quite clearly that Planned Parenthood is a non-profit – that, after all, was why Abby joined them in the first place. She wanted to help women by volunteering, and eventually being employed by, a non-profit concern. The film also states, quite correctly, that ‘non-profit’ is a tax status. It simply means that a company does not make profits for, or distribute dividends to, shareholders or directors. But a non-profit can still be run, particularly by those on the corporate side of the organisation, just as ruthlessly as any large business concern. Employees in non-profits, particularly in the upper echelons of its administration, can still command fat salaries and be judged on the basis of business turnover and market share. After all, we’ve seen this in the religious world, where some unscrupulous television evangelists have set up ‘non-profits’ that pay them obscene salaries and provide perks such as private jets. So there is no inconsistency whatsoever in the film’s assertion that, in Abby Johnson’s own experience, a non-profit concern acted like a multi-billion dollar business.

The third allegation was that the film exaggerates the number of abortions that go wrong. Once again, this is an unfounded and dishonest accusation against the film. There are only two incidences in the film of abortions that went wrong, and both of them are included, not because they are representative of the whole, but because they are key elements of Abby Johnson’s own story. One was Abby’s own second abortion, where taking an abortion pill proved to be much more traumatic and painful than she had been led to expect. Obviously, this had a huge impact on her, so its inclusion in the film is perfectly reasonable. The second instance of an abortion going catastrophically wrong was where the climic where Abby worked nearly lost a young girl through blood-loss. The whole point of recounting this incident is not that an abortion went wrong, but rather that the clinic covered it up to avoid adverse publicity. Abby was complicit in that cover-up, and the stress this caused her was another key element in her eventual change of mind and heart. Indeed, the film goes on to quote Abby as saying that, during her time with Planned Parenthood, she was complicit in the abortions of 22,000 unborn children. By only mentioned two botched abortions out of 22,000, the film actually underplays the number of abortions that go wrong by an extremely large margin.

So I was actually quite pleasantly surprised to discover that, when watching the film with the reservations of these three objections in mind, that all three turned out to be totally false. Otherwise this review would have had quite a different tone and message.

What about the film itself? For a Christian film, it’s surprisingly well made. I’ve seen too many Christian films that had poor production values, corny dialogue and that conveyed a preachy tone. This wasn’t like that. Abby Johnson’s personal story is told, and it’s told well. It’s told movingly. I felt emotionally touched by it. Although the film is not preachy, it is an unashamed testimony to the power of prayer, and refused to soft-peddle the spiritual side of Abby’s story. That’s very encouraging that a motion picture is not ashamed to portray a message of faith.

Another good point about the film is that it doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of the pro-life movement. We all know that there are some who, while being anti-abortion, do and say things that make the rest of us ashamed. The film acknowledged the existence of this. It showed people outside an abortion clinic shouting abuse at young girls, and it also featured violence at one point while recounting a true-life incident when an abortionist was shot and killed while worshipping in church. The film unflinchingly portrayed these things as part of the pro-life movement that is very wrong.

Now, overall, what can we say about the film? It’s certainly a film that pro-life people should go and see, not for entertainment, but because it is informative, affirming, and encouraging about the faith of those who want to support the right to life of unborn children. It is not a film for those on the pro-abortion side. It is not likely to convince those who are firmly opposed to a pro-life message. But it is a film that has the potential to speak powerfully to those who are undecided, and to those who are sitting on the fence. I would say if you can get such a person to attend this film with you, then it would be well worth their while in watching it.

Just one final note. I understand that on the opening night in Galway, a group called ‘Galway Pro-Choice’ picketed the cinema, stating their determination that there was no way this film would be shown in Galway. This is rather ironic. It used to be conservative Christians who picketed cinemas, before they caught themselves on. A famous episode of Father Ted had the priests outside a cinema with a sign saying, “Down With This Sort of Thing!” I find it rather funny that this group in Galway would become a parody and example of the kind of intolerance that they claim to despise. They want to deny anyone the opportunity to view a film that might express a viewpoint that is different to their own. Obviously, being ‘pro-choice,’ doesn’t extend to allowing others to choose which film they want to watch!

Update: Unplanned has been extended for a further week’s showing (11-17 Oct) at the following Omniplexes: Cork Mahon Point, Dundalk, Limerick, Galway Salthill, Sligo, Tralee, Wexford & Lifford. It will also be showing next week at IMC cinemas in Tallaght, Omagh, Dun Laoghaire, Dundalk, Tullamore, Enniskillen, Carlow, Kilkenny, Athlone, Santry & Newtownards. Also at the Eclipse in Bundoran, the Empire In Ennis & the Savoy in Dublin.

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Justin Trudeau, Blackface & Redemption

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Poor Justin Trudeau. The Canadian Prime Minister, previously best known to the Irish public for his youthful good looks and colourful designer socks, has landed himself in a load of trouble. Apparently, in his younger days, Justin took to the stage in high school talent shows and the like in ‘blackface’. Blackface is where white entertainers use dark make up to make themselves look black. Many of my own generation will remember this practice from TV shows such as ‘The Black and White Minstrels’. This was a hugely popular BBC entertainment programme that ran for 20 years until it gradually became seen as racially offensive and was cancelled in 1978.

There’s no doubt that blackface entertainment shows, particularly in the southern United States, had a nasty racial stereotype attached. The blacked-up characters were often portrayed as being lazy, uneducated and dim-witted. Indeed, the segregation laws that were opposed by Martin Luther King and other Evangelical Christians were known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws – taking their name from a character in a blackface minstrel show. Jim Crow was a stupid buffoonish character paraded for white audiences to laugh at. So it’s not hard for us today to understand why blackface so-called ‘entertainment’ is inextricably entwined with racism, injustice and oppression.

But years ago, and in other parts of the world where racial tension was much less obvious, there would have been plenty of young people who went to fancy dress parties and the like with blacked-up faces pretending to be Bob Marley or Mahatma Ghandi. They didn’t for a moment imagine that their actions could be hurtful to anyone else, or seen as racist. If you were dressing up as David Bowie you spiked up your hair and coloured it red. If you were dressing up as John Lennon you wore a long-haired wig and round steel-rimmed glasses. And if you were dressing up as Bob Marley you blacked your face and wore dreadlocks. I don’t think it was ever something I did, but I remember plenty of others doing it with no malice intended whatsoever. They would have been horrified to think it was racist – indeed, they probably thought it was a tribute to Bob Marley’s reputation as one of the coolest people they could think of.

Today, we have Google and much more information and historical context at our fingertips. So we understand that blackface is utterly unacceptable as a form of entertainment. But that also means that there are probably thousands of photos lying in attics that could be used at some point in the future to demolish the reputation of some celebrity or politician. Trying to explain that they meant no wrong all those years ago isn’t going to cut any ice. The only option is for them to apologise profusely and, like Justin Trudeau, to express how disappointed they are with their younger selves.

Justin’s major problem is not that he made a big mistake, but that he lives in an environment without grace and redemption. These Christian doctrines recognise that we can change – that we don’t have to spend all eternity being condemned for the people we used to be, but rather that we can rejoice in the people that we’ve become through the transforming power of the Gospel.

I’m not suggesting that public figures shouldn’t be held accountable for their past actions, particularly when those actions display a pattern of behaviour, or character flaws, which continue to make them unstable or dangerous in the present. But we need to give people the opportunity to show that they have changed.

I’m so glad that God changed me. Two days ago I was visiting Belfast, and I stopped at the spot in East Belfast, a few yards away from the gates to the Harland & Wolff shipyards, where, in 1981, I knelt in a Salvation Army hall  and surrendered my life to Christ. I was living a life characterised by selfishness, immorality, violence and stupidity. The person I was then was totally unfit to fulfil any of the roles I fulfil today – the roles of husband, father, pastor, leader of a Christian organisation etc.  I’m glad I don’t have to hide my past, or live in fear that someone might discover and expose it to try to destroy me. I can be open about the person I used to be – because I live in the community of the Church, and the Church is a place where we celebrate grace and redemption.

And the same is true, even after that initial point of salvation. I’ve made many mistakes in my walk as a Christian, and even as a preacher. Sometimes, on social media, I see self-appointed ‘heresy hunters’ who are quick to lambast a well-known Christian minister on the basis of a throwaway comment they made in a sermon 25 years ago. I will freely admit that I’ve probably preached some stupid stuff over the years, and I’ve certainly made decisions and, looking back, I realise that I could have handled situations so much better. I’ve frequently had to apologise to others for my mistakes. That’s all part of growing older and becoming wiser. But the wonderful thing is that I’ve encountered so much grace and redemption from others over the years, and in turn I’ve tried as much as possible to extend grace and the opportunity of redemption to others.

So, if Justin Trudeau were listening to me (which he almost certainly isn’t), I would say to him, “You don’t have to spend your life being disappointed in yourself. But everyone needs to part of a community that is based on grace and redemption. Because only in such a community can you truly become the person you were always meant to be.”

Hurricanes in the Bahamas & Prayer in Dublin for the Climate

One of the most devastating news stories in the last few weeks has been the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. A friend of mine has strong links in the Bahamas and is out there now in some of the worst-hit areas. The reports he is sending back and posting on social media are absolutely heart-breaking. I have been to Grand Bahama Island on a number of occasions and when you see it, one of the first impressions you have is just how flat it is. It is particularly vulnerable to abnormal sea levels, and to see news footage of it swamped by the hurricane is horrible.

Hurricane Dorian Slams Into The Bahamas As Category 5 Storm

According to news reports, 17% of the population of the Bahamas has been made homeless. Initially it was reported that 2,500 were missing. Thankfully, that number has now been reduced to 1,300 after officials cross-referenced their lists of missing and evacuated residents. It will be some time before we know any kind of accurate death toll. Whatever way the statistics finally pan out, it has been a truly horrible event for the Bahamas.

People used to refer to hurricanes as ‘acts of God’ – but I don’t for one moment believe God wanted this misery to be inflicted on the Bahamas. The Christian doctrine of the Fall asserts that we live in a broken and fallen world – far removed from how it was originally intended by our Creator. Increasingly, it looks as if it might be similarly inappropriate to refer to a hurricane as a ‘natural disaster.’ We are seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – and an ever-growing body of scientific evidence suggests that human activity is a contributing factor in this trend.

Climate change is affecting all of us, not just in places like the Bahamas. Here in Ireland, in just one year, we had our first ever hurricane, the worst snow I can remember (over 2 metres of the stuff in a lane near our home), and a heatwave that caused road surfaces to melt. This is all part of the changing climate. The last five years have been the warmest ever recorded in the 139 years that the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been measuring global heat.

Climate change is not just about rising temperatures. It doesn’t just mean warmer weather.  – it means weird and extreme weather. Warming produces more moisture in the air – which in turn leads to heavier rainfall, hailstorms and snowfall.

Some people insist that the scientific evidence on the causes of climate change is ambiguous – but the vast majority of scientific opinion supports the evidence that human activity is a major cause. A small minority of scientists deny climate change, but many of them receive millions of dollars in funding from oil companies and groups such as the American Petroleum Institute. This is strongly reminiscent of the ‘scientists’ who received funding from tobacco companies in order to cast doubt on the fact that cigarette smoking was harmful to health.

Climate change should not be viewed as a left/right issue. That’s where we tend to make a mistake. Some of us like to view things based on whether they are liberal or conservative – left or right. But, for Christians, the issue should not be whether something is left or right. The issue should be whether it is right or wrong.

For a great number of Evangelical Christians, myself included, abortion is one of the most widespread and harmful evils and injustices in the world today. Because being pro-abortion is widely viewed as a ‘left’ issue, then many Christians say to themselves, “I’m against abortion, therefore I have to be on the right.” But then they embrace a whole package of positions that are seen as being on the right. But we aren’t obliged to agree with everything that is seen as being on the right. Neither should we automatically disagree with everything that is viewed as being on the left. We need to ask, “Where does Jesus want me to stand on each issue?” Not left or right, but right or wrong.

When it comes to climate change and extreme weather events, the fact is that the poor are disproportionately affected. For those of us living in more prosperous parts of the world, yes, we still suffer ill effects. When we had our Irish hurricane and blizzard, our home was cut off from the electricity supply for a number of hours. I lost a tank full of tropical fish. But that’s not a life-or-death issue (well, it was for the fish, but not for me). Whereas, for the poor of this world, climate change and extreme weather are life-or-death issues. People are dying now because increased exposure to the sun, caused by a depleted ozone layer over the Andes, is causing cancer rates to skyrocket. Soil erosion on the edges of the Sahara is leaving entire communities destitute. Extreme weather events are destroying lives, homes and livelihoods.

For us as Christians, this should never be a matter of indifference. We should be concerned, even outraged, when the poor suffer through the actions of the wealthy. We are supposed to care for the defenceless. We are supposed to speak out for the voiceless. That’s why I’m passionate about abortion. I find it absolutely barbaric that we should kill the most defenceless and voiceless members of our society – unborn children. That’s why Evangelical Christians were at the forefront of the fight to abolish slavery on both sides of the Atlantic. And that’s why we should be profoundly concerned at what is happening with our climate.

We know the stuff we should all be doing – recycling waste and using renewable energy – but sometimes it seems like we are up against forces that are so much greater than our best efforts.

For example, consider this. The whole bitcoin phenomenon is spawning a bitcoin mining industry – where massive energy-hungry computers perform hugely complicated mathematical calculations to validate transactions. It is profoundly depressing to realise that bitcoin mining now produces 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is the equivalent of 35 million trucks driving all year round. Or, to put it another way, bitcoin mining consumes as much electricity as a nation such as the Czech Republic. Making a few minor adjustments in our lifestyles feels like a drop in the ocean.

So what do we do? Do we light a candle? Or do we curse the darkness?

I’m delighted that TearFund Ireland are holding a Prayer & Worship Evening for the Climate at Third Space, Smithfield, Dublin, on Monday 23 September from 7pm to 9pm.

Sadly, I have no doubt that some within Evangelical Christianity will deride my friends at TearFund for holding such an event. They may even call them ‘liberal lefties’. I want to congratulate TearFund for operating within the very best of Evangelical tradition. Their concern for the poor who suffer due to climate change is thoroughly consistent with the abolitionist campaigns of William Wilberforce, and the championing of the right to life of unborn children.

If you want to attend the TearFund Ireland Evening for the Climate then you can register at:    https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/prayer-and-worship-evening-for-the-climate-tickets-68437489373

 

 

Another Pastoral Suicide – Please Pray for Christian Leaders

wilsonfamilytribute-800x495Sometimes we think pastors are the people with all the answers. After all, they stand up at the front of the church and tell the rest of us how to live our lives – don’t they?

But pastors can struggle with life, just like anyone else. They know that Jesus helps them in those struggles, and they feel a divine calling to help others to reach out for the love and grace of Jesus – but that doesn’t make them unbreakable.

Pastors come face to face with pain and grief in its rawest forms. Last night I visited a wonderful Christian lady who, earlier that afternoon, lost her husband of many years to cancer. Then I immediately drove on to visit another woman of faith who, only the day before, learned that her brother had been murdered. We talked and prayed – and as I returned home afterwards I carried a heaviness in my spirit. What I was feeling, of course, was nothing like the grief those two women are carrying – but I felt it nevertheless.

Then, early this morning, I logged onto the BBC website to check the headlines and read about the suicide of a young pastor on the staff of Harvest Christian Fellowship in California. BBC Report

Jarrid Wilson was open about his struggles with mental well being and suicidal thoughts, and had recently officiated at the funeral of a another Christian who had taken their own life.

A few days ago, on this blog, I wrote about how suicide is increasing among pastors, particularly in the United States. The pressure to be successful, growing a congregation and running it like a well-oiled machine, can be overwhelming. The Christian culture holds up successful megachurch pastors as role models – sometimes with the subtle implication that if you don’t reach those dizzy heights of success then you must be doing something wrong.

I remember attending a pastor’s conference a few years ago at a large church. The conference speakers told us how big their congregations were, how wonderful their children’s facilities were – even how savvy and efficient their social media teams were. This was all intended to ‘encourage’ us. As we drove home, I turned to my wife Janice and said, “After listening to all that, I don’t feel encouraged at all. I feel more rubbish as a pastor than I ever have in my life! I feel like no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to match up to everything they were boasting about today.”

Thankfully I’ve learned to look for my worth and validation in what God thinks of me, not what other Christians think of me, or even what I sometimes think of myself. I learned long ago that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

In the Irish context, most pastors are also bivocational, working in other jobs to pay the bills and provide for their families. At the end of a day’s work, they concentrate on fulfilling what they believe to be God’s calling on their lives to minister to others. Others are full-time but live from week to week, hoping that there won’t be any unexpected bills next week that will necessitate them forgoing their salary again.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those preachers who continually harps on about how hard a pastor’s life is. I would rather be doing what I’m doing than anything else in the world. But my heart goes out to those Christian leaders who are working hard to care for others when they barely feel like they are managing to care for themselves.

So please, remember to pray for pastors and other Christian leaders today.

Even talking about these issues can be distressing.  If you are currently struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, trying to support a loved one who is in crisis or if you are mourning the loss of someone close, please consider talking to a friend or family member, a trusted person in your church community or find help from helplines, counselling services or the emergency services (see below). 

Get Immediate Help

  • Phone or go to your GP
  • Go to the emergency department of the nearest hospital

Or call 112 or 999 (in Ireland)

Helplines

The Samaritans

www.samaritans.ie
Tel: 116 123

Text: 087 2 60 90 90

Email: jo@samaritans.ie

Pieta House (Suicide & Self-harm)

National Suicide Helpline (Pieta House) 1800 247 247

www.pieta.ie
Tel: 01 623 5606

Christian Counselling

The Irish Association of Christian Counsellors was established in 1999 to promote and encourage Christian counselling in Ireland.

On their website (www.iacc.ie) you can find a list of accredited Christian counsellors and counselling services.

Integrity & Leadership

This article is an excerpt from Episode 2 of The Evangelical Seanchaí Podcast – which will go live on Monday morning 9th September. The podcasts are now accessible on iTunes

 The Evangelical Seanchaí on iTunes

Looking over the news stories of the last seven days, I’m reminded of that line from the hymn, Abide with Me – “Change and decay in all around I see,” The Amazon rainforest is still burning. The Bahamas have been swamped by a devastating hurricane. The British parliamentary system seems to be falling apart. In Ireland we have dire predictions of what a no-deal Brexit will do to our country. Robert Mugabe, whose rule in Zimbabwe began with so much hope and yet descended into tyranny and economic ruin, died at the age of 95 in a Singapore hospital. It’s all been pretty depressing stuff.

But perhaps the most dismal incident of all occurred when the former Irish footballer, Roy Keane, participated in an ‘Off the Ball Roadshow’ at Dublin’s Bord Gais Theatre. When Keane was Ireland’s Assistant Manager, he famously had strained relationships with a number of Irish international players, largely because of his abrasive leadership style (some would say it was a bullying leadership style). So, on Tuesday night, Roy Keane put the boot into his critics.

In one particularly offensive comment, Keane mocked Jonathan Walters for “crying on the TV about his family situation”. This referred back to an interview on The Late, Late Show back in May when Walters had talked openly and movingly about the death of his brother, his daughter being diagnosed with scoliosis, and his wife suffering a miscarriage.

My wife and I have lived through bereavement, coping with a miscarriage and caring for a seriously ill child. It is difficult to comprehend how anyone could see such tragedies as an opportunity or an excuse to mock a fellow human being. We have tremendous problems in Ireland with suicide and mental health, particularly among young men. When a sportsman in the public eye has the courage to speak out about grief and loss, they should be commended and encouraged – not ridiculed.

Sad to say, this kind of bullying on the part of Irish celebrities is not an isolated occurrence. Recently the MMA fighter Conor McGregor was filmed assaulting an older man in a Dublin pub, hitting him with a sucker punch from behind because he declined McGregor’s offer to pour everybody a drink of his own brand of whiskey.

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Both Keane and McGregor have certainly been talented athletes, figures who thrived on their ‘hard man’ personas, but tragically they are treated by others as being some kind of heroes or role models.

We, as Christians, need to be careful not to follow the models of leadership provided by the world around us. Jesus Christ provides us with a clear example of what true leadership looks like – a humble Servant who wasn’t ashamed to wash His disciples’ feet. All too often Christians have copied the style of leadership they see around them. In former Communist countries, for example, I have seen church leaders create power bases, build political alliances, and pull stunts and strokes that would not have looked out of place in the Kremlin! In Africa, there have been pastors who behave more like Robert Mugabe than Jesus Christ, leading with an autocratic style that ruthlessly suppresses any sign of dissent. In Europe, generations of Christians modelled their leadership on the Empire and the great royal houses, even copying their robes and crowns, and being known as ‘the princes of the church.’ And in the United States, pastors are increasingly expected to combine the efficiency of a business CEO with the charisma of a Hollywood entertainer. They try to outgrow neighbouring churches, run a complex staff and budget, and still look handsome and make the congregation laugh every Sunday. No wonder that, under such pressure, increasing numbers of American pastors are burning out, quitting their churches, or even committing suicide.

One of my major concerns is that being successful in world politics increasingly seems to mean insulting others, bullying both your opponents and those whom you lead, and quite blatantly forsaking any pretence of integrity of truthfulness.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know that there have always been dishonest politicians. But in previous generations, for a politician to be caught lying would probably cost them their job. Then it became acceptable to simply apologise by offering the excuse that “I mis-spoke” (whatever that means). But now, we see prominent leaders coming out with outrageous falsehoods and, when confronted with their dishonesty, they shrug their shoulders or make a joke of it.

This is not just one or two individuals who are re-writing the rules. The individuals are simply symptoms of a prevailing leadership culture that no longer honours or values integrity, character, decency or honesty. It is not confined to one area of public life, nor to one political party or movement. It is a major shift in how we view leadership.

As Evangelicals we often use sexual morality as a barometer to measure where society is going. Please don’t misunderstand me – I am passionate about sexual and ethical purity for God’s people – I am a holiness Christian! But I’m beginning to believe that we should view society’s decline in its expectations of leadership as being even more alarming than its decline in sexual morality.

So how should the Church react? Even if we wanted to, we no longer have the numbers or influence to act as our culture’s moral policemen – loudly denouncing the failings of others from a position of power or authority. So what should we do?

Firstly, we need to stop acting as cheerleaders or apologists for those who use their position, popularity or celebrity to bully, insult or to mislead. This applies, perhaps even more so, when those in power appear to share our goals or speak well of the Church.

Secondly, we need to ensure that our own communications, particularly in areas such as social media, Do not conform to the world’s pattern of insults, bullying and incivility.

Thirdly, irrespective of our nationality or cultural environment, we need to follow the leadership style of Jesus Christ. Integrity. Truthfulness. Humility. Decency. Civility. These should be the hallmarks of every Christian – and particularly those of us who have the awesome responsibility of serving in leadership roles.

Yes, in an age when the likes of Roy Keane or Conor McGregor are held up as role models, we might sometimes seem out of step with the surrounding culture. But that means we have an even greater opportunity to shine as lights in the darkness. Let’s lead, and let’s live, in a way that makes people say, “surely these people have been with Jesus.”

The Evangelical Seanchaí Podcast

On Monday 2 September, Evangelical Alliance Ireland launched a weekly podcast that offers a Christian perspective on the news stories of the previous week, interviews with churches & ministries across Ireland, and a regular feature to highlight the Persecuted Church. This week: Nick Park chats with Emma Lynch & Niamh Daly from TearFund Ireland, David Turner from Church in Chains, & draws inspiration from the unusual story Stephen the Blind Hedgehog.

Were SS Belt Buckles Really Emblazoned With a Religious Slogan? Another Free Sample from Nick Park’s Latest Book

 

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Holocaust perpetrated against the Jews have become our ultimate metaphor for evil. Therefore, raising the spectre of Nazism in any online debate is guaranteed to increase the heat involved in the discussion and to diminish any light! There is even a principle known as ‘Godwin’s Law’ which states that the longer a discussion continues, the more likely it becomes that someone will sooner or later make a comparison with Hitler or the Nazis (some people misunderstand Godwin’s Law as stating that if you mention Hitler at all in a debate then somehow you’ve lost the argument – but that is not the case).

In fact, when discussing subjects of ethics and morality, it sometimes is helpful to refer to the most extreme forms of wickedness we can imagine. So it would foolish to think that any references to the Nazis are somehow forbidden in discussions. Nevertheless, ‘playing the Hitler card’ is often used as a distraction to deflect attention when the facts are stacking up against your position in a debate.

So, is there any validity in this idea that the SS were so religious as to have God is with Us emblazoned on their belt buckles? Or is it simply a desperate attempt by atheist internet warriors to ‘play the Hitler Card’ in the face of a mountain of evidence that contradicts their claim about religion being the leading cause of war and conflict in the world?

Contrary to popular opinion, when we check the historical facts, we find that the belt buckles worn by members of the SS did not include these words at all. 

Back in the Seventeenth Century, it was common practice for armies to adopt a field word. Since combatants wore a variety of mismatched uniforms, with colleagues and opponents frequently wearing the same coloured coats, soldiers needed a quick way to identify friend from foe in the heat of battle. Shouting out a field word, or password, stopped soldiers from the same side from fighting and killing each other (similar to the modern phenomenon of ‘friendly fire’). Obviously it helped morale if such field words were stirring calls to battle. For example, at the Battle of Cropredy Bridge (1644), in the English Civil War, the Royalists’ field word was ‘Hand and Sword!’

Gott Mit Uns (God is with Us) was originally used as a password by Swedish soldiers to identify each other in darkness during the decisive Battle of Breitenfeld (1631) during the Thirty Years War. Because that battle would long be remembered in Prussian military history, the slogan was already appearing on the belt buckles of the Wehrmacht – or German Army – long before Hitler and the Nazis came to power. However, the slogan did not appear on the belt buckles of the SS. The Nazis deliberately changed to the decidedly non-religious slogan of Mein Ehre Heißt Treue (My Honour Is Called Loyalty).[i] This slogan was taken from a letter of appreciation to the SS written by Adolf Hitler in 1931 after they remained loyal to him during a political upheaval[ii] and was incorporated into a belt buckle, designed by Hitler himself, which was part of the SS uniform until the fall of the Third Reich in 1945.

Collectors of military memorabilia know that any purported SS belt buckle for sale on the internet that bears the Gott Mit Uns slogan is an obvious fake.

The new atheist attempt to play the Hitler card by quoting fake SS belt buckles is both an act of desperation and a cynical repetition of an urban legend.

[i] Garson, Paul. New Images of Nazi Germany: A Photographic Collection. Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2012. 289.

[ii] Mües-Baron, Klaus. Heinrich Himmler: Aufstieg des Reichsführers SS (1910-1933). Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2011. 453.

Myths KDP Cover

The above free sample is from Nick Park’s latest book, “Myths, Lies & Howlers from the Fringes of the New Atheism” – published by Evangelical Alliance Ireland.  It is a resource for all believers, but especially young people, to recognise and understand some of the most common untruths that are used to attack the faith of Christians via internet and social media.

The book is available as an eBook on Amazon for 99c :  Amazon USA    Amazon UK & Ireland

The paperback version is available for €6 (including postage & packing) from nickpark.ie

However, we want to make this resource available to as many young people as possible, so churches can order 10 or more copies at the special discounted price of €2.50 per copy (delivery costs extra, or can be collected from Dublin or Drogheda). Email nick@evangelical.ie for more details

 

Sample from “Myths, Lies & Howlers from the Fringes of the New Atheism”

Myths KDP Cover

Evangelical Alliance Ireland has just released Nick Park’s latest book, “Myths, Lies & Howlers from the Fringes of the New Atheism”.  It is a resource for all believers, but especially young people, to recognise and understand some of the most common untruths that are used to attack the faith of Christians via internet and social media.

The book is available as an eBook on Amazon for 99c :  Amazon USA    Amazon UK & Ireland

The paperback version is available for €6 (including postage & packing) from nickpark.ie

However, we want to make this resource available to as many young people as possible, so churches can order 10 or more copies at the special discounted price of €2.50 per copy (delivery costs extra, or can be collected from Dublin or Drogheda). Email nick@evangelical.ie for more details

Here is a free sample from Chapter Six: “Pi, Bats & Mutant Killer Bears”, where Nick demolishes Richard Dawkins’ claim that the Bible is in error by falsely describing bats as being birds.

In the Old Testament we find a list of birds that the Jews were to consider as unclean to eat (Leviticus 11:13-19). These include buzzards, owls, vultures and bats.

Bats? Does the Bible really say that bats are birds? It’s easy to understand why Richard Dawkins makes fun of this. This is a common argument advanced by new atheists as proof of errors in the Bible.

Richard Dawkins is a biologist. As such, he knows better than anyone that dividing things into categories is a human trait. For example, we divide edible plants into categories of fruit and vegetables. But how do we know which is which?

That might seem a stupid question. After all, we all recognise that a peach is a fruit while a cabbage is a vegetable. But what about a tomato? Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Surprisingly, a botanist and a chef will give you two very different answers.

The botanical definition of a fruit is a fleshy seed-bearing structure of a flowering plant.[i] So, in the eyes of any biologist (such as Richard Dawkins), a tomato is clearly a fruit.

But a chef has a completely different definition of what is a fruit and what is a vegetable. In cuisine, a vegetable is something savoury that is customarily served with a main course, whereas a fruit is served as a dessert.

This dispute over how to classify a tomato was once argued all the way to the United States Supreme Court, since vegetables were subject to tariffs whereas fruit was exempt. The Court sided with the chefs rather than the botanists, and ever since the tomato has been legally defined as a vegetable![ii] Which leads to one of my favourite sayings, ‘Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.’

So what have tomatoes got to do with birds, bats or atheism? Quite simply, the dispute over whether to classify a tomato as a fruit or a vegetable demonstrates that such classifications and categories are purely human constructs. They can change over time, or even change according to whether you are a botanist or a chef.

The same applies to birds and bats. According to modern zoological classification, a bird has feathers, wings and a beak. Bats, although they have wings, have neither feathers nor beaks and are classified as mammals. We can certainly agree with Professor Dawkins on that point.

But what about the ancient Hebrews? They had a different definition. The word ‘bird’ in Leviticus 11 is oph – and it literally means ‘a wing’. For the Hebrews, an oph was a two-legged, winged creature – and the bat fitted nicely into that classification. When they described a bat as a ‘bird’, they were simply saying that it was a winged creature with two legs. True, the Hebrews’ classification was different from that of modern biologists, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong – no more than chefs or the United States Supreme Court are wrong because they use a different classification than biologists when it comes to tomatoes.

Actually, it requires a high degree of cultural prejudice and snobbery to expect ancient cultures to always use the same systems of classification as modern biologists. It also takes a degree of stupidity to fail to understand that categories such as ‘fruit’, ‘vegetables’ or ‘birds’ are human constructs. I can understand why some of the less intelligent new atheists would see this as a convincing argument. But Richard Dawkins is not stupid. He is a highly intelligent and educated man. He is certainly intelligent enough to understand that the Hebrews were using a different system of classification when it came to birds. And that, sad to say, may well take this particular new atheist howler out of the classification of ignorant mistakes and place it in the classification of cynical dishonesty.

[i] Duckworth, R.B. Fruit and Vegetables. Oxford: Pergamon, 1966. xiii.

[ii] Hutton, Christopher. Word Meaning and Legal Interpretation: An Introductory Guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 81.

 

 

We Remove Blasphemy Laws, but Woe Betide if You Dare to Blaspheme Our Secular Sensitivities!

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News has broken today that Israel Folau, the Australian full back, has been sacked by Rugby Australia. His offence was to post on Instagram that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”. Let’s leave aside the fact that professional sport includes many more drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators than it does gay players or officials. The allegation of homophobia is what caused offence and media uproar.

Let me state straight off that I get thoroughly depressed when Christians use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram in this way. Do we really think that people are going to rush to a church and get saved because they read on social media that someone thinks they’re going to hell? Of course not! This kind of doctrinal chest-beating is designed to get a cheap cheer from our own community. I hate it when preachers go off on a rant to get cheap applause rather than presenting the Gospel in a thoughtful or compelling way – and it comes over even worse in social media than it does in sermons.

In tweeting as he did, Folau displayed an apparent ignorance of why the doctrine of hell is included in Christian theology. Hell is not a reactionary stick to be waved at those outside our faith who choose not to live by Christian standards of morality. It is rather a reminder to those within the faith, that we should live lives that are demonstrably different from how we lived before we came to Christ. It is also a motivation for us to share our faith in an attractive way with others, because our love for others means we don’t want anyone to go to hell. If I was Israel Folau’s pastor (which I’m not), I would advise him to use his fame and influence to draw other people towards Christianity, rather than turning them away with rants on Instagram. He acted like a jerk – and that rarely ends well irrespective of our religious affiliations or convictions.

However, it is disturbing that Folau should lose his employment because he expressed his sincerely held religious beliefs – even if others find his beliefs offensive. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees each person (including Israel Folau) not only the freedom to hold whatever religious beliefs he chooses, but also “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” So, apparently, Folau has been sacked for exercising a human right, one guaranteed to him under international law by a treaty that most countries, including Australia, have signed up to.

Believing that someone will go to hell, or stating that belief, is not hate speech. Genuine hate speech, such as advocating that people should be killed, or inciting hatred against them, is dangerous and can cost lives. For that reason, I recently supported the decision by the Irish government to deny entry to antiSemitic ‘pastor’ Steven Anderson because of his support for terrorist violence.

https://eaiseanchai.wordpress.com/2019/05/09/call-to-irish-government-to-deny-hate-preacher-steven-anderson-entry-to-ireland/

But, for most Bible believing Christians, our belief that people are going to hell is a sorrowful recognition of a biblical doctrine – one that motivates us to reach out in love to others. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words.”

While the original Instagram post was by Israel Folau, it was liked by Billy Vunipola of Saracens, which made him a target of abuse for Munster fans at a European match the following weekend. Irish sports journalists moved into hysterical overdrive, defending the constant booing of Vunipola by Munster fans, accusing him of ‘bringing hate to rugby’, and even demanding that he be banned from the Champions Cup Final. (Given his match-winning against Leinster, a lot of their fans probably wish he had been banned!)

I have been told by some Catholics that I, as an Evangelical Christian, am going to hell because salvation is only to be found in the Church of Rome. I’ve received a similar message from Muslims who see me as an infidel. Obviously I disagree with them, but I would be appalled if they were to lose their jobs for holding such views. I would also be appalled if they were targeted for abuse or bullied by crowds at a sporting event.

How would we feel if a Catholic sportsman or woman was continually booed by a crowd in Northern Ireland who felt offended by their religious beliefs? There are a number of Muslim players in the English Premier League. Would it be permissible for them to be booed every time they touched the ball because of their faith? Or are we going to split hairs by supporting their human right to hold a religious belief, but deny them the equal human right to speak about their faith?

Ireland recently voted to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. I think that was, on balance, a good move. Gospel truth is strong enough to stand on its own two feet without needing the law to stop our feelings getting hurt, and totalitarian regimes use blasphemy laws as an excuse to persecute minorities, including Christians. But there is a glaring hypocrisy from those who want the freedom to make statements that religious people might find offensive, but want to deny a similar freedom to Israel Folau.

Yes, we’ve taken blasphemy off the statute books – but woe betide those who dare to commit blasphemy against our new secular sensitivities.