Frances Fitzgerald’s Hat-Trick

EAI Executive Director, Nick Park, has congratulated Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Justice and Equality, for scoring a Hat-Trick of measures to protect the vulnerable in the Government’s Criminal Law Sexual Offences Bill.
Frances Fitzgerald
Organisations like Evangelical Alliance Ireland usually contact Government Ministers when we’re complaining about something, but on this occasion I want to congratulate Minister Fitzgerald.

Firstly, people trafficking is a modern scourge. It is appalling that, over 180 years after the death of William Wilberforce, there are more people living in slavery today than were enslaved during the entire period of the North Atlantic slave trade. NGO’s assisting victims of people trafficking have long argued that the ‘Swedish model’ – criminalising the purchase of sexual services rather than prosecuting prostitutes – represents an effective response to the sexual enslavement of women and children.

Secondly, keeping the age of consent at 17 is an important measure to prevent the exploitation of children. Evangelical Christians, most notably the Salvation Army, were instrumental in raising the age of consent from 13 in the late Nineteenth Century. This was not Victorian prudery or self-righteous moralising, but was designed to combat a situation where police were powerless to prevent child prostitution. The two-year Proximity Clause in Minister Fitzgerald’s Bill is an innovative and humane measure that prevents adults from exploiting children, yet , for example, avoids pinning the label of ‘sex offender’ on a 17 year old who is in a relationship with a 16 year old.

Thirdly, the measures against internet grooming are a timely response to the misuse of technology to target vulnerable young people.

This Bill represents a balance of compassionate and principled measures and an important step forward in social justice.

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Concentration Camps, Stolen Shoes & Pilgrimages

One of the more disturbing news stories of the last few days was when the BBC reported that visitors had stolen shoes belonging to Jewish Holocaust victims from a former concentration camp in Poland:

Majdanek Shoes

Indeed, not only shoes have been stolen – but also the ashes of victims. My first reaction was to think, “What kind of person steals from a concentration camp?” Then I analysed my reaction, and I reflected on the truth that we tend to attribute to such places a ‘holy’ quality that, in the past, would only have belonged to pilgrimage sites.

I have, on two occasions, visited the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. Each time it was a profoundly moving experience. On the second occasion I was accompanied by my wife, Janice, and I had somehow managed to visit Germany in winter with no coat! (Much of my life is spent travelling, but I tend to go straight from cars into airports, from airports to cars, from cars to hotels and meetings etc.) I bought a thin hoodie from Lidl for €10 and shivered my way round Dachau. As I stood on the grassy strip beside the camp fence (aware that encroaching on that grassy strip would have meant instant death for a camp inmate 70 years ago) I felt an overwhelming sorrow for the poorly-clad inmates who had shivered on the parade ground for hours in similar wintery conditions.

One jarring aspect of our visit to Dachau was when we entered the co-ordinates into our GPS to travel there and realised that Garmin have the camp listed under ‘tourist attractions.’ That somehow felt very wrong. I didn’t feel as if I was a tourist, or that I was visiting an ‘attraction’. I find nothing attractive about torture and mass murder. We weren’t going to Dachau for enjoyment, or even for education. It felt more like something we had to do because it was going to help us to be better people. That was when I realised that we were doing something that doesn’t always fit comfortably with our Evangelical traditions and mindsets. We were making a pilgrimage.

I had similar feelings on a recent trip to Alabama when Janice and I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, built on the spot where four young girls were killed when racists bombed their church in 1963. Another ‘pilgrimage’ experience was on a ministry trip to the Netherlands when we visited the Corrie ten Boom house in Haarlem where Evangelical believers risked, and ultimately lost, their lives by sheltering Jews from the Nazis.

Of course I’m not talking about such trips earning any spiritual merit, or of aberrant semi-occultic practices such as ‘grave sucking’ (where people lie on the graves of great Christians of the past and try to catch their anointing). But I am saying that there are certain places which, if we ever have the opportunity to do so, it is good for us to visit to help us be more gracious, compassionate and grounded in history. And such places deserve to be treated with respect.

A Bunch of Muppets and a Gay Cake

One of the contentious issues of our time is gay rights and same-sex marriage. Part of my task in representing Evangelical Alliance Ireland in both conventional and social media is to proclaim a biblical view of marriage while simultaneously speaking out for Christian values such as civility, tolerance and civil rights.

This task has been made harder in recent months by a deliberate attempt in Northern Ireland to manufacture outrage and confrontation. Let’s examine this muppetry.

    Bert and Ernie

Our first set of muppets are Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie. These are two characters in a children’s TV show that a few people have chosen to pretend are gay. This is a disturbing trait among certain activists who seem to want to sexualise everything. They do it with the Bible (apparently unable to accept that two men like David and Jonathan could have a close relationship without there being a sexual component.) I actually feel very sorry for anyone who cannot comprehend the love and friendship that can exist between friends without trying to imply that sexual activity is involved. That must be a lonely way to live. However, I do find something rather creepy about anyone trying to sexualise characters, either in a same sex way or in a heterosexual way, from a TV show designed for very young children.

Sesame Street have issued a number of statements over the years stressing how silly it is to try to make Bert and Ernie into gay lovers. For example, in 1993: “They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. They don’t exist below the waist”

    Baking Up a Controversy

muppets
Our next muppet is an activist who asked Asher’s bakery to produce a cake with a picture of Bert and Ernie and a slogan supporting gay marriage. I find it next to impossible to believe that, out of all the hundreds of bakers in Northern Ireland, the choice of an overtly Christian bakery (whose very name is taken from the Book of Genesis) was an innocent coincidence. This was clearly an attempt to deliberately manufacture an allegation of discrimination.

Asher’s refused to bake the cake. Their refusal was not based on the sexual orientation of the customer. Instead they refused to bake a cake that promoted a political message with which they disagreed (same sex marriage is currently illegal in Northern Ireland so the cake was to agitate for a change in the law). This would appear to be a perfectly reasonable position. Do we really think that businesses should be forced to produce promotional materials for political campaigns with which they strongly disagree? For example, should a nationalist-owned printshop be forced to print loyalist posters? Should a Jewish printer be compelled to print T-shirts supporting the British National Party? Should a Quaker who is a committed pacifist be required to print leaflets calling for the invasion of Iraq or for the restoration of the death penalty?

    Support Our Campaign or Else!

The biggest bunch of muppets in this whole story are the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland. They decided to spend taxpayers’ money getting involved in this case, ruling that Asher’s bakery, by not helping support a political campaign, had opened themselves up to prosecution and financial penalties. They are now demanding that Asher’s pay compensation to the customer, and threatening legal action if such money is not handed over. Asher’s, understandably, are resisting this extortion.

    Please Don’t Add to the Muppetry

I’m really hoping that Christians can express their opinions on this controversy without turning into a fourth bunch of muppets.

There is a subsection of Evangelicalism which is not content to teach biblical approaches to sexuality and marriage in a truthful and gracious way, but which slips into hysteria and homophobia at the slightest provocation. One of their favourite mantras is that there is a ‘gay agenda’ or ‘gay mafia’ which is determined to destroy Christianity. This ‘us versus them’ worldview is dangerous because, by seeking to dehumanise their opponents, it removes any need for respectful discussion and dialogue. That makes my job much harder as I seek to build bridges with the LGBT community and dialogue with them in a way that reflects Jesus.

So I issue a plea to my fellow Christians. Yes, we should pray for the owners of Asher’s bakery, and indeed anyone else who feels that the law of the land and the power of State agencies is being abused to discriminate against them. Yes, we should raise our voices here in the Irish Republic. Moves are underway to introduce a new religious hatred bill in Ireland to replace the current Blasphemy law. We need to prevent legislation that might be abused to discriminate against minority religious groups. But let’s not add to the muppetry. Yes – people are clearly trying to engineer confrontation and polarisation. Let’s not respond in any way that would be inconsistent with the example of Jesus Christ.

Myles Munroe – Why I’m Perplexed by the Perplexity

Eleven days ago Myles Munroe, a popular pastor and author, was killed, along with his wife and seven others, when their jet crashed in the Bahamas. That event was a a tragedy for the Munroe family, for the church they pastored, and for their many friends and admirers.

mylesmunroe

I have been troubled by two reactions among Christians on social media and the blogosphere.

Firstly, there have been the ‘heresy hunters’ who have taken the death of a Christian brother as an opportunity to attack his character and doctrinal teaching – mainly because of his involvement with what is popularly known as the Prosperity Gospel. It’s hard to think of anything less Christian, or more mean-spirited, than a believer who would exploit such a tragedy to score petty points and pull others down. May God protect us from the Pharisaical ‘orthodoxy’ of the heresy hunters!

But I want address a different set of reactions. A number of Christians have commented on the death of Dr Munroe with absolute disbelief and perplexity. This is not just the usual shock we feel when someone we know or admire dies suddenly, but more of a bewilderment at how God could possibly allow a man and woman of faith to die in such tragic circumstances. The assumption seems to be that great faith in God, and commitment to the service of the Gospel, should somehow prevent such things happening.

Have we Christians in the developed world really become so biblically and theologically illiterate that we think that being a follower of Christ somehow exempts us from the violence, tragedy and suffering that are part and parcel of life in a fallen and broken world? Do we imagine that we are somehow more faith-filled than Stephen, who died at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob in Acts Chapter 7? Or do we think we have discovered a secret to a charmed life that was denied to Paul, who knew what it was to be stoned, beaten and shipwrecked? Are we really arrogant enough to think that our understanding of faith principles makes us more entitled to live a pain-free life than our brothers and sisters that are laying down their lives for the Gospel in northern Nigeria or in Iraq?

Jesus said that those who wanted to be His disciples should deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). God forgive us if we have traded that divine call for a tawdry imitation of the Gospel that says, “If you trust in Jesus then all will go well with you and nothing bad will ever happen to you.”

Twenty years ago my wife and I suffered the unspeakable agony of laying the body of our beautiful 4-year old daughter, Grace Park, in an early grave. We were church planters, full of faith and sold out for God and His Kingdom. Our faith didn’t exempt us from experiencing the same grief that has descended on countless other parents in similar circumstances. But what our faith did do was enable us to continue serving God, and to know without a shadow of a doubt that our daughter had entered into the glorious presence of Jesus Christ. Myles Munroe and his wife have now entered into that same glorious presence. That may cause grief because of a temporal loss – but it should not cause us perplexity.

What Makes a Church Relevant?

RelevantFaith-web

For the last six weeks I’ve been working on a forthcoming book “Fifty Days of Reading the Red”.  This is a survey of every word of Jesus as recorded in Scripture (the ‘red letter’ bits in many Bibles).  You can follow this work in progress, which is due out at the beginning of December, by clicking on the ‘Reading the Red – Archives’ link at the top of this page.

So, having immersed myself in the words of Jesus, that was my first point of reference when I saw a question in an online discussion forum – What do you mean when you say a church is ‘relevant’? This was my response:

What makes a church relevant?

Being like Jesus makes a church relevant.

I look at how Jesus ministered to people. He spent quality time with sinners (eating and drinking with them) and listened to what was on their hearts. He also spent quality time with His Father (praying all night) and listened to what was on His heart.

Then He told stories that started off where the sinners’ hearts were – yet ended up where God’s heart was.

Stories about fishing, lost coins, travelers getting mugged, people being thrown into jail for debt. He used the topical news stories of the day (people who were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed) and used it to reveal God to people.

So, if I as a preacher want to be as relevant as Jesus, I need to spend time listening to God’s heart (something most preachers know how to do) and time listening to unsaved people’s hearts (something most preachers aren’t very good at because we’re too busy telling sinners how sinful they are). Then I need to tell stories – lots and lots of stories.