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.
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.