(The original story here was changed at the request of one of the characters in it, who had previously identified himself to others by telling the same story to them. I would never willingly/knowingly share a public story of someone identifiable, unless they were willing to be identified in it. The story now here is a conglomeration of several real stories of a similar nature which happened a few years ago.)
The sun was blazing and in County Kerry our Christian summer volunteer team were back running our program for all the family. This afternoon, we were running a kid’s club, as their parents watched on. As we started into learning our Bible memory challenge (a verse from the Bible), I suddenly was aware that I might need to intervene. As many teachers do, we were using a “pointer” to point at each word as the kids were saying it and keep them on track. Only our pointer this time round was a huge blow-up red hand of Ulster such as the one pictured below on the Northern Irish flag.
And for those of you who didn’t know, the red hand of Ulster is a political sign not warmly welcomed in County Kerry (to put it mildly). What was I as team leader to do? The team members largely identified as Ulster people. But it would have completely alienated them from the locals, nevermind taking away from whatever was said later by the team. But then again, making a scene about it would also draw attention to this. I sat back and waited for a subtle moment I could move it, and breathed a sigh of relief. Until…
Until the story. We often tell stories to teach spiritual truths to the families listening, and as many in (previously) Catholic Ireland, knew all the Bible stories (or thought they did), we sometimes taught other stories with a spiritual meaning. But this one had me nervously twitching again. The fictional story had opened with 2 characters, and one of them was King William riding on a white horse!
And for any who know their history and the Battle of the Boyne, you’ll know who King Billy and his white horse was, and know that he wouldn’t have been all that welcome in Kerry!
Two small slips that could perhaps have been not noticed, or could have built a culture that meant the volunteer team was regarded as foreign, and rejected because of their insensitive use of politics, language and culture.
Well, thankfully (given the team was a Christian one) we’d been studying John’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ life that morning, and in chapter four we encounter a situation even more radical than these. A Samaritan woman meets Jesus (a Jewish man) and a show-down ensues. Jews vs Samaritans. The Northern Irish troubles would have perhaps seemed minor in comparison to what was going on between rivals then. Perhaps current day Israel and Palestine moves us closer towards the old scene.
But the thing is, a show-down doesn’t ensue. Jesus, side-stepping controversial issue after controversial issue, takes the woman by the hand (metaphorically) and leads her towards where she can find a true, satisfying identity – in Him. Whatever he says (and he doesn’t completely avoid the issue), helps her get over any confrontation, shame or difference, and makes her run off to the town to tell everyone that He’s the best thing ever to happen.
And so, what did I do when the 2 things above happened? Well the Red Hand, nor King William were necessary to the event, nor was it wise to have them, even if it was publicly permitted and deeply cherished by some team members. In an attempt to follow Jesus’ example, at laying down what is dear to us for the sake of the good news, I quietly slipped the the Red Hand away for the rest of the week, and amongst much positive feedback to the story-teller, suggested that they don’t ever use King Billy and his white horse in a story again.
Sadly though, it was not appreciated.
“We have every right to celebrate our culture. This is part of who I am. It’s hardly as if we’re forcing them to believe our politics by simply using these things.” was the rebuke of one team member.
“This is part of who I am!”
What had I done? Had I really just denied someone their very being? What they felt was at the heart of who it was to be them?
Well, no, because as Christians we have our primary identity in someone who is not of these Kingdoms – in Jesus Christ. All other senses of identity come radically far short of that one, whether national identity, sexual identity, race, language etc. Everything else (important as they are,) flows from the beauty and purpose we were created for. Had I taken their identity? No! Not even the devil himself can take away our identity in Christ and all we were made for.
But these happening in County Kerry really just echo a far bigger problem for Northern Irish (evangelical) Christians. Let me explain…
A more complex identity problem…
I was at a prayer meeting tonight about the liberal abortion legislation about to be forced (undemocratically) upon Northern Ireland. For those not in the know, the devolved government has not met in Northern Ireland now for several years, and so Westminster parliament was putting together some emergency legislation to deal with this, when radical abortion amendments (more than the rest of the UK currently has) got included into it.
Suddenly the pro-life Christians are crying, and rightly so. If correct in our views, we are talking about mass slaughter of innocent life. And there appears no way to stop the ending of thousands of voiceless lives in the womb, unless the NI government reconvenes by October 21st of this year. Highly unlikely.
But what one lead campaigner said to me recently revealed an awful lot of why 20,000 signatures, 75,000 postcards to MLAs, and hundreds of thousands of emails will never work.
“Peter, 2 years ago I would never have traded the Irish Language Act for an abortion-free NI, but now I think I would.”
The evangelical Christian identity is too caught up in protestant politics.
What do I mean?
Well for years, many evangelical Christians were more vocal about their British political viewpoints than they were about being heard and seen to live out the values that Jesus would have us live out – loving our enemies, laying down our rights for the sake of loving others, and seeking to best understand and cherish those who strongly disagree with us. Being Christian for some, was, certainly in the eyes of their colleagues or close friends, inseparable from being British. Or at least there were as many passionate arguments about each of them! They would say their identity was firmly in being “protestant” or following Jesus. But to anyone else looking on, it was a muddle of religion and politics all thrown in together, and often a vitriolic or ugly one at that.
For years, many Christians have voted for certain parties that they thought held to “Christian values”. But in doing so, we’ve ended up endorsing political segregation, with no government. No-one really seems to have minded though, given the impasse in talks. Most seemingly would rather have no Irish Language Act and no government, and watch the province spiral down and suffer economically and otherwise, than to concede and give way to an Irish Language Act and other suggested things. According to them, there are many hills to die on, and most of them are painted red, white and blue.
And now we eat our fruit from our tree of bitter divides. Having voted for parties that would never sit down together and didn’t seem to make a big deal of ending sectarian divides in NI, we have ended up with no government. And in ending up with no government, we have ended up with this abortion fiasco, imposed from outside.
Let me be straight – yes, there are some deluded (and perhaps, evil) people to blame for this, thinking they are acting honourably to free women. But instead of just pointing fingers at “them over there”, could it be that in voting for constant segregation (or people who didn’t consider it top priority to end such attitudes), we are reaping the fruit of our voting?
Or will those in government who claim to be pro-life, finally see that if they are consistent in their beliefs, that conceding Language Acts and other such things, will be NOTHING compared to the loss of life that would occur through abortion?
But I fear the battle was lost long ago, and humanly speaking can’t be won now. Sinn Fein won’t be forced last minute into talks, no matter how many emails or postcards people in the country send.
And so how did we get from a beach in Kerry to here? Well, it’s a more complex version of the identity question. And sadly one that many in the country will learn the hard way. That if you speak up as passionately for your politics as you do about Jesus and His Words/views, then your identity will soon become a blur as well, and tragedies like the one that’s unfolding may occur.
Sadly, there may be an even greater tragedy than thousands of unborn lives being lost too. The type of Jesus that is often held out in Northern Ireland, is dressed up in a British flag, and will be so repulsive to any nationalist that few churches will ever form in such areas and eternal consequences will need to be wept over. It’s why one of the most-reached English speaking people groups (Northern Ireland) sits directly beside the least-reached English-speaking people group (Ireland) in the world. If that isn’t a tragedy largely produced by this identity confusion, I don’t know what is.
But lest I be seen to point fingers here, may I sit with everyone reading and say that politics is no easy game. Just because I have been vocal about segregation in society, and never voted for those who endorsed violence or sectarian behaviour, doesn’t mean I have clean hands. There are no easy options of who to vote for, and I don’t come endorsing one way and condemning others. But as Christians, we must keep our identity firmly in place before letting our secondary views flow in light of it. And that, will mean giving up things that are costly to us elsewhere in life. It’ll hurt. But it’ll lead to our flourishing and the growth of His Church.
And for now, I weep. I pray. And we see what the next month holds…