Some more questions around Identity

Thanks for all your feedback, phone calls and comments from a wide range of folk about my last blog post here. It appears our setting on this island resonates with many places in the world. I want to quickly respond to a few common questions that many asked, as a means by which to generate further conversation – please do keep chatting! As numerous people replied with these questions, having similar conversations with me, please don’t think I’m speaking about you specifically if you see ‘your’ question(s).

  • “Clearly no Christian says they have their full identity in their flag. Can we not have part of our identity in it – in the place God has us born?” (about a dozen people said this)

God has lavishly given us everything in life that we have (including our new identity in Him). The only question we have, is how we respond. Because I have been given everything, I hope to say I have everything to give, and God within me to empower me to do so, even when that’s hard. It is hard to read Philippians chapter 2, and still ask questions of “what can I keep speaking about loudly in my identity?”. We follow a Christ who thinks not of His own needs, but that of others as he lays down His life for His enemies, even to death, death on a cross. The Apostle Paul responds to the Corinthian church to say (1 Cor 9:20-22) that he would give up anything for the sake of the gospel, even across cultural divides. If you are British, how can you use that to God’s glory, and to love your enemy (or your neighbour as yourself)? If you are Irish, what about you? Yes be proudly British or Irish, but let’s realise:

  1. every culture is beautiful in some way (Gen 1 – do we celebrate others’ beauty?)
  2. every culture is fallen in some way (Gen 3 – do we repent and show humility?)
  3. the Kingdoms of this world in most ways are temporary and are NOTHING (stronger language could be used) compared to the glory of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8 – do we hold loosely to even what we are most precious about?)
  • I am not called to speak Irish, to play GAA or to live in a nationalist area. That does not make sectarian or make me responsible for the problems you write about.” (about 6 people messaged, though many more have similar feelings that I’ve chatted to)

In our individualistic western world, we speak a lot about “callings” and individual responsibility. Some of that is Biblical of course, but a lot of the Bible was written to groups of people. But our trouble is, that as The Church (capital C), we do not enjoy what our groom gives us to enjoy. If we all sit back and say “it’s not my responsibility”, we miss the fact that Christ thinks that for our good and His glory, we could enjoy his heartbeat for all peoples – most of all, His enemies (us all, at one time). We are not all called to “go” to the areas with less Christian presence, but we all should ask ourselves what part we are playing in showing Christ’s love to such places, and consider why we are not willing to go. (There are many gospel reasons to not go.) I’ve written about this a lot here. Ulster has generally shown great vigour in going to the ends of the earth (praise God!), but hasn’t figured yet how to go to Samaria.

GAA – the Gaelic Athletic Association of Ireland, as exampled in this picture of a Gaelic Football (taken from here: all copyright)
  • “Sinn Fein/Westminster are blackmailing us. I will never give in, even if thousands of lives are at stake (through abortion). The blood is on their own hands.” (few were brave enough to express what two readers did, to this extent, but several agreed)

Politics is a messy game, for sure. But I would think twice about gambling with thousands of lives. If I was a hypothetical unionist supporter (which I’m not revealing here whether I am or not), and I could save thousands of lives for giving up an Irish Language Act Bill which I resented, then surely even if I felt I was being blackmailed to do it, I would? One is demanded by scripture, the other is not. In Biblical times, they were called to primarily serve God and flowing from that, to honour the King, regardless of who was on the throne, even when their tax money went to corrupt and evil men (c.f 1 Peter, Rom 13). God will be the final judge of who is responsible or not but I personally will do my best to stop them and be vocal about it, even if I’m blackmailed for it. But as I said before, perhaps we lost this one when we voted perpetually for sectarian division, year after year.

  • “Playing GAA has too many connotations with political things for me to touch it.”

Let’s go back to Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. Firstly, as a Jew, He deliberately goes via Samaria (he didn’t have to). Choosing to go to Samaria, when war-like hatred was shown between the people, had its connotations. Secondly, as a male, he chose to sit with a lone, promiscuous woman in the heat of the day at a well (see here for the history of wells). That had its sexual connotations in middle eastern culture. Jesus didn’t seem too concerned with connotations. What He did seem concerned for was mission, flowing from a pure heart. For us, that might mean we choose not to go up to women in nightclubs and offer them a drink as a means to show Christ’s love (perhaps a parallel modern situation). But it will mean we cross borders (metaphorical ones and real ones) for the sake of the good news.

  • “You are secretly just promoting your [insert political thought here eg: nationalist, globalist] politics and forget that you yourself are highly political and are only asking those of a certain political view to pipe down.” (three people publicly, many more privately)

I will happily admit that nobody is neutral. I have my politics, and people may assume what they wish. Nationalists in the north think I’m Unionist because of my schooling and sport association. Unionists in the north assume I’m nationalist because I’ve lived in Cork and write blog posts like this.

But my argument does not lie on any political view. I argue neither to downplay national sovereignty, nor to advocate a nationalism of any sorts. Setting aside John 4 that we’ve already considered, let’s turn to Galatians. Paul (in chapter 1) sets our his stall that he has received this good news by revelation, and that He hasn’t spent time anywhere else to learn such an unusual gospel (chapter 2). It demands that righteousness comes freely from outside of human action – circumcision makes no difference! Titus is relieved – he sits in the corner of this debate, wondering whether he’ll need to be circumcised as a new follower of Jesus. The answer resounds clearly – no! Salvation is a free gift, needing no such thing added to it. But turn to Acts 16 and we suddenly see Paul circumcising Timothy! Why? Has Paul changed his mind?! No! It’s because they are going to a Jewish area to reach out.

Was Paul advocating a type of globalism that stuffs Jewish national identity when he dismissed the need to be circumcised? No! Was he advocating a nationalist perspective when he circumcised Timothy? No! He was doing all that he could to reach the people at hand, while sacrificing what was secondary importance. I’m sure Timothy minded – it’s painful! And it’s not even needed as a Greek – so why bother? Hardly as if many people check! But he was willing to lay down his identity to reach others. Nothing to do with politics. But at the same time, utterly political. And I could go onto other passages. Me advocating this has nothing to do with what politics I support. (But it is utterly political in action)

  • “By speaking of a mission organisation like that, you are doing something very unhelpful. They are not like that in general. You will put people off going on mission through writing such things.” (4 people)

May I suggest that the only people I’ll put off going on such teams, are the people looking for a perfect mission organisation or experience? But I hate to tell you, they don’t exist. But they don’t exist because the one true mission organisation that God has given the world, is The Church (from which flows these Acts 13-like mission teams). And it’s a bunch of messy (but both sanctified and being sanctified) people, who all make cultural mistakes and place their identity in many false places, all too often.

I lead teams year after year for that mission organisation and would flag-wave endlessly for them (not that kind of fleg). They have taught me so much of what I know about evangelism. And as I said in my first blog post, I LOVE that these mistakes are being made (if we learn from them). Like my colleague Izzy says, we must not be paralysed by thinking we must be perfect. And I am the first to have made, and still make MANY mistakes in my own culture, never mind in others. And I pray that my team members and others will forgive me my mistakes, will point them out to me, and help me change to have more of God’s heart too, as they have done even in this (I hope).

Finally, let me tell you about one of my friends.

She is my age, was brought up in a protestant, unionist home, and continues to live round the corner from me, under the shadow of Windsor Park, where the kerb-stones are painted red, white and blue and my car arriving with a Cork-registration plate gets the neighbours out to their windows. She works a normal job. She has never learnt a word of Irish, couldn’t tell you who is playing in the GAA All-Ireland final this Sunday, and attends a protestant church in the heart of east Belfast.

But she does this, whilst enjoying Jesus, dying to herself, and living for Him. She is still thoroughly British, but her friends (non-Christian) when asked about her all say “she is the only person who loved us when we moved house here”; “she loves different cultures like I’ve never seen before”; “she is one of us”.

Because every morning she wakes (when she remembers), she asks Jesus, in light of what He’s done, to help her lay her life down to love some of the most unreached people in the world on her doorstep. She abandons some of her clothing choices, to fit in with them. She eats differently, so that she can share meals with them. She changes hobbies, to enjoy what they like to do. When asked about Israel and Palestine, she side-steps questions or asks good questions back again, even though she has views of exactly what’s right and wrong. She finds they don’t find her sense of humour funny the same way her close friends growing up did – she suffers it. She finds a church community, who will welcome outsiders, or learn how to do so with her help. She even learns their language and takes all her annual leave visiting their country, to do so. Yes, I’m not talking about nationalists. I’m talking about Arab neighbours.

Arabs in Belfast welcomed, as reported by the Irish Times (here). Photo credit IT.

Somehow that makes sense for her. But if it makes sense for her, why doesn’t it make sense for us, even in our normal jobs and normal lives to support and have such a heartbeat, even when we can’t be the ones “going”?

Sadly my non-Christian friends (the ones who I’ve been close enough to give them opportunity to speak into my life) have seen all too clearly where my identity has seemed to lie, at times:

  • You’re so busy rushing around doing Christian things, we never see you. (My identity was perhaps in missional activity rather than Jesus)
  • You never come on nights out with us. (In first year of uni, my identity was so busy trying to be holy by abstaining, I forgot to love people well, perhaps by staying up to help them when they came home drunk, or in other ways)
  • You get far more passionate about [insert topic] when we talk, than anything else – is that what you value? (Caveat: let’s remember some cultures are more direct than others – let’s not try to “out-Jesus” each other in our speech)

But ultimately it’s God’s Word, applied to God’s World well, that will expose our hearts and convince us that finding our identity and worth in who Christ is, and what He has done, will be ultimately satisfying. Though sometimes God even uses our non-Christian friends to do that through His common grace!

A little booklet written to counter the common claims of “For God and for [insert political identity here]….”

So my prayer for both you and I today, in light of this whole discussion about British identity and culture, is that God will help us travel this earth, in tandem with His heart. And that it will radically alter how we live here on this island. None of us can pretend we’re not enculturated (/bathed in a culture). There are no people who see everything and act neutrally. But there are those who pray that the Spirit would illumine and show them what is their culture and what is the gospel, and seek to live in light of that distinction, deliberately amongst many who are “not like us”.


I merely echo words of many who have more succinctly and beautifully said things before me on this topic. The work of ECONI summarised by a QUB researcher and respected cultural analyst, comes to mind, even if ECONI broadened its views later. I will happily send anyone a copy of “For God and His Glory Alone” who wishes, in the post.

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