My Kingdom is not of this World, said Jesus.
And when He spoke those words, His nation, Israel, was occupied by Rome, and ruled by a hedonistic ‘king’, both of which oppressed and abused the people.
Jesus’s kind of thinking has led some to believe that Christianity is of no earthly use; has nothing to say about the present; and tends towards the impractical. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, for Christianity changes the hearts, minds and actions of those who live ‘here and now’. Furthermore, its principles and values infuse the lives of the who have come to believe in the King and the Kingdom of Heaven, and they apply its values to the world they can see, and in which we all live in.
Sometimes, however, the values of Christ’s Kingdom can appear as almost imperceptible; and perhaps one of the disadvantages of living in a christianised West has been that the Kingdom of Heaven has looked very much like the world around us. If, for example, Church attendance is an acceptable and respectable pass-time, there may be little to mark out those who actually believe in the Kingdom of Heaven, from those who do not. Likewise, if the general moral tone of society looks and feels at least a little bit like Christian morality.
Indeed, many Western nations have been so Christianised that their national, moral and religious identities have overlapped—but things have changed.
National and religious identities no longer sit as comfortably together as they once did; and national, cultural and religious moralities have become something of a battlefield. It has not often been the case, however, that one’s Christianity has threatened to strike at the heart of one’s own national identity.
Someone might, for example, be a Christian who lives in America and be opposed to abortion yet still remain an American. Culturally speaking, nothing is threatened by taking a pro life view.
However, in some parts of the world these ideas are more nuanced. There, they have been much more entwined historically, and are now coming into conflict with each other in ways that we might not have expected—but about which we ought to have been more alert.
Northern Ireland is one of those places; and while Northern Ireland has always had its troubles and is in many way a place apart, the recent turn of events is interesting and may even be instructive for Christians in other parts of the world.
Religion and national identity have always divided people in Ireland with one particular religious identity very often being associated with a particular national and cultural identity. So much so that it has been possible to designate one group of people as Catholic and Irish Nationalist, and another as Protestant and British Unionist. But the divisions are falling within these communities now, and primarily because our national governments have been making decisions which have an impact on Christian morality.
And there is no clearer example of this than the question of abortion.
A little background is required.
About 20 years ago political parties in Northern Ireland reached an historic agreement which lead to a power-sharing assembly in Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Then, in 2017, the Stormont Assembly collapsed and has not met since.
A variety of reasons for its collapse have been cited, and are summarised here; however, the Northern Irish parties have been put under increased pressure to restore the power-sharing assembly. In July of this year, the Westminster Parliament meeting in London voted to legalise same-sex marriage and liberalise the abortion law in Northern Ireland… but only if Stormont was not restored by October 21, 2019.
It was an unprecedented vote, and one which interfered in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. Neither was it without irony: Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican party who do not take their seats in Westminster and who oppose British rule in Ireland, supported Britain’s decisions as they affected Ireland. At the same time, the DUP, a Unionist party and one which benefits from a broadly Protestant Fundamentalist/Christian vote, who do take their seats and support the United Kingdom, spoke against the outcome.
A number of things seem to be going on:
First of all, there is pressure from the governments in London and Dublin to see Stormont restored. There is also pressure from the secular/liberal lobby to change the law in Northern Ireland so that it reflects that in the rest of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Brexit (the process of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union) has complicated further matters on the island of Ireland, and, as ever in the politics and history of Ireland, difficulty for one ‘side’ is an opportunity for the other.
As you will note, nothing is straightforward.
Then we must add to the mix the fact that many Christians—Protestant and Catholic— have been particularly concerned about the proposed changes to the abortion law. A measure of their concern may be gauged by observing the recent pro-life rally in the grounds of Stormont. And, as the October deadline approaches, some have noted that it may be possible to prevent the changes if Stormont was restored. If this happened, and if there was sufficient cross-community consensus with votes from pro-life members across the political/national divide, it may be possible to stop the changes to the abortion law. Consequently, many unborn lives would be saved.
But at what price? And here is the point of tension.
Because in Northern Ireland we must always ask: where will the dividing lines fall?
There is, therefore, a debate within the Protestant/Unionist community (also here), and one within the Catholic/Nationalist community. (Careful readers will note the difference of interpretation concerning the assumed political aims of Northern Ireland’s parties, particularly that of Sinn Fein.)
Because some feel that if there is any hope of Stormont being restored and DUP (the Unionist Party) carrying a pro-life vote, then something will have to be offered to the main Republican Party (Sinn Fein) who are pro-abortion.
According to some, that ‘something’ is one of the key Republican demands: an Irish Language Act—something many unionists fear will promote the Irish Republican cause and lead to a United Ireland.
And so, after many years of the Irish Troubles, of national and religious conflict, and the forming and collapsing of power-sharing governments, one of the questions comes down to this:
Could, should, the DUP (the unionist and broadly speaking Christian party), grant an Irish Language Act in order to restore Stormont and stop abortion liberalisation?
Or to put it another way, the question is this: ought we to accept a dilution of our earthly nationality if it saved unborn lives?
One of the articles linked above, “An Irish language act cannot be granted to stop abortion”, addresses that question.
It is a thoughtful, measured and well written opinion, and one of the benefits of good writing is that it draws attention to our dilemmas and forces us to make choices.
And increasingly it appears that Christians like me, people who have long been able to benefit from preserving both their religious and national identity in a christianised West, have decisions to make.
Am I, for example, prepared to see a dilution of my nationality if it might save unborn lives?
Would that mean, for example, that I was prepared to see an Irish Language Act if it saved unborn lives?
Or could it be that Christians will have to accept an even greater loss?
Would I, for example, be prepared to lose my national identity altogether if it meant remaining loyal to the Kingdom of Heaven?
One of the most interesting sections in the piece was this:
“Such Christian principles remind me of an evangelical friend whom I would have expected to be unionist but who was indifferent to Irish unity. That was temporal he said, and ultimately unimportant.”
The response in the article was this:
“But some of us are more focused on the here and now.”
To say that, however, is to invoke the misunderstanding that the Kingdom of Heaven has nothing to say about this world.
The Kingdom of Jesus may not be of this world, but it is very much in this world, and it has many things to say to this world. One of them is that unborn lives are more important than national identities.
And unborn lives are very bit as much about “here and now” as national identity.
Our “evangelical friend” is right: the Kingdoms of this world are temporal… and we are not to seek after them, at least not first.
We may not like the situation our politicians have been placed in, or the decisions our national government has made, but we are rarely in control of those circumstances—we can only respond to them, as other brothers and sisters have had to respond to the changing circumstances in their own lives and nations before us. And we are to remain loyal to the Kingdom of Heaven, to its values and its principles, and to bring them to bear on this world, whenever and wherever we can.
Some of us in Northern Ireland may soon have to choose between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of Christ. We may have to make political decisions which will prioritise the Kingdom of Heaven and our Christian faith over our national identities. We may soon no longer have the benefit of enjoying both ‘God’ and ‘Nation’ as if there was no conflict between them. Perhaps the same distinctions will come to your country too.
The losses we face may seem small, but perhaps we must get used to making them—and exercise and strengthen our decision making capacities, so that if greater decisions come along we will be well prepared for them.
And as we reflect on this, perhaps the best way I can finish this piece is to invoke some religion and politics, and point to the High Altar in the British and Christian Westminster Abbey, where we read words from Revelation:
“The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.”