article 1999

I found this article I wrote in 1999 about the Irish identity and evangelicals – had forgotten about it. Sort of interesting to compare then and now. Biggest change has been the more inclusive nature of Irish identity and the radically different globalised make up of the broadly defined  evangelical community in Ireland.

Any other observations, as ever, welcome.


Why bother with Christian citizenship? What is it anyway? Is not the Christian gospel unchanging? Isn’t the canon closed? God has spoken. Is it not irrelevant to being a Christian? Aren’t we aliens and strangers after all? Let’s just get on with following Jesus! These are just some of the objections some may raise about a discussion of Christian citizenship. In this article we will examine whether such objections are justified by trying to answer three questions. What actually is citizenship? What principles should control what a Christian form of citizenship will look like?  Finally, what are the challenges facing Christians citizens in the Republic of Ireland?

Defining Citizenship

Any discussion of citizenship is intrinsically bound up with the role of the nation-state in the modern (western) world. Citizens are members of nations. Yet while almost universally admired as a ‘good thing’, citizenship is a slippery and controversial term to define. On the one hand some emphasise the idea of citizenship-as-legal-status (the rights of members within the nation-state). We ‘belong’ to a given nation, a status that is ours by right through birth. As citizens we have access to certain legal rights (e.g. health care, basic level of income). This approach is closely linked to liberal political thought where the individual is king. Each person is free to live a private life and pursue his or her own wants and needs with little reference to society. Indeed society exists to serve the needs of individuals. Citizens may have the opportunity to serve the nation but only if they so wish. Active citizenship is very much a lifestyle choice. In this view citizenship is a status that confers freedom and demands little.

On the other hand, others argue for citizenship-as-desirable-activity. In most western nations today the duties of citizenship (apart from military service) are largely passive and undemanding (paying taxes, obeying laws). An over emphasis on citizens’ rights (welfare state, individualism) is actually eroding the society that granted citizenship in the first place. In this view, good citizenship is measured in active public-spirited contribution to the wider community. It stresses the importance of public rather than private life and the value of achieving the greatest public good. Citizenship confers rights but also responsibilities. Active citizenship is not just a voluntary option but an obligation. Proponents of what has been called the civic republican view, suggest that the state’s role is not just to liberate individuals, but to encourage citizens to act in light of the belief that their rights are not prior to those of the state.

This can only be a quick sketch on the debate about citizenship. Clearly an over-emphasis on either rights or responsibilities will lead to distortions. A society is not just made up of individuals pursuing private agendas. The logic of the civic republican view hints at the introduction of compulsory duties for authentic citizens. A balanced understanding of citizenship will involve a combination of rights and duties. The main point I want to make is that as we turn to Christian citizenship, I will be talking much more in terms of the citizenship-as-desirable-activity. I believe this concept offers a closer parallel to a biblical framework. The Christian too belongs to a wider community (the body of Christ). The believer is not saved just to pursue his or her own destiny but is called to sacrifice and self-giving. For Paul, an authentic apostle chooses to give up legitimate rights rather than insist on them (1 Cor. 9). Service is not optional, it is part and parcel of Christian discipleship. If this is the character of citizenship within the Kingdom of God, I would suggest that it also must shape the character of our citizenship within the nation-state to which we happen to belong. Christians should be actively ‘doing good’. As citizens of heaven we are called to transform the culture in which we live by living out and proclaiming the values of the Kingdom of God. But how do we decide how to be good citizens in a fallen world? Are not nations of the world corrupt and nationalism an idolatrous evil? What should our relationship be with our own particular national identity?

Christians and National Identity

Miroslav Volf argues that the key for the church to establish a healthy relationship to its host culture lies in developing a balanced relationship between distance from the culture and belonging to it. For Volf, distance involves a ‘stepping away from’ the demands of and loyalty to one’s own cultural identity. He uses the paradigm of Abraham to elucidate this point,

To be a child of Abraham and Sarah and to respond to the call of their God means to make an exodus, to start a voyage, become a stranger … at the very core of Christian identity lies an all encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures. A response to a call from that God entails a rearrangement of a whole network of allegiances … Departure is part and parcel of Christian identity.

This concept of distance and belonging has three important outcomes. First, the creation of distance allows space within us to accept difference. Distance should ‘loosen’ the grip of our own culture on us and open us up to others outside our own identity. The second benefit of distance, which is critical to Christian citizenship, is that it fosters the prophetic calling to judge and evaluate the evil within every culture. This especially includes one’s own culture. Distance is a prerequisite for discernment; it helps to prevent the insidious corruption of cultural captivity. Distance protects against religious nationalism (where religion is used as a tool to legitimise nationalism) which can be defined as belonging without distance. Third, distance must be balanced with belonging. Distance without belonging leads to cultural isolation. It reduces Christian witness to irrelevance and shouting from the sidelines. But more than this, the need for belonging is grounded in the profound theological significance of the cross of Christ. Christians are not called to become aliens to their own culture by retreating to an alternative Christian sub-culture disconnected from the outside world (this is one of the major failings of Fundamentalism). Belonging calls for an incarnational Christianity that is ‘of’ a culture yet distinct from it, or as Jesus put it, is ‘salt and light’ to the world.

Christian Citizenship in the Republic of Ireland

How then do we apply these three principles of Christian citizenship within the Republic of Ireland?

The first principle is that we must ‘sit loose’ with our own flawed national identity. For me as a Northerner living and working in the South, the challenge is not to allow my cultural background to hinder the progress of the gospel. It means rejecting the historical stereotype of Northern Protestantism towards Catholic Ireland as oppressive, authoritarian, superstitious, incompetent and priest ridden as opposed to the liberty, freedom and independence of Protestant Ulster. Stereotypes are just weapons in the long cultural and political conflict between Unionism and Irish Nationalism. As citizens of heaven we need to create distance from these transitory cultural identities. It also means developing an objective discernment about our own identities and being willing to abandon anything from our culture that acts as a stumbling block to others hearing the gospel of Good News. Christian ministry in the Republic is not helped by events like Drumcree where the gospel is perceived as being aligned with the political cause of Unionism and Orangeism.

One of the joys and privileges of working in the Republic over the last ten years has been the experience of meeting and befriending fellow Christians from an Irish nationalist culture and identity. Apart from constantly reminding me how culture bound Northern evangelicalism is (where the way we like to do things is equated with Christianity itself – and I’m not suggesting this is somehow unique to Northern Ireland) it has been a huge learning experience. I have come to love and appreciate the informality and sense of community within Irish culture. Over time you learn to ‘see things’ from another perspective while also beginning to understand the complex emotional attachment to the main pillars of Irish national identity expressed through sport, language, music, land and religion.  I have not somehow ‘lost’ my own identity, but it has been made more porous. Sitting loosely with our own cultural identity allows us to create the space within ourselves to learn to listen, respect, reach out, and relate with others outside our identity with grace and humility.

The outsider’s need to understand Irish identity is not an academic exercise. It fosters the ability to forge new friendships and relate to people where they are.  The goal must be to model our relationships on God’s gracious acceptance of his people in Christ. Effective evangelism is the overriding priority for the church in the Republic. In an Irish culture still largely revolving around family and community ties I believe that winning trust, showing sincere love and respect, and establishing in-depth relationships is the key to earning a hearing. It is a slow, painstaking process without easy shortcuts

The second principle is that distance also facilitates a greater sense of objectivity about our own national identity. Christian citizens in the Republic face the challenge of making a prophetic impact on the culture in which they live. De Valera’s Ireland of a claustrophobic all-pervasive Catholic cultural nationalism (an example of belonging without distance) is but a receding memory. There is a distinct need for the church to promote an evangelical perspective on modern Irish culture. Ireland is an increasingly post-modern, liberal, pluralist society that is in the process of embracing secular materialism. Wide scale rejection of the Roman Catholic Church is generally equated with rejection of Christianity per se. In my view, the priorities facing Christian citizens in the Republic include the need to apply biblical principles in a relevant way to Irish life and culture and to equip Christians in Ireland to engage with, and think with a Christian mind about, the culture in which they live.

Third is the principle of establishing belonging. An enormous challenge facing evangelicalism in the Republic is that it has always been historically distant from Irish identity. It has been alien, foreign and ‘Other’ to the majority of Irish people. A key component of the success of Irish national identity this century was the creation of a powerful feeling of belonging to the story of the nation’s noble history. Such a feeling bonds individuals in a common experience, within a single identity, as a particular people. There is the sense within contemporary Irish identity of having struggled, suffered and fought together and now at last the nation is reaching an era of prosperity and boom. It is story from which Protestants and evangelicals have both been excluded and from which they have withdrawn. Since Partition the denominational churches have been numerically decimated. The subsequent retreat, defence, and decline has left the churches trapped in an enclosed sub-culture, virtually irrelevant to Irish society.

Recent decades have seen the emergence of many new fellowships and churches made up of Irish believers in most main towns throughout Ireland. Yet even here there has been enormous difficulty creating a positive identity. Most new believers rejected Catholicism as incompatible with evangelical faith. There was often the subsequent trauma of leaving one’s  ‘core of self-understanding’ behind, of abandoning yourself, your family, your community and your national identity. There was success in creating distance but often at the expense of any sense of belonging. Assertion of difference easily slipped into anti-Catholicism. Burning of bridges, both theological and cultural meant that many fellowships are spiritually, emotionally and even physically isolated from the wider community. As with the Protestant churches in the past, this has been a process of both exclusion and active withdrawal. The result is that evangelicalism remains culturally isolated, virtually unknown, and often misunderstood.

I believe the choice for Christian citizens in the Republic then is between remaining distant, becoming introverted and retreating to the comfort of cultural segregation, or increasingly seeking to belong to Irish life and culture. In other words, taking up the challenge of being active citizens. This is not suggesting a strategy for cultural respectability. The real issue at stake is the advance of the Kingdom of God.

What will a specifically Christian citizenship look like? At the local church and individual level it may mean deliberately embracing aspects of Irish life and culture, whether hurling or Irish music. It may mean Christians reaching outside the boundaries of their own safe world and getting involved in ‘doing good’ in the wider community whether in business or social action. It may mean contributing to local radio and print media and parents taking active roles in school committees. It may mean rethinking the way we ‘do church’ to reflect the informal and communal nature of Irish society. It offers, in other words, the challenge of exploring a host of ways by which to participate in the wider community. The problem is that evangelicals are so active already with a myriad of church activities that there is often no time for other commitments. Developing a Christian citizenship tends to be a low priority occupation. However, I would suggest that if churches choose to remain distant, in the long term, they may pay a heavy price for cultural isolation.


2 thoughts on “article 1999

  1. I really enjoyed your article – I read few “over here” that are so challenging and thought provoking. Though i don’t know exactly how to enter into a conversation about Irish identity – I know that more and more over here one’s identity as a follower of Jesus is challenging.

    I am reading a book that might provide some fuel for thought and conversation. Luke Timothy Johnson has written, “Among the Gentiles; Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity”. The author offers four lenses through which he examines the early centuries of our faith. There is a powerful parallel running between what believers faced then and what we deal with now. I highly recommend this book to challenge anyone engaged in a discussion of religion and culture.

    I will certainly be reading more on your blog — Thank you – and God bless you!
    Michael ec4v12

  2. thanks Michael and welcome to the blog. I’ll keep an eye out for Johnson’s book. Yes, it is the ‘genius’ of Christianity and the amazing grace of God how ALL people from ALL cultures and ethnicities, of whatever social status can be invited into the one covenant community of God. This was deeply subversive in the ancient world and remains so today. A challenge for church communities is to reflect that radical diversity.

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