Hope, faith and lymphoma – a friend’s story

This post fixes a gaping lacuna in this blog by adding a Page.

Tim Page is a dear friend with whom it has been a privilege and fun to journey with for .. well let’s say quite a while. Here’s Tim’s typically honest reflection on facing reappearance of aggressive lymphoma and a subsequent life or death stem-cell transplant. Glad to aid and abet a patient ‘on the run’ from doctors for a day.

“There either is a god or there is not; there is a ‘design’ or not.” ~ Christopher Hitchens

16-December-2013.  Tomorrow, I enter Belfast City Hospital for stem cell transplant, following three months of chemotherapy for relapse of aggressive lymphoma.  Today, without seeking medical permission (!), I’m taking ‘A Dublin Day’, in a more physically precarious state than I’ll admit to anyone, to buy Christmas presents in Dublin’s Kilkenny Shop.

On the train, I read the late Christopher Hitchens’ book ‘Mortality’.  Eloquently, he shows that people of faith have no monopoly on appreciating beauty or railing against injustice.

A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humour, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so.’

I meet Patrick Mitchel, Director of Studies at Irish Bible Institute.  Patrick is my oldest friend, since Sullivan Prep in Holywood, 1967.  We have lunch in Trinity College before he returns to work.  I go shopping.  Mindful that this may be my last Christmas, significant thought and budget go into fitting gifts for the women in my life!

I get a taxi to the Institute around 5-ish.  Exhausted, I’m given soup and bread before a tour around the impressive college.  I’m a manager in BT, not a theologian.  However, provoked by traumas personal and global, I ask Patrick my perennial question ‘So, does everything work out OK in the end?  Does Love win?’  We don’t arrive at a tidy answer.

Patrick gets me onto the Enterprise.  Half an hour later I discover he has slipped a gift of ‘Surprised by Hope’, by Anglican Tom Wright, into the Kilkenny Shop carrier.  Unexpectedly, the understanding expounded in this book sustains me through the months ahead.

17-December-2013, and back into hospital for high-dose ‘conditioning’ chemo, which kills the immune system, before bags of previously harvested stem cells will be returned on Christmas Eve.  Ascending in the lift up to Ward 10 North, I recall David Tennant’s final words before his Doctor Who regeneration, ‘I don’t want to go!’ and say to Ruth I’m quite OK if we go home right now.  Ruth says we’re heading for ‘Tim Version 2’ and, hand-held, I’m firmly guided back across the threshold of 10 North into isolation Bay J.  I say to the Nurse that I’m terrified of the procedure – possible risks and definite side effects.  ‘That’s easy.  All you have to do is keep breathing.’

During this challenging month, physiologically and emotionally, my ‘shields are down’.  Mindful of suffering on the Ward and suffering of friends, I can’t cope with news items such as Hurricane Agaton in the Philippines.  Instead, on recommendation of my son Downey, I listen to Mumford & Sons sing ‘Ghosts That We Know

So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh they gave me such a fright
But I will hold on with all of my might
Just promise me that we’ll be alright

I do hold on, but will we be alright?   Or does each life end only in putrefaction or crematorium ashes?

As Tim version 1.0 recedes so that, hopefully, Tim version 2.0 can emerge, I share day-by-day the dying Christopher Hitchens’ heartfelt appreciation of friendship, love, irony, humour, parenthood, literature and music.

And also, over time, Tom Wright’s exposition of the implications of Jesus’ resurrection sinks in.

The night before He dies, Jesus says: ‘Because I live, you also will live.’

On Sunday morning, Mary goes with spices, expecting to anoint a decaying body.  Instead, she is first to see the risen Lord, but misperceives Him to be the gardener.  Somehow, His appearance is changed.  His resurrected body represents both continuity of life and God’s ‘future-arrived-in-the-present’ (p.57).

With the church at Colossae, Paul used the phrase ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’.  Until now, I had thought of that in terms of each individual’s private experience.  However, as Tom Wright says

‘When God “saves” people in this life, by working through His Spirit to bring them to faith, and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos.  What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate “salvation”; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future.’ (p212)

Now, writing late in 2014, I’m back to health, work, church and the gym.

Tim Version 2.0 has a firmer hope that there is a designer of this world created as good, with a plan to make all things new again, inaugurated via an empty tomb.

However, I have no tidy answer for people suffering abuse, disease, poverty, severe learning difficulty or in conflict areas.

Since re-entering normal life, I have been in the presence of people who have suffered beyond imagination and yet have shown courage, cheer and somehow a generative approach for others.

Jesus calls us friends, not servants.  But, ‘Hope’ is a verb, an action word.  As we pray for His Kingdom to come, what might we do to work out our prayer?

Published in the Irish Methodist Newsletter, Jan 2015 issue.

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Who Owns Marriage? (6) why gender agnosticism and same-sex marriage is not the solution

Who_Owns_MarriageI said in my comments in the book that, in effect, the state is wishing to affirm homosexual identity by extending the right to marry.

I’m not persuaded that this policy is a necessary or good solution by which to affirm LGBT identity.

Here’s why I don’t think that same-sex marriage is a good idea.

It represents a radical retreat from a ‘maximal’ role of the state in actively legislating ‘for’ the family based on a marriage between a man and a woman from which children emerge (1937 Constitution) to a ‘minimal’ role where the state is now saying it has no interest or role at all in affirming marriage as between a man and women.

The rights of the individual of whatever sexual identity are now to be recognised and affirmed over and above established notions of marriage. Indeed, marriage as traditionally understood as being between a man and woman will be legally erased as a result of the Referendum. The words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ will become legislatively redundant.

I’m not against change, nor do I think that just because the state took a particular position in 1937 is should be set in stone for ever more. Nor do I assume that the state has a duty to legislate according to Christian morality.

But it should be recognised that the state, via the Referendum and recent Family and Relationships Bill, is now demonstrating a remarkable form ‘gender agnosticism’.

The wording of the amendment to the Referendum says

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

This means that the state has now legally has no interest in the gender of parents.

It means that it, in effect, has no vested interest in how children are conceived or brought into a family and indeed is encouraging and affirming alternative artificial methods of procreation since a homosexual couple cannot produce offspring.

It means that there is no value placed on male-female difference: this will inevitably contribute to an increasing erosion of gender norms and acceleration of the normalisation and societal approval of a wide spectrum of sexual identities.

Logically, in light of this legislation and if consent, romantic love and commitment are all that are required for marriage to exist, it is hard to see a reason why marriage should not be extended to a variety of other arrangements.

As I said in my comments in the book, traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble. This legislation will, I think, only speed up the erosion of marriage and the family in Irish society. It continues a process of the hollowing out of marriage with negative implications for society.

And, also as I noted in the comments, the overall direction of the legislation carries with it significant threats to civil and religious liberty.

To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance.

A new intolerance is in the air for those accused of promoting ‘homophobic’ ideas (not being supportive of same-sex marriage or holding to Christian teaching about sex and sexuality).

Over time those outside the new legal consensus will likely be increasingly marginalised. How far that marginalisation will go is unknown, but it is obvious from experience elsewhere that changing the law on same-sex marriage will have profound implications, not all of them foreseen or predictable.

See here for a very fair summary by a UK barrister on the conflict between equality law and human rights inherent in the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Same Sex Marriage and Religious LibertyFor a good example of an academic discussion of this issue it’s worth looking at Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts (2008) In it academics in an American context trace how the introduction of same-sex marriage inevitably triggers various legal church-state conflicts such as:

  • Restrictions on free speech against same-sex marriage in public employment and educational contexts and elsewhere in the public square
  • Withholding of licences and accreditations from professionals and institutions that oppose same-sex marriage
  • Civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodation, housing and education
  • Withdrawal of charity status and other forms of government ‘approval’ and funding from organisations that oppose same-sex marriage

See also this article by Roger Severino in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. He concludes that after the introduction of same-sex marriage

“the chilling effect that either litigation or the threat of litigation would have on religious liberty is real and immediate.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage? (5) An LGBT perspective

Who_Owns_MarriageKirsty Park tells a bit of her story in her commentary on her father’s book.

She grew up gay within evangelical churches and is absolutely convinced that

“the church is complete denial about the extent of the damage it has caused LGBT people worldwide.”

She recounts how she experienced years of people sharing their opinions with her before someone took the time to actually ask her about her experience and how she felt.

She talks of how LGBT experience of rejection by parents means they are eight times more likely to attempt suicide and have higher risks of depression, illegal drug use, and HIV/AIDS infection. And she argues that evangelical attitudes towards gay people are informed by prejudice.

She contrasts Christian attitudes towards homosexuality (a level of disgust, ignorance and sometimes fear) over against attitudes to sex outside marriage or divorce (which she says are Iargely accepted realities by evangelicals with no campaign to change the law to reflect Christian morality on these issues.).

Her heartfelt appeal is similar to Richard Carson’s – take time to really listen and understand.

On the political issue of the referendum, Kirsty is candid in why she wants to marry her partner.

Her reasons for wanting to be married are honest: ‘marriage’ is a powerful word associated with social approval and acceptance. Change in the law is sought as a means of LGBT people having equal access to the social capital that comes with marriage.

She sees marriage not primarily about legal rights but as a quasi-religious ceremony that gives a context for celebration; a rite of passage that publicly affirms the couple. Without the word ‘marriage’ “there is no custom or expectation and no social capital behind the word.” She wouldn’t exactly be excited to hang a banner on the car saying ‘Just Civil Partnershiped’.

She locates marriage as primarily personal and romantic rather than legal and institutional.

Her argument is that Christians are absolutely free to believe that homosexual relationships are sinful and to encourage same-sex attracted believers to pursue a life of celibacy. This is in effect is church business.

But, she argues, Christians can’t have it both ways: the state and Christian views of marriage are drifting further and further apart. Already heterosexual marriage is a long way from Christian ideals as living together, divorce and breakdown stats show.

Christians can still believe in and practice Christian marriage.

“Christians own Christian marriage, and may happily continue to do so. However, Christians can never own the marriages of those who don’t choose to have a Christian marriage, so why attempt to do so in some situations and not in others? Why care when it involves LGBT people but not when it involves heterosexuals?” (65)

Kirsty’s story is moving and real. I don’t know but I guess telling it in a book edited by her father, a pastor and the Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, was a tricky and courageous path to negotiate.

Both her contribution and Richard Carson’s do invite a further conversation between the LGBT community and evangelical Christians. As I tried to say in my own contribution, love must at the very least mean learning to listen well and there is much listening to be done.

However, I’d want to disentangle the personal experience of exclusion from the argument for same-sex marriage. In a final post on this subject I’ll try to explain why I don’ think that same-sex marriage is the right solution to LGBT marginalisation and exclusion.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage? (4) evangelical inconsistency and prejudice?

Who_Owns_MarriageI’ve been reading the contributions of other commentators to the conversation about Nick Park’s 4 chapters. Nick is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.

Chapter 1: A much needed conversation

Chapter 2: Remaining true to evangelical values

Chapter 3: Same-Sex Attraction, Scripture and Sin

Chapter 4: Who Does Own Marriage?

Other contributors include Sean Mullan (former Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland); Richard Carson (Chief Exec of Aids Care and Education Ireland); Brian Finnegan (Editor of Gay Community News magazine, Dublin); Kirsty Park (PhD candidate DCU researching non-heterosexual youth, mental health and the internet); Paul Moynan (Director Christian Action Research Education [CARE] Europe); Michael Nugent (Chairperson of Atheist Ireland); David Quinn (Director of Iona Institute, Dublin).

There’s a lot going on in this conversation and the contributions are varied to say the least.

One thing it shows is how same-sex marriage legislation has become a touchstone of political, social, legal, and cultural change while simultaneously raising questions around Christian attitudes to, and treatment of, gay people.

Picking up the last point – the charge of evangelical inconsistency and prejudice towards gay people comes through most strongly in the contributions of Kirsty Park and Richard Carson. Their voices give the book a passionate and sharp edge.

I’m going to focus on what Richard says in this post and Kirsty in later one.

Richard wants to start with the question of ‘what is the story of the Irish evangelical church and LGBT people?’ ‘Who can answer this question?’ ‘Do we have spaces in our churches to answer this question well?’ and ‘Did we do harm?’

His answer to the last question is a firm ‘Yes’.

He talks about the intention gap between evangelical rhetoric and actual impact on LGBT people; about the need for truth telling rather than evangelicals deluding themselves about the harm they have done and continue to do.

In responding to chapter 3, Richard critiques evangelical reticence to use the term ‘gay Christian’ as a refusal to allow gay believers to define themselves. This is symptom of what he calls ‘straight privilege’ – the assumption of the normalcy of heterosexuality in everyday life. This sort experience of the vast majority takes all sorts of things for granted – such as safety, security and affirmation – that are denied gay people. Richard tells it from his experience:

I didn’t need to define my heterosexuality or explain it or, worst of all, explore what might be its ‘cause’. My capacity to love a woman was celebrated, irrespective of my behavioural choices. I did not need to wonder what areas of ministry or career I might not be a part of because I am straight. If I turned on any source of media I could be reassured that being straight would be represented. I was not required to explain or defend all straight people because I am straight. When I was in the church I had spent decades in, I did not hear from the pulpit that we should welcome straight people to our church should they ever enter, just like Jesus did. Being straight was not a political issue to be discussed, debated or legislated for by others who had never embodied the life of being straight. I even went for months without being called straight. My identity is inescapably heterosexual because this is my life. I cannot separate my faith from it as to do so would mean denying the circumstances of the world in which I live. It is so much a part of me that I do not even realise how much it is a part of me.

In effect Richard’s description could apply to other majority identity experiences – white privilege, male privilege, tribal or nationalist privilege.

Miroslav Volf
Miroslav Volf

Which brings back to mind stuff I did in my PhD over 15 years back on nationalism and identity interacting with Miroslav Volf’s analysis of how majority exclusion works in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

Now there are obvious limits in parallels from national politics to sexual politics but some are suggestive.

I wrote back then that the overwhelming ‘rightness’ and assumed ‘naturalness’ of one’s (national) identity can make one “blind to the injustices and oppressive character” of that identity.

Political exclusion can function in different ways. One is what Volf calls ‘abandonment’ – where the Other is simply ignored as superfluous to our existence. This leads to indifference – where the Other is dismissed from our world and banished from our thoughts.

This links to a comment elsewhere in the book by Sean Mullan about never reading about, hearing, or preaching, a sermon about homophobia and of an evangelical leader telling him to make sure to wash his hands after a debate with LGBT leaders.

As a result, Richard argues that evangelicals are operating out of an innate “ministry contradiction”; on the one hand offering pastoral support and listening to the experiences of gay Christians while on the other hand refusing to acknowledge straight privilege and continuing to think that “our identity in Christ means that gay and straight are on level ground but the reality is that we conform to and regularly accentuate the pattern of this falsely herteronormative world.”

He wants this innate bias named and straight privilege really felt and understood by evangelicals.

I should say that Richard makes no comments one way or another about traditional Christian sexual ethics. Neither does he really engage with the political and legal question in the book’s title about ‘Who Owns Marriage?’ His focus is on a more honest and equal discussion between gay and straight Christians within the church.

So, since a blog is a platform for discussion, what do you think?

Have evangelicals ‘done harm’ to people within their churches who aren’t ‘normal’ and ‘straight’?

Does ‘straight privilege’ blind heterosexuals to gay experience of exclusion, rejection and indifference?

Richard’s appeal is for a relational approach of listening and mutual respect. How far can this be effective if Christians continue to hold to traditional church teaching of sex as a good gift of God to be used within (heterosexual) marriage and celibacy outside it? And either heterosexual or homosexual sexual relationships outside these boundaries being sinful?

Who Owns Marriage? (3) counter-cultural witness

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 2 in which Nick unpacks evangelical beliefs and values around marriage, sex and society.

Nick’s discussion of four core values for evangelical thinking about same-sex marriage forms a really helpful and honest chapter. I particularly liked the description of relationship-based morality which gets to the heart of evangelicalism ‘at its best’. At the end of this discussion Nick concludes that

“an Evangelical passion for holiness, and our search for morality, should lead us more to self-examination and repentance than to an obsession with judging and condemning the actions of others.”

This is so refreshing to hear! In a ‘culture war’ any admission that ‘our’ side might not be completely in the right is an admission of weakness. Nick’s appeal for evangelicals to be self-critically reflective shows that he has no interest in scoring points or trying to control culture. The most significant challenge for all Christians in this debate is not winning a vote ‘from the top down’ but embodying the transforming beauty of loving marriages from ‘the bottom up’. For the reality is that Christians of any hue are fooling themselves if they think that marriage can be ‘saved’ by defeating the same-sex Referendum in May 2015. Trusting in the law to preserve or enforce ethical or moral good is a Christendom instinct and is, I believe, a profoundly mistaken way to witness to the gospel of Christ. Ireland’s recent experience of Christendom should have taught us that. For the reality is that traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble in Ireland. Over 50% of children in Limerick Ireland are now born outside of marriage (the figure nationally is about 35% which is similar to EU averages). Relational breakdown is pervasive. The Referendum is only a symptom of a much deeper process of cultural transformation driven by the West’s embrace of capitalism and consumerism: the autonomous individual; freedom of choice; privatised morality; the pursuit of happiness; and the right to express our own identity – whatever it is (within the law).

The 1937 Irish Constitution was framed in a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. It was assumed that the state had a ‘maximal’ role in shaping law to reflect the Catholic values of the vast majority of the population. Remember De Valera’s vision of his ideal Ireland? It was a place of frugality, spirituality and simplicity in which Ireland’s isolation protected the people from the unspiritual forces of modernisation, materialism and capitalism. Those hopes now seem quaint in a globalised world. Let me illustrate it this way. At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying “No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation.” In his day, the individual was subordinate to the greater cause of the nation. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say “No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.” Now the nation is subordinate to the rights of the individual – and is legislating accordingly.

It is in this sort of context that Christians are to live and witness. This is where Nick’s call for repentance and self-reflection is so important. First we need to look at ourselves. How well are we living up to the high ideal of Christian marriage that Nick describes? The American ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual satisfaction is a very modern development that has led the church to neglect the public and political nature of sex in Christian theology. If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.

Of course love is a pretty important part of Christian marriage! But I like the way Hauerwas challenges popular perceptions as he talks about a minister asking a young couple getting married if they love one another;

“What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you are in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”

If this sounds strange maybe it is because we have been more shaped by our consumerist and individualist culture that we would like to admit. This isn’t the place for detailed discussion of the development of Christian marriage since Bible times save to make a few brief points. For centuries marriage was a communal and political ‘institution’ that provided the context for sex, the raising of children, giving them legal status, and the ordering of property rights. Interpersonal love had no significant place in Christian marriage from the New Testament, up through the Middle Ages to the Reformation. For much of this time marriage was seen as a lower spiritual option than the religious life of celibacy. After all, both Jesus and Paul (a widower?) were single men and Paul, while seeing both marriage and singleness as good valid options, preferred the latter (1 Cor. 7). More negatively, Augustine’s theology of sex as the means by which original sin is transmitted and the only legitimate sex within marriage being for the purpose of procreation would cast a long shadow over Christian attitudes to sex. It was at the Reformation that marriage received a new theological assessment. While rejecting the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, Luther considered marriage a God-given and most natural form of life, to be lived in faith by the grace of God. Sexuality is a good gift of God, to such a degree that Luther could not imagine a woman or man living without sex unless they had been given the rare gift of chastity. He also spoke against forced marriages and the need for the couple to have desire for each other. This was a new appreciation of women as marital partners. He, with other Reformers, saw marriage as a high calling, a vocation for a couple to bring up their children well. Marriage in this sense is far more than mere legitimation of sexual desire or a private partnership for mutual fulfilment.

Hopefully, this quick review helps explain Hauerwas’s comment. The emergence of love as the overriding motivation for marriage is a recent development, yet ‘mere’ romantic love or hopes of conjugal bliss will not sustain a marriage through difficult times. An authentically Christian view of marriage needs to be robust.

It’s time to make some concluding points (and I’ve run out of space to comment on chapters 3 and 4!):

First, an authentically Christian view of marriage stands in increasingly sharp contrast to the personalised romantic understanding of marriage as a private affair between two individuals of whatever gender that now dominates Irish and Western culture. The basic orientation of a Christian marriage is outward, towards the church community and wider world. The man and woman’s love is a transformative gift of God that goes beyond their mutual desire and enjoyment to serve and bless others. Marriage in this sense is a pathway of God’s grace. As Christians are by definition people who have been forgiven, so they are to be people of forgiveness (Roms. 15:7). For without forgiveness a marriage will not survive, grow and flourish. The calling of Christians to get married and stay married is a sign of the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness being worked out in everyday life. This vision of marriage demands my complete self-giving to my other and a willingness to be transformed by that relationship of difference as it is worked out in relationship with God and with others in the community of faith. All of this is to say that for Christians, sex and marriage serve a very different vision and purpose than they do in our contemporary society.

This is why I agree with Nick Park’s suggestions about civil partnerships for all and the state withdrawing from the marriage business in Chapter 4. For the state to take upon itself the right to extend a redefined notion of ‘marriage’ is exactly the wrong direction to be going. This is why I will be voting ‘No’. Justice and equality can better be served by civil partnerships for all. It is a very curious aspect of the Referendum debate how marriage is being viewed as an idealised status to which everyone has a right to aspire. The law should not be used primarily as a stamp of societal approval and recognition of personal desires – which is what the legislation is primarily about. (But neither do I believe the sky will suddenly fall in if and when it passes).

Second, more recent emphasis in Christian marriage since the Reformation on the necessity and high calling of marriage has actually marginalised the equally if not more valid Christian calling of singleness. As a result many single Christians can be made to feel second-class citizens within the church. We need to beware the ‘idolatry’ of marriage and the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation. The fact that Christians are followers of an unmarried Jewish man should be a reminder that marriage and sex is not essential to live a completely fulfilled life! Also, Jesus’ teaching on the temporary nature of marriage in this life should also give us pause about unduly exalting marriage as the ultimate goal of happiness, personal fulfilment or affirmation of identity (Luke 20:34-5).

Third, it’s fascinating just how counter-cultural the early church’s practice of family and marriage was. The first Christians were accused of undermining the family structures of the Roman Empire by allowing men, women, Roman citizens and even slaves to be baptised into their community quite independently of the permission of the patriarchal head of the Roman household. The church became the ‘household’ of God (a word used frequently of the church in the NT) whose head was the risen Lord not the pater familias. It’s hard for us to imagine how radical this was in a highly stratified world. Just imagine a slave with the gift of teaching instructing his master in the church gathering! Or a woman prophet prophesying to a mixed gender community. The basis for membership of this new family was faith in Christ. Their common father was God whom they could even call ‘abba’. Anyone could join – across the great gender, social and religious boundaries of the ancient world (Gal. 3:28). It was to be a united household marked by love, acceptance and forgiveness not power or control. Significantly it did not require the establishment of biological families. The household of God was to be ‘propagated’ by witness and mission. The goal or hope of the new community was future orientated to a new creation to come.

None of this was to diminish family structures but it was a radical departure from a Roman way of seeing the family and the world. For this reason the early church was seen as a threat to accepted societal norms and posed an implicit (non-violent) challenge to Empire. In time, this challenge would result in violent persecution by the state.

I mention all this neither to suggest that Christians today are about to face state persecution nor to equate the Irish government with the Roman Empire! My point is that for Christians, family, marriage, sex and sexuality is part and parcel of their identity to live counter-culturally. Christians belong to a different story to that of the world. During Christendom this distinction got covered over and many Christians assumed the state would always be ‘on their side’. As we move more and more into a post-Christendom secular Ireland, the gap is widening fast. The same-sex Referendum is a reminder that the state does not remotely share a Christian view of marriage and the wider culture reflects the values of hyper-consumerism more than any other belief system. This should not be a surprise to Christians. The challenge it poses to us is what does it look like to be a counter-cultural community of Christians in 21st century Ireland?

Finally, linked to that last question and to Nick’s comments about evangelicals and social justice, I believe that there is a question that evangelicals too often overlook or ignore in this whole debate. Namely, how do we respond to those that are different to us; who have opposing objectives; whom might even be seen as ‘enemies’? Jesus’ command is pretty clear – love. At the very least love means listening well. It must mean opposing stereotypes and ‘doing unto others as we would have them do unto us’ in terms of how we speak and think. To love gay people will include building communities where everyone is welcomed and respected without fear of being singled out, shamed, embarrassed or judged. Can evangelical churches be places where people of same-sex orientation can feel secure enough to be open about their sexuality as they explore the Christian faith? Are Irish evangelicals ready or able to encourage, affirm and rejoice in an openly gay celibate Christian using his or her gifts in ministry in their local church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Own’s Marriage? (2) the issue of religious liberty

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 1 of the book in which Nick sets the context for the debate: I’m picking up on his personal experience of how hostile and polarised the debate has become.

Nick develops some reasons why it is important for Christians to speak into this debate rather than stay out of the fray. I find myself in agreement with most of his arguments. I think it is an overstatement to say that how evangelical Christians speak into this Referendum “may well determine the long term future of the Evangelical movement in Ireland” but he is surely right to say that the real challenge is to engage in a way that manifests “the presence and influence of Jesus Christ.” Redefining marriage is an important issue and Christians need to be making a positive contribution rather than staying silent, both in what they say and how they say it.

As citizens of this state, Christians have exactly the same opportunity and right as anyone else to articulate their vision of what sort of society will best lead to human flourishing. Part of this task will include opposing harmful and destructive policies and ideas as well as developing positive practical proposals for a way forward (Nick develops the latter in chapter 4). Of course, the ‘rubber hits the road’ in articulating what sort of society should evangelical Christians be arguing for and what should they be arguing against? Let me focus on one theme that I think is very significant that Nick alludes to – that of religious liberty.

Nick comments that increasingly where one stands on same-sex marriage is indeed being “viewed as a litmus test for being a decent human being”. There is a rising level of hostility to, and impatience with, people who do not jump to ‘get with the programme’ of same-sex legislation (to quote David Cameron lecturing the Church of England in Parliament a couple of years ago). The same-sex marriage campaign has developed enormous political and social capital, such that it would be a shock (to me anyway) if the Referendum is not passed in May. It resonates deeply with themes embedded in our Western culture: individualism, the pursuit of happiness, equality, freedom, liberation from oppressive institutional structures and tolerance. This is a narrative of progress, inclusion and justice as compared to the old repressive ‘Catholic Ireland’ of the past. To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance. Now that is a hard place from which to gain a hearing! Such labelling acts to exclude those who dissent from the majority position as voices not worth listening to. Potentially I can imagine such exclusion leading eventually to legislation to withdraw state support (funding, charity status etc) from organisations that do not ‘get with the programme’.

Nick talks about the fragmentation of postmodernism. One of the biggest political and social questions in Ireland in the years to come will be “How do we live with our deepest differences” when those differences appear to be getting deeper and deeper? If, in the past, tolerance in a free society was tolerating views you disagreed with or even found distasteful, today tolerance seems to be in the process of being reformed to mean only tolerating views with which you agree. Os Guinness has written about how the liberal pursuit of equality can become an illiberal imposition by the state of its values at the expense of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In this context, and especially coming from our experience as a small minority, I think it is the role of evangelicals in Ireland to be actively contending for religious liberty.

Now, too often Christians in the West only get all hot and bothered when it is our rights that are being mildly threatened (like not being able to wear a crucifix to work or being sued for not baking a cake for a gay wedding). The real challenge, I believe, for evangelicals is to look beyond themselves to argue for religious liberty for all citizens, whether religious or secular. In other words, whatever rights we wish for ourselves, we should be willing to defend for others. For it is this sort of society that will be most free – where believers and atheists, Muslims and agnostics can live together within a civil public square. By that I mean where the state gets on with its job and citizens have some sort of shared vision of the common good while having the freedom of conscience to be themselves. Some may say this is a naive pipedream, but what is the alternative? Are we going to replace a dominant Catholic Christendom that had little room for minority voices with a dominant secularism that has little room for minority voices? Are evangelical Christians just going to shake their heads at the big bad world and withdraw from it? Or are we going to love that world by seeking the best for our fellow citizens by trying to help to build a civil society that promotes maximal freedom: a freedom to be human; a freedom to worship; a freedom to share our faith; a freedom to practise Christian marriage; a freedom to disagree without silencing each other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage?

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Alongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me). I have read the core text but not the other contributions yet – copy of the book on the way.

Who_Owns_Marriage

This is what I said about the book.

To begin, I want to congratulate Nick Park on his initiative, clarity and courage in getting this conversation going about ‘Who Owns Marriage?’ There have been probably millions of words written about Christianity, homosexuality and same-sex marriage – many generating more heat than light or simply repeating already well-rehearsed positions. Nick writes with an all-too-rare capacity for critical self-reflection about his own community. He also demonstrates a keen understanding of the LGBT experience of exclusion and marginalisation combined with sharp insights into the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of Irish culture and politics. If all contributions to this debate mirrored such attitudes it would be a much less hostile and polarised discussion.

I use the word ‘courage’ because he has even invited contributors like me from a wide range of perspectives to comment publicly on what he has written! In the process he risks getting ‘shot at’ from both ‘sides’.

On the one hand, many Christians still have a default assumption, shaped by centuries of Christendom and our recent experience of ‘Catholic Ireland’, that it is the state’s duty to legislate in accordance with their moral intuitions. Nick rightly unpacks and questions that assumption while developing proposals that to some Christians will seem like going in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, he is not afraid of articulating a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality that does not recoil from using words like sin.

It is this sort of robust conversation that helps get beyond easy stereotypes and hidden assumptions. Whether you agree with everything he says (which is unlikely given how fractious this issue has become) I believe that we should all be grateful to Nick for how clearly he has explained the complex range of religious and political issues around the same-sex marriage Referendum while simultaneously giving readers an honest and authentic look into how evangelical Christians are wrestling with those issues. As a result, both Christians within the evangelical spectrum and others to whom the word ‘evangelical’ may be little more than shorthand for ‘fundamentalist’ will profit from reading and engaging with this book.

I’ll post my contributions later and hopefully some engagement with the other contributions when I’ve read them.

Comments, as ever, welcome.