Patrick – an ancient voice against slavery

Recent figures estimate that there are about 46 million slaves in the world today. The Global Slavery Index says that slavery exists in 167 countries. India has the highest number of slaves and North Korea the highest percentage of slaves per capita.

One oft overlooked aspect of St Patrick’s legacy is that he was one of the very first voices of the post-biblical Christian world protesting against slavery. (It would be an interesting piece of research to trace the development of Christian opposition to slavery. I’m sure it exists).

slaveryHis Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus can be read at the Irish Academy website. In it, Patrick tells the story of how the soldiers has brutally attacked a group of new baptised Christians, killing many and kidnapping others to sell on to ‘apostate Scots and Picts.’

Patrick had a letter delivered to the soldiers, asking for the return of the prisoners. The soldiers scoffed at his request.

Several things stand out from Patrick’s letter.

First, rather than stand idly by, he gets involved. He does so out a moral obligation to stand up for those with whom he is ministering.

I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel, even in persecutions which are no small matter, to the very ends of the earth. This is despite the malice of the Enemy through the tyranny of Coroticus, who respects neither God, nor his priests

He is willing to confront Coroticus and asks for help from others in doing so.

I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it in no way be withdrawn or hidden from any person. Quite the opposite – let it be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself.

How might Patrick’s actions be a challenge for us today to get involved for slaves who cannot act for themselves?  Organisations like IJM and Tearfund act on the behalf of slaves. Maybe the best way we can celebrate St Patrick’s day is to give to their work.

Second, as a pastor and a leader he grieves with those impacted by violence and injustice.

That is why I will cry aloud with sadness and grief: O my fairest and most loving brothers and sisters whom I begot without number in Christ, what am I to do for you?… I grieve for you who are so very dear to me.

How does Patrick’s compassion for victims speak to us today?

Third, he begins to articulate a theological critique of slavery. It takes this form:

  • No-one has a right to enslave another human being for whom Christ “died and was crucified.”
  • It matters how wealth is made.

    Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach.

  • God will judge those who act unjustly. Violence will reap its reward

So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord.

  • In contrast, Christians can have hope even beyond brutal injustice and death.

This unspeakably horrifying crime has been carried out. But, thanks to God, you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. I see you clearly: you have begun your journey to where there is no night, nor sorrow, nor death, any more.Rather, you leap for joy, like calves set free from chains, and you tread down the wicked, and they will be like ashes under your feet.

And, remarkably, but in authentic Jesus fashion, he even holds out the offer of forgiveness to Coroticus and his men if they repent and release the captives. It seems as if they were at least nominally Christian. God’s grace is available to all, but it needs a response of faith and a turning to a new life.

However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptised women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity.

This is a remarkably rich Christian response to injustice and slavery within a short letter from the 5th Century. Part of this may be because Patrick was, of course, a slave himself. He knew first hand what it was to be torn away from his home and family and trafficked to a foreign land. Indeed, Patrick is the only person we know of in the 5th century who was enslaved and lived to tell the tale.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

Transforming post-Catholic Ireland

Over at her blog Gladys Ganiel has a summary of a book launch event ‘author meets critics’ (of which Gladys had invited me to be one) in TCD about her recent book, Transforming post-Catholic Ireland: religious practice in late modernity (OUP).

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My sense from reading Gladys is that she is arguing that present religious practice in post-Catholic Ireland is an improvement on the past. Three big arguments of the book are that:

  • Increased diversity in the religious market gives increased space for personal transformation; space is created on the margins where people can work for religious, social and political transformation.
  • The prevalence of extra institutional religion counters hard secularisation theories: it exists as an intermediate space between pure individualism detached from church all together and institutional religious expression. Extra-institutional religion is not totally free-floating, it happens in relationship and community, often with a concern for social justice.
  • Gladys argues extra institutional religion has potential to contribute to reconciliation more than other traditional institutional Christian churches.

Stories of individuals told in the book ring true to the diverse, blurred and sometimes contradictory religious landscape of contemporary Ireland. They brought to mind some very recent conversations with friends

  • someone who while still involved locally in a church that he gives thanks for, describes himself as an ‘exile’ within the institutional church. It is an alien place; he is a ‘stranger’ in the midst.
  • two recent separate conversations with friends who both struggle with the irrelevance gap between church and their high pressure, competitive and intense worlds of work. Spirituality, for both, is found ‘extra-institutionally’
  • a friend brought up in a conservative Protestant denomination, with little or no natural contact with Catholicism, Irish culture or identity – now finding a richness and depth within Catholic spirituality and enjoying a silent retreat in a Jesuit centre near Dublin
  • friends who have journeyed away from the Catholic Church, drawn to a more personal, warm, inclusive and less sacramental expression of Christianity within an evangelical community church

How would you describe your relationship with institutional Christianity I wonder? Or, to put it another way, where most do you find authenticity, spiritual refreshment, spiritual growth and learning? Where most do you find space for building relationships across boundaries and opportunities to work for justice?

However you read Gladys’ book, the trends and stories within it pose questions to historic denominations in particular – and whose membership is in relatively rapid decline.

One response may be to decry ‘extra-institutional’ spirituality as a sign of an individualism shaped by consumerism – religious shopping for the I-generation. A spirituality that all too comfortably side-steps the demands of Christian discipleship – accountability, community, costly mission, a willingness to be rejected and marginalised?

But such a response locates the ‘problem’ externally – with those pesky individualists who don’t go along with the status quo. It ignores their passion for serving others, for social justice and a pursuit of community.

The better response to a book like this (for churches) is to look within; to listen; to reflect on practice that, in Christendom, meant that churches became what Gladys calls religious ‘public utilities’ dispensing services to all while relegating personal faith and authentic living of the Christian life to the background.

I think there are fruits of such self-examination, listening and reflection on practice within some churches in Ireland. Perhaps you know and have experience of some. Places where there is space for diversity; personal transformation; community; a passion for social justice.

And it’s here that I find sociological categories too general and abstract. For behind such descriptions of behaviour lie beliefs that motivate and shape that behaviour. That’s why contemporary debates about the nature of the gospel and how it plays out within the Christian life are so important ….

Sociological analysis can helpfully describe and interpret trends, but as a Christian I want to argue that spiritual renewal and authenticity comes from a nexus of things like grace, the good news of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the empowering and transforming work of the Spirit, repentance, faith, humility, love, self-sacrifice,  care for the powerless and oppressed and so on.

In other words, is the search for authentic spirituality within extra-institutional spaces really a quest and longing for ‘the church to be the church’?

John Mitchel, impervious ideologies and the value of doubt

The other night in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast Anthony Russell gave a lecture on ‘John Mitchel; less revolutionary than the average English shopkeeper?’. [for other posts on this most remarkable of relatives see here, here, here and here)

Russell has just published Between Two Flags: John Mitchel & Jenny Verner and it is a very good book indeed.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the rebel’s birth but it is passing largely unremarked. Mitchel, once one of Pearse’s ‘four gospels’ of Irish nationalist literature and inspiring hero to De Valera, has long since become an embarrassment for nationalist and republican Ireland – and in his lifetime of course was already an embarrassment for his Protestant and Unionist kin whom he tried, vainly, to win over to the republican cause.

Russell’s lecture title is taken from a critical assessment made by Emile Montegut exactly 100 years ago. At first glance it seems a rather preposterous notion.

Not sure what the politics of an average English shopkeeper are these days, but let’s assume Montegut had in mind a quiet, no-nonsense, small businessman happy to make a modest living  from a local market of loyal customers.

What would such an icon of the status quo have to do with Mitchel the romantic, impetuous, ferocious, physical-force republican man of letters who rebelled against just about everyone and every movement he ever worked with? Who sacrificed his own life as well as two sons killed and one maimed in the uncompromising pursuit of political ideals in Ireland and Confederate America?

Well maybe more than you’d imagine at first glance.

What Russell brought out convincingly was how it was Mitchel’s fierce and violent tunnel-vison hatred of English rule in Ireland that was the driving force behind his elevation to rebel hero. At heart however he was no social or political revolutionary.

His was a classicist mindset of fixed hierarchies. Mitchel belonged in Rome where slaves remained slaves and social boundaries were maintained by a ruthless lack of sentiment. It was no accident that in his writings the English were the enemies of Rome – the Carthaginians

So negro slaves were to remain negro slaves – it was the good and right and proper order of things. The Confederacy’s way of life was to be preferred and defended (whatever it cost Mitchel and his family) against the industrial barbarian North. Likewise, lower-class convicts in Van Diemen’s land would be better off hanged. Epidemics were inevitable and natural ways to rid the world of the weak and the sick.

The Ireland he dreamt of seeing one day ‘free’ was, as Russell puts it,

“a rural hierarchical Ireland, peopled with fair landlords and well-treated tenants, an Ireland were crime and misdeeds were to be punished with the lash, if necessary.” (212)

This unlocks why Mitchel so despised capitalism and industrialisation. His vision of an independent liberated land was a romantic, classical, rural and simple pre-Enlightenment Ireland of “innumerable brave working farmer rising from a thousand hills” who would never trouble themselves about “progress of the species” and such worthless ideas. (213) Sound familiar? De Valera’s famous 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech is pure Mitchel. It was no accident that De Valera went on pilgrimage to visit Mitchel’s cell on Spike Island in Cork Harbour – the last place he was imprisoned before his transportation.

Anthony Russell described Mitchel’s one ‘moment of doubt’. As the Confederacy stared defeat in the face in 1864, it was proposed that slaves could be conscripted to fight. Later in the Confederate Act of Congress freedom was allowed to be a reward for faithful war service.

Mitchel’s entire worldview was threatened by such notions. With typical relentless honesty he reasoned

Now, if freedom be a reward for negroes – why, then it is, and always was, a grievous wrong and a crime to hold them in slavery at all … If it be true that the state of slavery keeps these people depressed below the condition to which they could develop their nature, their intelligence and their capacity for enjoyment, and what we call “progress,” then every hour of their bondage for generations is a black stain upon the white race.

But this wasn’t so much a moment of doubt as self-reinforcing rhetoric. Mitchel knew (as always) the answer to his own question. The black slave should remain a slave because he is not fit for freedom or equal in value to a white person. Case closed.

He was a man entirely free of the awkward encumbrance of doubt. To his dying day he despised any form of negotiation or compromise on England’s presence in Ireland.

Now I don’t know about you, but as I have grown older, I value doubt more.

To be without doubt is to be like Mitchel – never wrong, completely sure of your own rightness whatever the cost, impervious to other’s opinions (and often feelings), not needing to say sorry, and certainly not to repent (turn around) from actions, attitudes or words. (Mitchel had no time for Christianity’s call to confession, humility and forgiveness. The life and teaching of Jesus, as far as I am aware never appears in any considered way in all of his many writings). An inflated sense of self-importance coupled with a lack of self-depreciating humour make the no-doubter someone who will continually fall out with anyone who does not agree with him (and it usually is a him and that’s a whole other discussion).

Do you know some no-doubters? I suspect you do. In figuring out who I can work best with it is the no doubter I will avoid like the plague (if I can!).

No doubters can be personality driven – they are just right about everything by default. Mitchel, there is good evidence, was engaging, loving and loyal. He was more an ideological no doubter – and they are the most dangerous of all.

For an ideology without doubt can become a truly monstrous thing.

‘Hot’ nationalisms are a form of ideology that allow no doubt, no questions, no complicating alternative points of view that dilute their pure and simple utopian vision.

We’ve had our fair share in the last couple of centuries or so – British imperialism, American exceptionalism, German national socialism and the Holocaust, Serbian ethnic cleansing, Hutu ethnic genocide, Turkish genocide of Armenians, Communist eradication of millions of people in China and USSR for the greater good of the state, IS ethnic cleansing of Shia’s and any others outside their version of pure Islam, American and European no doubters who arrogantly thought they could bring Western democracy to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan, and various tribal, ethnic and religious cleansings in Africa, Asia and India …

Just to be clear, I’m not equating these morally. There are different temperature levels within and consequences of no doubt ideologies.

Back in Ireland, Mitchel helped to inspire Pearse and his ‘pure’ blood-sacrifice for Ireland on Easter Sunday 1916 – a centenary that I for one will not be celebrating next year.

Notice that the one thing in common with all political no doubt ideologies is violence. ‘No doubt’ legitimizes physical force. it did for Mitchel, it does for all others as well.

So, what do you believe in? How deeply and passionately do you believe? What room is there for doubt in your beliefs? What is doubt good for? Where does it become damaging?

When it comes to Christianity,  believers are to proclaim and share the universal ‘gospel truth’ that Jesus is Lord of all. What place is there for doubt in how Christians engage in this task? In how they read the Bible? In other words, is Christianity just another ‘impervious ideology’ or something else?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Faith, hope and love in South Tipperary

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a profoundly Christian funeral.

The beautiful church was packed with all sorts of people – including family, friends, colleagues, carers from the local hospice, local people whose lives had been touched by the remarkable woman whose life we were remembering and celebrating.

There were tears, there was fond laughter, there were songs, there were prayers, there were wonderfully well-spoken words.

Framing all of this, for me anyway, was a deeply tangible sense of St Paul’s great triumvirate of the Christian life: faith, hope and love.

Faith

In focus was the faith in Jesus and subsequent life of the lady whose earthly life had drawn to a close earlier this week: a vibrant, active, transforming faith that motivated her life.

As someone said, “she walked the walk” right to the end. Everyone who spoke, from young to old, talked of the impact she had had on their lives – nurturing, encouraging, caring, daring and challenging. A faith that trusted God, took risks, lived boldly and fearlessly fought injustice wherever she saw it.

Linking to the last post, here was faith made manifest in a life of good works. There was even a standing ovation by the congregation. And while she would have been horrified at the thought, it seemed perfectly right and fitting to applaud such a life.

Hope

Yet this was a funeral with a coffin and a grieving husband and children. Hearts were heavy with the damage that death does to those closest. There had been weeks and months of suffering and caring culminating in a final parting.

In John 11 we are told that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Verses 33 and 38 tell us that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. The Greek has a sense of his indignation, outrage or anger at death – that bringer of grief and loss.

This, I think, carries with it a profound and deep hope. Jesus has just told the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. Yet a moment later he is in tears. This Lord of Life is not some dispassionate force or distant Deist God. He is with his friends in their grief and sadness. Paul talks about death as the last enemy; it is not a thing to be welcomed and embraced.

The whole Bible can be read as the story of God conquering death and its root cause, sin. The good news of the gospel is that the one who is the Resurrection and the Life undoes the power of death once and for all. At the cross he atones for sin and dies in our place. And at the resurrection he is shown to have defeated sin and death decisively and completely.

All this means that at the very core of the Christian faith is a deep and sure hope – the hope of resurrection life to come. Yes, Christians, like anyone else, cry out in lament and pain when death comes calling. But they can also look forward to, and pray for, the ultimate healing and restoration of a broken painful world. For such ultimate restoration is precisely God’s agenda.

It was this specific Christian hope that pervaded the service. Death did not have the last word.

Love

The third thing so powerfully evident during the funeral was an overwhelming testimony of love.

Moving words of love from a dying woman to her husband; words of love from husband to wife; a deep and tenacious mother’s love that so obviously sustained, formed, empowered and liberated three children to be who they had been created to be; love of grandchildren for their grandmother; love of a pastor for a friend; love of a woman for those in need whoever they were; love of colleagues for a nurse who needed care herself after a lifetime of care for others; tender and sacrificial love of hospice carers for a mortally ill patient; self-giving love of a daughter nursing her mother to the end.

It is for good reason Paul says love is greater than faith and hope. I like to call him the apostle of love. Love pervades his teaching and ministry, but that is only in keeping with the whole witness of Scripture. Love is lifeblood of the Christian faith. God himself, John tells us, is love. Love fulfils the law. Without love, all the good works in the world done in God’s name are a waste of time. The evidence of the Spirit’s presence is love. The call of God’s people, OT and NT, is to love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbours as themselves. Love alone is eternal – it is the language of the new creation to come.

Christians are taught by their Lord to pray ‘May thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ What I witnessed just a little bit of yesterday was a slice of kingdom-come life here on earth.

There were also stories of her sheer love of life, including love of the natural beauty of South Tipperary in particular. After the funeral, on the way home, I was passing the lovely mountain of Slievenamon. It was a sunny warm afternoon and, unplanned, I stopped and took a couple of hours out to climb the mountain and soak in the familiar scenery of a place that I used to know well.

Here are a couple of pictures of that walk.

Near the top someone had etched a simple prayer on a rock in the path – I can’t think of a better tribute to a truly Christ-like life.

 

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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?