Religious nationalism in retreat

People of faith show religion can be part of the solution, not the

For God and Ulster!" Protestants made this a battle cry early this century when they formed a volunteer force to take control of the north if Parliament gave home rule to Ireland.

It became a political mantra in recent decades, as the Rev. Ian Paisley galvanized resistance to the Catholic civil rights movement and the slightest shift in the status quo in Northern Ireland.

The provocative face of religion - mirrored in many parts of the world today - has given Northern Ireland a black eye. Yet here, as elsewhere, many point out, it's not religion itself, but religious nationalism that's the culprit - a call to political allegiance cloaked in the robes of religion.

"To say 'For God and Ulster' is an idolatry," says David Porter, director of Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI). "Once you elevate the tribe, the nation, the land into your pantheon, then you are participating in idolatry. If the individual challenge to Christian discipleship is the world, the flesh, and the devil, then the communal challenge to Christian discipleship is God and the Nation. And that must be challenged at every level."

Mr. Porter and others here are challenging that divisive use of faith, showing by courageous and creative actions that religion can become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Some have chosen witnessing, forming small communities in which Protestants and Catholics live together and offer others opportunities for interaction and sanctuary from violence (see story at right). A few priests and ministers have played behind-the-scenes roles opening links to Sinn Fein. Mennonites and Quakers from outside Northern Ireland have facilitated difficult discussions and inspired new ways of understanding the situation.

And one local group, ECONI (pronounced ee-CONE-eye), has directly taken on religious nationalism, stirring thought within the evangelical Protestant community to reexamine attitudes and actions from a biblical basis. It has grappled with the issues of how Christianity and politics do or don't mix, and how a person of faith brings that to bear on healing a divided society. "We would long to see a similar work within the Catholic community," Porter says.

The spark was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which gave Ireland a consultative role in British rule of Northern Ireland.

"The signing of the agreement triggered probably the most overt expression of religious nationalism in the Protestant community in the 30 years of the Troubles," says Porter. "It became a test of your Protestant Christian faith whether you were for or against the agreement, and one-half million people turned up at City Hall to protest it."

But he and evangelical Protestant friends "had come to realize that sort of mixing of faith and politics was deeply flawed." They began praying and studying the Bible together in 1986, and in 1988 published a statement called "For God and His Glory Alone." It was "an obvious counterpoise to 'For God and Ulster,' " Porter says in an interview. Some 200 local leaders signed it.

The statement pointed to the Christian's first allegiance to Christ, not to a specific political outlook, and called on them to "demonstrate values dependent on the nature of God himself" in community life. It provided a study guide to 10 biblical principles (i.e. love, forgiveness, reconciliation, citizenship, servanthood, hope) and invited a commitment to becoming active peacemakers.

That began a movement. Within six months, a thousand copies had been requested for Bible study. Soon they were asked for more materials and invited to speak at church meetings. They had no intent to form an organization.

But the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 - in which Britain stated it had no strategic interest in maintaining its rule, yet promised that Ulster's future would be decided by referendum - brought "the second most overt expression of religious nationalism," Porter says. "Dr. Paisley again started banging the religious drum and said the true people of Ulster would resist this at all costs." For the first time, they took him on directly with a public letter.

The response to the letter was overwhelming, and the group realized it was time to start full-time development of resources, training, and a program of activity to serve churches and "help them think through from a biblical perspective what their response needed to be to the peace process and to living in a divided society."

Five years later, ECONI has a staff of nine; has published a series of study guides; holds training sessions on such subjects as "Transforming Bible Study" and "Bridge-builders for Peace"; provides resource packs for churches on specific themes; holds a regular clergy forum; and conducts research on how evangelical religion shapes the identity of Protestantism and Unionism in Northern Ireland (www.econi.org).

More than 400 Protestant churches from various faiths (one-third of the total) have gotten involved with ECONI.

The Rev. Gordon Douglas and congregation members from Christ Church in Belfast recently took a "Journey in Understanding" course on Protestant history, culture, and politics.

"The impact for the church has been great," he says, "and it's a journey we want to continue."

People were challenged to consider how the thinking methods they were brought up with related to biblical teachings, he adds, and "how I look at 'the other' in my life. You have Jesus and the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans were 'the other' people for the Jews, and we have to look at who are 'the other' people in our lives. I think that had a big impact."

ECONI's primary role has been to do "a critical analysis from within," to call its own people to change and transformation. But it has also reached out. In 1995 as part of its Christian Citizenship Forum, ECONI became the first Protestant group to invite Sinn Fein to address a public meeting.

"They came 'in fear and trembling,' at their own confession ... and they opened by reading from the Scriptures," Porter says. ECONI and Sinn Fein have since maintained a relationship.

"They are well respected by politicians," Mr. Douglas says of ECONI, "probably because they know who they are, for a start; but they are very open to speak to everyone and don't shut doors."

"ECONI is marvelous," says Mari Fitzduff, director of Initiative for Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity, a research group in Londonderry/Derry. "They have some very brave and dedicated people who for years have worked quietly from within.... In that it has been extraordinarily successful."

But ECONI isn't popular with everyone. It is attacked in sermons, staff get abusive letters, a pamphlet has been circulated against them, and a fundamentalist foundation has been formed to try to halt its influence.

"There is a battle for the soul of evangelicalism going on in Northern Ireland," Porter says. "It is mirrored by a battle for the soul of Unionism - is it going to make peace with its Catholic neighbors or forever live in a state of siege of its own making in many ways."

But the battle is not one for power. In encouraging Christians to live by biblical values and apply them to community life, ECONI speaks very clearly about that.

"There's the role of empowering the church to engage more in the process of healing and reconciliation, but always doing it from the perspective of powerlessness ... which is the servant model of Christ," Porter says. "The temptation, of course, is for the church to get carried away with its use of power in the political domain."

In making its point, ECONI includes a quote from C.S. Lewis in its study guide on biblical frameworks for "A Future With Hope:" "The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish."

*Part 1 ran June 3 and Part 2 June 10. The series will continue on an occasional basis on various aspects of reconciliation.

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