|Fire and Ice: Puritan and Reformed Writings|
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by Edward Donnelly
[Reprinted by permission from the Banner of Truth Magazine, Issue 399-300, Aug-Sept 1988.]
Brethren, it is very encouraging for those of us who are from Northern Ireland to have a whole session of the Leicester Ministers' Conference devoted to the situation in our country, because this reminds us that you are interested in us and concerned about us. We often do feel isolated and forgotten and a meeting such as this brings joy to our hearts. The topic is, of course, a difficult one on which to speak. The situation is very complex. There are differing viewpoints and the one which I will. be setting before you today is very much my own. Not all of my brethren here from Ulster may entirely agree with it, so I would encourage you to speak to some of them afterwards to obtain another perspective. I think the Ulsterman had it right when he said: 'Anyone who isn't confused about Northern Ireland just doesn't understand what's going on'!
My difficulty is increased because I don't have before me a text. I suppose that we are all subject to bias, but when we are expounding a passage of Scripture, if we do our exegetical work conscientiously and thoroughly, the text before us should keep us on the right lines. But, when taking such an amorphous subject as the situation in Northern Ireland, one runs the risk of simply setting forth one's own prejudices and opinions and dressing them up in the language of Scripture. I hope not to do that.
The subject is an important one. Thirty years ago most people in the world didn't know where Belfast was. They know now! The province has been brought by events to the centre of the world stage. It is important also because Northern Ireland has the highest per capita church going population not only in the United Kingdom but in Western Europe, so that what happens there is relevant for Christianity and for the Christian church. There are some basic issues involved in the situation which are applicable to all Christians in all countries.
As I begin the paper I do reflect that there are certain safeguards which may keep me from undue bias. The first is the presence of over forty Ulstermen in the audienceall experts! I am reminded of the words of the Duke of Wellington about his soldiers: 'I don't know if they frighten the enemy, but they certainly frighten me!'
The second safeguard is to be found in those words which should be written in letters of fire upon our consciences as Christians, the words of the ninth commandment: 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.' At the day of judgment we shall give account for all the words we speak; and as we speak we seek to remember that, even, and especially, concerning those who would consider themselves our enemies. It is a Christian obligation to speak with fairness and accuracy as far as this is possible.
My final safeguard is that I plan, as the cobbler was advised, to stick to my last, and from that point of view you may find the address somewhat disappointing. I am not going to offer any political commentary whatsoever, for I have no ability to do so. I have no predictions to make concerning what may happen, for none of us know what the future may hold. I have no obvious solution to offer. I simply give you the reflections of a Christian, a minister, an Ulsterman and an Irishman and someone who for over twenty years has reflected and prayed about the situation.
I would like to divide what I have to say into two parts. First, to say something about the present situation, and, secondly, about the relevance of biblical Christianity.
First then, to speak about the present situation. We are thinking this afternoon about what we call 'The Troubles' and it is important for us to have a sense of proportion as we discuss them. Northern Ireland is, on the whole, a peaceful, prosperous and kindly land, richly blessed by God. Celts have a fondness for the colourful and the apocalyptic and it would be easy to present such a dramatic picture of Northern Ireland that you would see it as a ruined, storm-wracked province, with people cowering down in bunkers everywhere. That, of course, is not the case. We are delighted to have with us at this conference fellow Christians from Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as from other countries, and I would be ashamed to stand up here complaining and whining and giving you the impression that we are in a particularly unfortunate and difficult situation. We know perfectly well that we are a privileged people in many ways and that there are many Christians throughout the world who are in a situation infinitely more difficult and unpromising for the work of the gospel than ourselves. So I want to emphasise that at the beginning in order that you will understand what I have to say within that framework.
Nevertheless the situation in Northern Ireland is a serious and a distressing one. It is a land which suffers under a crushing burden of history. One of our great poets is the Irish writer Seamus Heaney. In a book of poems published in 1975 he has one called 'Act of Union'a punning title with a political and a sexual connotation. In that poem Heaney uses a vivid metaphor for the Irish situation: England is the man, Ireland is the woman. The man has violated the woman and left her pregnant with an illegitimate offspring. That offspring, Ulster, is straining and stretching the mother's body. The father doesn't want to recognise the child; the mother bitterly resents the child; the child feels anger against both father and mother. Now we may not go all the way with the details of Heaney's metaphor, but I find it powerful and compelling and helpful because it shows us vividly a tragic situation, where there is no easy resolution and where it is difficult to apportion blame.
Starting in the late Middle Ages and culminating in the 16th and 17th centuries a new population entered the land of Ireland. Originally settling in the area around Dublin and then later coming to the northwest from England and to the north-east from Scotland, these immigrants often displaced the original inhabitants. They did not, incidentally, exterminate them. It is irritating for us to be lectured by people who have gone to live in countries where most of the original inhabitants are no longer to be found. However, some of the natives were driven from their lands and since then the two populations have lived in an uneasy coexistence which has broken out from time to time into open violence. Major wrongs have been committed on both sides and the memory of those wrongs is still very keen. Irish Roman Catholics speak bitterly of the 'Plantation' or of the slaughters at Wexford and Drogheda under Oliver Cromwell. Ulster Protestants recall the dreadful massacre in 1641 when many men, women and children were butchered.
There is also a great sense of bitterness regarding the Irish famine in the 1840s when over one million of the population died from hunger and disease. Although the famine was largely due to factors beyond human control, there is still a widespread feeling that the authorities were in some sense to blame. I once talked with a man who spoke with real anger about how the government had been more concerned to keep up the price of English corn than to allow cheap maize to enter the country to feed Irish children. Now you may say that it is absurd for people to hark back to events which took place over a century ago. That may be so, but the important political fact is that they do remember, and memory or myth colours present attitudes.
In 1921 after some turbulent years of struggle and violence, Southern Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom to form the Irish Free State, and in 1925 the governments of Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland and the United Kingdom entered into a tri-partite Agreement which was approved by the three legislatures and registered with the League of Nations. It provided for the maintenance of the existing frontier and for mutual recognition, consultation and co-operation between the Dublin and Belfast governments. The parties pledged, and I quote: 'mutually to aid one another in a spirit of neighbourly comradeship.' There was real hope, I believe, at that point. However in 1932 the government of Eamon De Valera unilaterally repudiated that Agreement and in 1937 adopted a constitution in which it laid claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
For most of this century there has been peace and prosperity in Ulster, but this broke down in the late sixties. You may remember that it was a period of student unrest throughout Europe. In France and Germany, for example, there were serious disturbances. In America the black civil rights movement was also at its height, and there were assassinations, such as those of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was in that period and atmosphere that a civil rights movement in Ulster was highjacked by Marxist terrorists. These terrorists, now known as the Provisional IRA, built on Roman Catholic grievances, genuine and imaginary. They were also helped greatly by a measure of Unionist intransigence and stupidity, and by credulity and weakness from the UK government in London. All that together was a potent and deadly mix which produced the situation which we have today.
What is that situation? Well, the most notable factor is the killing and the suffering. In very round figures, over 2,500 people have been murdered in Ulster in the last twenty years. Pro rata, that would be about 100,000 people murdered by terrorists in Great Britain over a similar period, or perhaps 350,000 people in the United States of America. That is a very significant statistic and a serious population loss. The killing has obviously been accompanied by much suffering: bereaved women and children, those maimed and injured, many lives ruined. We have in Northern Ireland two communities which now seem irreconcilable. They have differing history, traditions and backgrounds. In some respects they are racially different, with a different ethos. They suspect and hate one another and, most importantly, they are pursuing two absolutely irreconcilable objectives. The Unionists are determined to remain joined to the United Kingdom, the Nationalists are determined that this link will be broken and that Ulster will become part of a United Ireland. Politicians speak of 'a middle ground' or 'moderate opinion'. There are undoubtedly large numbers of Protestants and Roman Catholics who respect and appreciate each other and who live as neighbours and friends, but it is difficult to find many standing on the middle ground at elections, for example. There is much optimistic and idealistic talk about a possible solution which is perhaps fudging the stark reality. I remember on one occasion, in the country town where I was living, two ladies, or perhaps I should call them women, who were driving in opposite directions down a long, narrow country lane. They were neighbours and not friendly with each other, but they met in the middle of the lane and there the two of them sat and neither would reverse. Well, at least they didn't start smashing their cars into each other, which is what really is happening in Ulster at the present time.
We have Also suffered from inadequate political leadership and this is partly the product of the situation. The Greek historian Thucydides wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C. Here is one of his statements, and it could apply to Ulster today:
'No assurances, no pledges of either party, could gain credit with the other. The most reasonable proposals coming from an opponent were received not with candour but with suspicion. Every recommendation of moderate measures was reckoned a mark of cowardice or of insincerity. He only was considered a completely safe man whose violence was blind and boundless and those who endeavoured to steer a middle course were spared by neither side.'
Taken from 5th century Athens and transferred to the Ulster of today, that is a pretty fair description of the situation. It is so inflamed that it is difficult for moderate, responsible menthere are some, but not manyto obtain a hearing and a following. It needs also to be said that much of the political leadership from Westminster has been either devious or lamentably weak. At least, it has been seen to be so and in Ireland the perception is often more important than the actual reality. The quality of life in Northern Ireland is generally very good. That may surprise some of you who have never been, but I can assure you that if you pay us a visit you will find it to be the case. The country is a pleasant one and in most parts life goes on very much as normal. But, of course, this long period of trauma has caused tremendous damage. There has been great economic damage to the fabric of life. The unemployment rate is very high and this contributes greatly to our problem. The province has become culturally impoverished and there is serious psychological pressure. There is a darkness of spirit in the people. Many of our best young people are emigrating, first to study and then to find work. There is an alarming draining away of talent and enthusiasm. The young feel that Ulster is a mean, bigoted little place where they do not want to be stultified and stifled in the fogs of these primeval quarrels. They may be misjudging, but that is how they see the situation.
This is nothing new, of course. Robert L. Dabney, writing just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, states: 'It has been remarked by wise historians that a time of political convulsions is a time for giant growth of all kinds of vice and just to that degree it is a time of barrenness for the Christian graces'. That, I presume, is why Paul prays that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness. (Could I, by the way, recommend that you read some of the pamphlets and papers which Dabney wrote at this period? They are extremely interesting and he has some very perceptive and valuable things to say. Many of his comments are quite relevant to our present problems. They are found in volume 2 of his Discussions.)
I think my brethren would agree with me that the situation at the moment in the province is tense. Relationships between the communities have been exacerbated. It is like a tinder-box waiting for a spark; and I would say that we believe that the presence of the British army, quite apart from every other consideration, is absolutely vital simply for the maintenance of general peace and law and order. The remark which is often made that 'the British presence is making the troubles worse' is ludicrously inaccurate, as many Roman Catholics would agree. So if you are ever asked why British troops are staying in Northern Ireland, you can honestly reply that they are performing a very valuable and necessary role. Apart from the occasional 'bad apple' they are a remarkably disciplined force and are appreciated by the population. We remember them in our prayers and are thankful to God for their presence.
One other matter on which I wish to comment in looking at the present situation is the fact of the large Christian presence in Northern Ireland. This causes exasperated amazement. It gives unbelievers the opportunity to sneer: 'How does it happen that there are so many Christians in Northern Ireland and at the same time so much trouble?' Have you ever been asked that question? The assumption behind it is that in any country where there is a large body of true Christians we should expect an absence of trouble and an abundance of peace and prosperity. But think about that for a moment. Is it so strange that a population with an unusually high proportion of Christians will have trouble? If I were Satan and were looking for somewhere to direct my most intense attacks, would it not be a good idea to settle on a country where many of the Lord's people are to be found? Would that not naturally attract the force and attention of the evil one? There are lands which Satan can leave alone. They are causing comparatively no damage to his kingdom. They present no threat. He is happy with the situation there. But a land with a large body of the Lord's people is, I believe, one which is particularly subject to the attacks of the devil.
Historians have debated, for example, why it was that Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century B.C. showed such incredible malignity against the land of Israel. In all the great empire that he ruled he seemed to have an obsession with the people of God in the city of Jerusalem. What had they done to provoke him? They were the people of God! And I think that it is superficial to say that where you have many Christians you will have peace. It is surely much more reasonable to believe that the very presence of the Christians is a challenge to the prince of darkness. We should feel not annoyance or amazement but sympathy and prayerful understanding when Christians are involved in civil unrest. We believe that on the individual level, don't we? A man of God who is being greatly used is going to be particularly subject to the attacks of Satan. We are not surprised to see trouble in his life. Can that not be true corporately as well as individually) We should remember also that Satan is Diabolus, the slanderer. He will, therefore, seek to present the people of God in as unattractive a light as possible. He will want to make other Christians disgusted with them. He will want to make their brethren in other parts of the Church think of them as a hopelessly combative, unreasonable, bigoted people. Remember that, brethren. Don't let your view of the Christians in Ulster be moulded by the media-men and the opinion-makers and those with an axe to grind. Satan is the slanderer.
Of course, the Lord's people do offer him considerable help from time to time and that is part of our tragedy. The churches in Ulster suffer from the weaknesses and confusion which are common to us all. But I believe that there is among us a very great degree of spiritual strength, an unusual amount of the blessing of the Lord, a solid stratum of genuine, quiet, humble godliness in the lives of the people. I urge you to come and see for yourselves. I would say also and I'm going to be critical later, so I can praise them now that the Protestant population has shown a patience and meekness and restraint in the face of terrible suffering which are nothing less than supernatural. Would it not be the case (perhaps I'm judging you unfairly) that if in Great Britain 100,000 had been killed by the terrorist action of an identifiable minority, there would be very serious public disorder? There would be bloodshed on the streets. And the same with the United States. But the general populace in Ulster has remained calma tribute to the pervasive influence of the gospel over many years. The Christian church, then, is leaven and salt and light and it is from this community that I believe comes the only real hope for the situation.
I would like to turn, in the second place, to the relevance of biblical Christianity. By biblical Christianity I mean Calvinism, not just in its distinctives but in the broadest sensethe Reformed Faith. If it is man's chief end to know God and to glorify Him; it is also his greatest need. So I'm going to group what I have to say under four characteristics of God which need to be emphasised in Ulster at the present time: (i) The Righteous God; (ii) The Jealous God; (iii) The Merciful God; and (iv) The Sovereign God.
(i) The Righteous God. There are three areas where the righteousness of God is especially relevant. The righteous God sets forth what is expected of those who rule. Governments are given their duty in His Word. We are not pietists who withdraw from the world as irredeemably evil, segregating ourselves in the churches and believing that the Bible has nothing to say to our rulers. We are not liberals who believe that government is to be permissive and laissez faire. The duty of rulers, as set forth in the 13th chapter of Romans and in other places, is to restrain and punish evil and evildoers. In Northern Ireland the government is not seen to be doing this. We don't want to be unduly critical. It would be easy to make cheap, inflammatory remarks and we have far too many of those. The government may in fact be doing its best. What I want to emphasise is that the public perception is that they could do more to restrain evil. Their will to win is being questioned by law-abiding citizens and, what is more important, by the terrorists.
A common statement from British Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland is: 'When will the terrorists understand that violence achieves absolutely nothing?' What a foolish thing to say! Violence is proving extremely effective and there is every hope for the terrorists that, if they persist with their violence long enough, the government will come and sit round a table with them (as Britain has in many other countries), and will reach an agreement. The terrorists of today will be the politicians of tomorrow. That is what they believe. Their assessment is that, if the pressure is kept up long enough, Great Britain will become wearied and will withdraw, and that is what they are working and hoping for. This perceived weakness is a very polarising factor. It drives the two communities apart, breeding suspicion and hatred. It is productive of all sorts of evil. What we need is that, to use Paul's very word, the government should be a 'terror' to all lawbreakers from every community, under whatever badge or banner they choose to align themselves, whatever name they misappropriate. Without equivocation or exception, with no excuses or mitigating circumstances, we want the government to say that those who break the law will be caught and will be punished and that the powers that be will never negotiate with themfull stop! We are not interested in hearing anything beyond that, and I believe that there are many, many people from both communities in the North of Ireland who are longing and praying for this to be stated. If only such could be the norm we could perhaps begin to make progress. If the government could nerve itself to do that, apart from initial squealings from some quarters, there would be widespread support. The righteous God instructs those in authority to commend and protect righteousness and to punish wrongdoing.
We are reminded, secondly, that the righteous God is a God of wrath. There is a fundamentalism in Ulster which is hard and ugly, and many of the Lord's people have reacted against that meanspiritedness to the other extreme of wishy-washy evangelicalism, where the key text is 'God is love'. That is all; God is love and nothing more. This imposes an immense psychological strain. There is something in our nature which cries for justice, and if people are taught that as Christians they cannot have justice, but must simply love and forgive, those people are being put under severe pressure. Those who have suffered immense personal tragedies in their own families may, by a miracle of Christian dedication, be able to declare their love and forgiveness for those who have so greviously injured them. But, if they have never been taught that there is a righteous God in heaven who will punish the evildoer, they are being deprived of an important emotional safety-valve. While we are called to personal forgiveness, that God-given instinct for justice also needs some expression and satisfaction.
Do you remember the opening words of Psalm 37? 'Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity' Why? 'For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. The Bible tells that evil will be punished, praise God! That is not something to be ashamed of. We shall indeed praise God and worship Him for the punishing of evil, though I know how difficult it is to hold that thought in our minds in balance with our individual duty to forgive. We have an account in the Scriptures of a man converted while actually undergoing capital punishment. As the Spirit of God worked in his heart, that man spoke about his punishment'we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds.' We need to be teaching that the righteous God is angry with: sin and will punish it. Who knows how that might speak to the terrorists?
Thirdly, we need to show that the righteous God has a law. The church must take the moral offensive. In the IRA manual for its volunteers there is a section giving advice on how to resist police interrogation. I'm paraphrasing, but it runs something like this: 'Always look down on your interrogators, always remember that your cause is just and right and that they are in the wrong.' I found it a most significant and interesting comment. Here are these men devoted to terrorism but made in the image of God and there is something in them which reaches out for these words, and they want to be right, and they believe (some of them) that they are right. Has the Christian church argued with them? Has the Christian church sought in a calm, patient, persuasive way to say, 'No, this is not right and here is why it is not right?' All too often Christians have abused instead of arguing. You will not do anything with a terrorist if you call him names. That is no Christian dialogue at all. The church needs to say this is wrong, it is unjust, it is sinful. We need to teach the moral law; we need to impress upon the people what is right. It cannot be right to take human life in this way.
We have in Ulster the pernicious influence of Liberation Theology. Iquote one of its exponents, writing in 1984. He speaks of the institutionalised violence of society and, by implication, says that terrorist violence is a justified and necessary response. Speaking to the churches, he writes, 'violence is when the poor guy in the street goes and gets a gun and shoots somebody: but violence is not when people are driven into exile, are driven into unemployment, deprived of adequate means of livelihood or deprived of their dignity.' You see the argument? The fact that people have poor housing and suffer from unemployment or denial of their aspirations somehow justifies murder by the person who is called 'the poor guy in the street.' But the church needs to challenge that clearly and persuasively, to argue the case for what is righteous, and to seek to commend its message to the consciences of men. The Righteous God!
(ii) The Jealous God. I think there are two applications here. First of all there must be among God's people a rejection of idolatry. In chapter II of Book I of the Institutes Calvin writes: 'The human mind is a perpetual forge of idols'. We have this tendency to manufacture idols for ourselves, and biblical Christianity sets before us the God who says, 'Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him only shalt thou serve. Thou shalt have no other gods before me'. People in Ireland have many idols; and among them are the idols of nationality and political identity, both Nationalist and Unionist. It is perfectly legitimate for someone to be a Unionist, to pray and to work and to long for the maintenance of the Union, just as it is quite proper for a believer to be a Nationalist and to pray and long and work for what he sees as the unification of his country. What is wrong is when men begin to place these things before all else; to say that they have to come first; to depend on them. Then the aspiration becomes an idol, as when Protestants say 'we must have the Union for the maintenance of our faith. The border is essential for the cause of Christ'. Then they are guilty of idolatry. To quote Dabney again, 'When national passions once clothe themselves in the garb of religion they are as ungovernable as a storm and as implacable as death.
It may be that many Protestant Christians are unknowing idolaters, depending on and living for something other than the living and true God. The church of Jesus Christ must denounce this idol-worship. We need a wider perspective as Christians than either Unionism or Nationalism. Our aim should be that stated by Paul in Colossians 1:18: 'That in all things Christ might have the pre-eminence.' We need to say and mean 'Thy kingdom come.' God has no vested interest in the United Kingdom or an independent Ireland as such. We are the third race, we are a different people with a different citizenship and a different outlook. One of the things you men could ask in prayer for us is that we will have the courage to stand up in our pulpits and to bring this most unwelcome message: No idolsonly the true God!
The jealous God also demands all of our lives, in every sphere and activity. The genius of the Reformed Faith is that it has transformed not only individuals but society. We think of Geneva or of Scotland. We were hearing this morning of England at the close of the 18th century, but the revival then not only produced an upsurge of missionary activity but the transformation of society at many levels. We think of Dutch Calvinism and how it has perhaps gone further than any in seeking to apply the Lordship of God to all of life. What we are, burdened with in Ulster is a narrow, pietistic fundamentalism, where people in their churches can sincerely worship God and then go out on Monday and speak words of unbelievable bigotry and hatred; can behave without mercy and without tolerance and without justice. We need to teach that biblical Christianity applies seven days a week, governing everything we do, commending the Saviour and showing Him forth. Much of our daily conduct and reaction is sinful and dishonouring to God. He is a jealous God, He is not satisfied with part of our allegiance. The Lord lays His hand upon our lives and says 'I want everything'.
(iii) The Merciful God. We are saved by His mercyguilty, lost, unworthy sinners. We have no rights, no claims, except that He has had pity on us and gazed upon us with His love. How does that relate to the situation in Northern Ireland? I would suggest in three ways.
First of all, it speaks of the place of forgiveness. One of the most healing and constructive statements we can ever make in our marriages, in our homes, in our churches, is to say 'I was wrong, I'm sorry, please forgive me.' Where would our lives be if we never asked for forgiveness? Perhaps the Christians of Ulster need to ask for forgiveness! Forgiveness for wrong attitudes, for intemperate words, forgiveness that we did not speak out against injustice when we should have spoken out. We may be laughed at or taken advantage of, but it is our duty to say those words 'forgive me.' I have not heard them coming with any great force from the Christian community. It is also our duty to extend forgiveness; and I say to you that that is hard because we are faced with a hatred which is demonic in its intensity, infinitely malignant, unsleeping. We have been trying to tell the world about this hatred for twenty years, but we have not been listened to. There is an evil in the land and the people of God are suffering from its cruelty.
While I could multiply instances, it might not be profitable to do so. Let me give one example of which I have personal knowledge. Last year a policeman was murdered. His widow is now receiving phone calls. In the middle of the night mocking voices laugh down the phone and remind her of her husband's bleeding body. It is three o'clock in the morning. She checks on her fatherless children and then returns to her lonely bed and tries to sleep. That is not an isolated instance. We are facing an awesome wickedness. And yet, does the fact that forgiveness is hard make any difference to our duty? The Lord has forgiven us. Three times in Psalm 37 (a very appropriate psalm) comes the admonition 'do not fret!'do not burn with anger, it will destroy you, it will corrode your spirit, do not fret, forgive. We pray 'forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors' and it is not self-righteousness for Ulster Christians to say that we have great debtors who have injured us much, But if we believe in a God of mercy we too must forgive.
Then the God of mercy speaks to us of substitution. You remember the wisdom of Solomon, how he was faced with the difficult decision between the two prostitutes. How could he solve that dilemma? What did he do? He put himself in a mother's place, a mother's body, a mother's mind. By an effort of imagination and intuitive sympathy he sought to see from the mother's viewpoint, and that act of personal substitution gave him insight and wisdom. The same is true of the prophet Ezekiel. 'I sat where they sat' he writes, and after he sat among them he understood them and could minister to them. What is the golden rule? 'Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them' If you were in their position... ! Christians in Ulster need to learn the principle of substitution. How would I feel if I were an Irish Roman Catholic? We must try, with pain and at cost, to put ourselves in their position: something which I believe is not being done.
We don't read their literature; we don't listen to their beautiful music; we don't know the history of our own land; we are living in profound and abysmal ignorance of these things. We are not making the slightest attempt sympathetically to identify with them and to say 'I understand.' We don't understand. And they don't understand us. But we should understand, for we have a Substitute, and at the cost of His life He stood where we stood and took our place. The Christians of Ulster must try to stand, even for a few moments, in the position of the other community.
There is much, of course, which could be said on the other side. I am not in the business of excusing or blameshifting but am pleading for understanding. It is our responsibility to be an understanding people and I think that this could be a force for great good.
Then, because God is merciful, we must preach the gospel. Perhaps you are astonished that I haven't mentioned this already. But, brethren, from the lips of many of us the gospel is simply not credible to Roman Catholics. We are carrying far too much cultural baggage and tradition. The Roman Catholic may hear the gospel, but what he (mis)understands is that he must become a flag-waving, drum-beating Unionist to be a Christian. He feels, rightly or wrongly, that he is being asked to repudiate his history, his culture and his national identity. But what a sinful thing for us to do! How dare we erect these man-made barriers and say, or seem to say, to people, 'You must climb over them and become like us before you can find a place in our churches'? So we have to forgive and to understand and then, perhaps, we will be in a position as free men, unencumbered, to say to our fellow-men, 'Here is the message of the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is bigger and greater than all these other matters, which are secondary, human, dispensable. He and He alone is our salvation'.
(iv) The Sovereign God. In July 1974 I preached to a congregation of Greeks in Cyprus on Psalm 65:5, 'By terrible things in righteousness wilt Thou answer us, O God of our salvation'. The next morning civil war and invasion burst upon the island, and in a few weeks the church was scattered. God's terrible answers to our prayers. We pray, 'Lord not my will but Thine be done', and we forget the dreadful agony of that dark hour. The unconscious assumption in our minds is that God's will is cosy and comfortable and pleasant. It may not be! We pray, 'Lord, make me more holy. . .' and we should tremble as we see His hand reaching for the pruning knife with its sharp, terrible blade. We pray, 'Lord, advance your kingdom. How do we know how God will choose to advance His kingdom? We in Ulster are tempted to say, 'Lord, why do you not answer our prayers?' Perhaps He is. 'By terrible things in righteousness wilt Thou answer us, O God of our salvation.' The cross was the most terrible answer of all, a fearful answer and yet what blessing and what mercy.
A much-loved and greatly-missed Irish Presbyterian minister, who died not long ago, had a favourite quotation: 'We turn to God for help when the foundations of our life are shaking, only to find that He is shaking them!' God is working. We know that. He is working; He is on the throne. He is accomplishing His purpose for Ireland. I have been impressed by the statement in the Epistle of James concerning Elijah, that he prayed that it might not rain. Here was a godly man, and he saw his nation drifting away from God; and he said, 'Lord, send disaster; send famine; send drought, if that is what it takes to bring the people back to yourself!' He wasn't an inhuman religious bigot; he was a man of like passions as we are, and he wept with the widows and the hungry and thirsty. 'But, Lord, whatever it takes, bring our nation back to yourself!'
So, my friends, we in Ulster rest in the Sovereign God. We who are Christians are His blessed people. It is not for us to complain or murmur at His doings. He is righteous in all His ways. If His rod of chastisement is upon us, then we must say that we richly deserve it and that He does all things well. We are not coming here before you today crying and asking for your pity. We have confidence in God. We say with His servants in Babylon, 'If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace' and He will deliver us from the hand of the terrorist. But, brethren, by God's grace, if not!then we will serve Him, we will stand for Himand there will be Someone with us in the flames. That is our confidence; and I would ask you to pray for these two things above all for Northern Ireland: Pray that God's kingdom may be advanced and pray that the Christians of Ulster may be given strength to do their duty. Thank you.
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