It is the Last Supper, but not as we know it, an almost picture perfect assemblage of disciples surround Jesus as he shares a final meal with them. Only two things are awry here – Judas Iscariot is the only one at the table who is non-white, and the loaf of bread has been replaced by a guinea pig. The first image is from the Santa Catalina convent in Arequipa, the second is from Marcos Zapata’s painting which hangs in the Basilica Cathedral in Cusco, both in Perú.
These images of colonialism and subversion are typical of the enforcement of religion and the popular resistance to it which characterises Peruvian Catholicism. This was a faith which was not so much shared with, as foisted upon, the people of that land; Christ was portrayed as the one who conquered them and their indigenous beliefs, and this could be written in blood in the case of individuals like Atahualpa. The subversion was equally forceful – in art and devotion Mary was transmuted into Pachi Mama, her robes reflecting the mountains which were long venerated before the Conquistadors made landfall in Perú. Christianity as an enforced religion is an ugly beast, which breeds intractable rebellion, resistance, and ultimately rejection.
In all of the Christian commentary on the outcome of the 8th amendment referendum last week in the Republic of Ireland, little has been said of the deep lessons that lie behind the acceleration of Ireland’s secularisation. It is right for evangelicals to express heartfelt sadness at the repeal of the 8th amendment, and it was wonderful to see them (along with others) mount a credible and articulate campaign before the vote took place. We must, however, also reflect critically on what a repudiation of a once constitutionally enshrined theology says about how we share our faith.
No one could argue that Christianity was enforced on Ireland in the same way as in Perú. The history of the Celtic church is a rich account of missionary zeal and godly compassion which has left intact a rich legacy to this day. There is, however, a dark history in Ireland of horrendous spiritual, emotional, physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by those who bore/misappropriated the name of Christian. The Bog Meadows babies, the horror of the Magdalene Laundries, and the unspeakably inhumane Industrial Schools (so shockingly and powerfully portrayed by Paddy Doyle in The God Squad) are images which show the blasphemy of religion used as a means of control, or for social/moralistic advantage.
In terms of public discourse, the wounds inflicted by this spiritual abuse are deep and long lasting. So, when 21st century Christians speak in debate, or publication of their views, that they are concerned for the rights of the unborn, for the rights of women, and for the rights of those with special needs, to many outside of the Christian faith this can sound contrary to what lies scarcely buried beneath the soil of our recent history. Those whose spiritual heritage has nothing to do with these kinds of institutional abuse might plead an exception from such broad brush suspicion, but that might expect a nuanced view of faith and denominational distinction which our world is largely incapable of.
Ireland’s headlong embrace of a liberal secularism undoubtedly has many causes, but we discount the impact of Christianity as an enforced monolithic worldview at our peril. The celebrations outside Dublin Castle which seem so perverse and tragic to those of us who, on Christian conviction, believe in the sanctity of unborn life, are as much to do with liberation from religious totalitarianism as they are about rights.
The lessons in this are deep as we minister in the spiritual darkness which is creeping across this island, north and south.
One is that we should be glad that Christianity as a dominant political force is on the wane. The Church has always fared best when she is not congregating in the corridors of power, when she is forced to work subversively against prevailing cultural norms, rather than coercively within them.
The second is that our strongest argument for our biblically mandated cherishing of unborn life is our real-time engagement with the souls of those in our immediate environment. It is easy to naysay the moral insistence of the gospel when reference can be made to the ways in which women, infants and those with special needs have been failed by the Church. It is much more difficult to do so when we have a proven track record of speaking the truth in love, of doing good to all, of putting our moral money where our moral mouth is.
Thirdly, I believe that Ireland’s sole hope is for the Spirit of God to work in a mighty way among us. We need him to revive his church and to awaken the unconverted to their need of Jesus Christ as their only Saviour. But that awakening might best be realised when a revived Christianity forgets about seeking social prominence through political prowess and loves God and neighbour as we are charged to do. We have gone most astray when we have in any way indulged a Christianity Enforced approach, and we might witness God’s richest blessing if we were to seek and see realised Christianity embodied in our private lives, in our public witness and in our compassion towards those with whom we differ.
A tension I’ve never been able to resolve:
Legislating Christianity (obvs a hilarious notion in the true spiritual sense, as you note)
Vacating the public square and not persuading others of the beauty and truth of shaping a society by such thinking.
Could you flesh out what you might see a response being from a local [generic] church in NI in the campaign that will no doubt follow in the days ahead, based on your three points above?
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Peter, thanks for your comment. There’s no doubt about the tension you describe, and there is a fine line between overreach and being underrepresented politically.
In terms of the NI campaign you mention, I think that there is much to be learned from what has been done in the South. It could be argued that emulating a campaign which didn’t succeed could be misguided, but I don’t believe that the ‘No’ vote was faced down by weight of argument so much as by weight of sentiment. The statement in The Irish Times by brother Baptist Pastors was a model of fidelity and humility in my opinion.
In terms of the three criteria above:
1. The subversive element is that our values and consequent virtues will be saltier and more luminescent in a dark world. Mainstream thought is always vulnerable to the well articulated voice of an informed minority, and I think that’s a major strength inherent of the eclipse of Christendom. On the issues around abortion this can be a positive declaration of the value of all people as bearers of God’s image. That form of biblical egalitarianism (using the term broadly and not in the context of gender roles) was a major rebuke to first century culture, and I think that it can be to our own.
2. This is related to the above: the strongest argument for our genuine compassion for unborn life is the care taken of those in crisis, and modelling mercy to children born into such circumstances. The Magdalene Laundries are referred to by me in the above article, and are routinely invoked as evidence that the church is not concerned with the unborn but with dealing ‘with the threat to social order represented by women in control of their reproductive lives’ (Sally Rooney in London Review of Books). Less has been made of the crisis pregnancy centred facilitated by Christians which have been instrumental in seeing so much good done for women, babies and the glory of God. Three acts of mercy will always be ignored, but the louder the volume of church ministry in these areas, the harder it is to drown out.
3. Pray. Love. Declare.
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