Religious Nationalism in Retreat People of Faith Show Religion Can Be Part of the Solution, Not The

Article excerpt

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. …

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