There have been at least three very significant events in the past month that, taken together, may - repeat may - prove to be a watershed in the current quagmire that is politics in Northern Ireland.
The first was the brutal murder of Lyra McKee in Derry on 29 April that sent shock waves around the world, as well as bringing untold grief to her family and friends. Her funeral service in St Anne’s Cathedral brought that electrifying moment when Fr Martin Magill called out our politicians for their failure to do government together (and did so, quite explicitly, in God’s name). That call helped bring about the new talks currently underway to try to get devolution working again.
The third event was the apparent emergence of a new sector of middle ground in politics from the local government elections, where the vote for the Alliance party (11.5%), together with that of the Greens (2.1%) and People Before Profit (1.4%), represented 15% of all votes cast in Northern Ireland.
Given that the two recent referenda in the Republic of Ireland have changed the political landscape there, it may well be true that the ‘times, they are a-changing’ in Northern Ireland too - not least with a new generation of younger elected politicians for whom social policy, climate change and economic reform are top priorities.
These new faces are certainly welcome, but few of them seem likely to want to promote and uphold Christian or Biblical values in working out their passions and concerns. Yet the churches and many Christian people still seem ill prepared to face the challenges this new generation of passionate campaigners will bring.
Just a few weeks ago, a commentator said ‘We need to get used to the fact that all politics is identity politics - and it’s time to pick a side’. I suggest that for Christian people, this is an acutely difficult issue, since the Bible is clear that our primary identity is as a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5), and that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3).
Given that this is so, on what basis do we pick a side? Is long term loyalty to a particular party consistent with our primary identity in Christ? If our citizenship is in heaven, what is the Biblical significance of finding ourselves as citizens of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland? Why is it that so many from the Protestant tradition find their political identity in Unionism, and so many from the Roman Catholic tradition find their political identity in Nationalism and Republicanism? On what basis has the side been picked?
The difficulty in giving a clear answer to such questions perhaps helps to explain why we often find it easier to say what we are against, but struggle to spell out what we stand for, and to do so with Biblical rigour, and in a courageous and winsome way.
Picking up on some of the priorities of the 15%, God’s people are being asked questions such as these: do we or do we not care about climate change enough to regard it as a significant personal responsibility to play our part day in, day out in caring for the earth on which God has put us? Do we or do we not agree with the view that people should come before profit? Do we or do we not agree that social policy should broadly reflect the wishes of the majority in a democratic society?
I offer no answers to such questions in this PS, but I am very exercised that we scarcely seem willing or able to even discuss them - even though the Bible has much guidance to give us. This also raises the question of who, in the Christian community, will actually help us find good, God honouring answers.
Is there a new generation of younger Christian leaders who will be as energetic and committed to a Biblical worldview as their political peers are to a more secularised one? I am not optimistic, for, in general, my generation of the Irish church has not searched or taught the Scriptures adequately on complex ethical issues over the years. There is a lot of uncharted territory to be explored.
25 years ago Rev John Stott published the first edition of his groundbreaking book ‘Issues facing Christians today’. If he were to visit Northern Ireland today, what issues would he highlight for us - and what might his guidance be? I doubt if he would be advising God’s people to try to keep the status quo, for whether we like it or not, ‘the times really are a-changing’, but there is, as yet, little light to guide us.
Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a retired Presbyterian minister and a former Moderator of the General Assembly
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.