Faith Matters

Norman Hamilton: Public discourse is not entertainment - it shapes how we think and behave

Reflecting on the 'shameful chaos' of recent events in Washington DC, Rev Dr Norman Hamilton says there are critically important lessons to be learned 'right here and right now'

Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol in Washington DC last month in an attempt to overturn America's presidential election and keep Joe Biden from replacing Trump in the White House. Picture by AP Photo/John Minchillo

ALMOST everyone on this side of the Atlantic was horrified at the recent events in Washington DC and the associated rhetoric in the months since the election for President of the United States.

Many of us who are committed Christians were even more horrified at the placards and banners at the riot which linked the names of Jesus and God himself with the need to keep President Trump in power, and to deny Joe Biden his rightful place as the 46th president.

During 2020 I read many articles from Christian leaders in the United States praising Donald Trump, and throwing their weight behind his campaign to be re-elected.

I have felt betrayed, compromised and even shamed by many of these leaders for several reasons.

Firstly, they reduced the complexities of government to the stance of Donald Trump on one or two highly contested issues of social policy, such as abortion and gay rights.

I too am very conservative on these issues, but poverty, immigration, climate change, racism and healthcare are equally important (never mind other concerns such as defence and foreign policy).

Too few of these leaders seemed to think that presidential policy on these issues mattered just as much as social policy.

It most certainly does if we are to have any hope of living in a more just and peaceful world.

Secondly, character matters in those who are elected. This was often sidelined or excused.

Yet while it is clear that God can and does use all sorts of people for his purposes, nonetheless the Bible is explicit that "The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity" (Proverbs 11:3). Indeed. And rightly so.

On top of these considerations, the riot and the storming of Capitol Hill showed an even deeper malaise.

When politics is overlaid or veneered with religious convictions, danger abounds.

Here in Ireland we have seen that all too clearly on all sides in the last 100 years of our history.

The 1916 Proclamation of the Easter Rising includes these words: "We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms..."

"For God and Ulster" was the motto of the Ulster Volunteer Force, formed at the height of unionist opposition to Home Rule in 1912.

When politics is overlaid or veneered with religious convictions, danger abounds. Here in Ireland we have seen that all too clearly on all sides in the last 100 years of our history 

Armed rebellion linked with calls for the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to honour such use of force is simply scandalous when seen in the light of Christ's own teaching and words.

Jesus never associated himself directly or indirectly with armed rebellion - even against the foreign forces occupying his land during his lifetime.

His insurrection was to turn the hearts of people to a loving God who was nonetheless sovereign over all the nations.

Christ's teaching surely calls us to separate faith from any desire for political power.

Furthermore, Christians must not embrace, even by default, any political ideology which cares little for the common good but plays to the whim of the electorate.

Nor must we be captured by populist politics which despises everything to do with 'the establishment', or regularly demonises others.

As we reflect on the shameful chaos in Washington DC, there are critically important lessons to be learned right here and right now.

Firstly, Churches and Christian people must clearly separate and elevate their faith in Christ from any suspicion that their primary allegiance is to any political party, elected leader or party manifesto.

The first of the Ten Commandments is unambiguous: "You shall have no other gods before me." This is easier said than done.

Secondly, when grave wrong is being done or serious injustice perpetuated - whether in politics, society or the Church itself - Church leaders must clearly step up to the mark and spell out and publicly argue for what is right.

To be silent is to acquiesce. Once again the Bible's standards are clear: Good leaders abhor wrongdoing of all kinds; sound leadership has a moral foundation.

There are lessons for us in Northern Ireland from the sharp divisions which have emerged in the United States. Picture by AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Thirdly, Christian people must take individual and personal responsibility to think for themselves, to think Biblically and not be fodder for media spin, social influencers or any kind of 'fakery', however attractive it may be.

In particular, there is the opportunity, the privilege and the responsibility to raise the often impoverished level of public discussion here in Northern Ireland.

Much too often it is polarising, adversarial and demeaning of others.

The Message includes a devastating translation to the opening verse of chapter 18 of the Old Testament book of Proverbs:

"Loners who care only for themselves spit on the common good.

"Fools care nothing for thoughtful discourse; all they do is run off at the mouth."

Christian people must take seriously the fact that public debate is not entertainment... it has an impact on how we think and behave.

Many journalists work very hard to find and bring out the truth; those of us in wider society need to have the same commitment to what is true - even if at times it is very uncomfortable... after all, Jesus himself said, "The truth will set you free".

Personally speaking, I sense an ever-increasing need to take ever-greater care of how my views, opinions and practices are shaped in a world where the forces of social pressure, fakery and trickery are ever more plausible and alluring.

I sense a need to make sure that my mental and spiritual diet is not a tasty mixture, even by default, of political preferences, acquired prejudices, half-truths, advertising, peer pressures or even traditional Christian thinking.

A much healthier diet would be better for me - and for us all - perhaps best summed up by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things."

And surely it goes without saying - I need to practice them as well.

The Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Presbyterian moderator.

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