The tragedy in Orlando is something I haven't commented on in public because I don't have any personal connections to it – it happened in a distant land, to people I don't know and in that sense was no different to the many tragedies that regularly occur around the world where people are wickedly slaughtered. I don't have a perspective that would add something new and helpful to the many conversations already happening.
But over the past few times I've seen a lot of comments popping up on Facebook and blogs that have made it a more relevant issue.

  • Professing Christians saying things in the name of Christ that I profoundly disagree with.
  • Columnists and bloggers calling for a change in culture with implications for our society.
  • Friends making connections between Christianity and the attack.

It all leaves me wondering what I would say in a face to face conversation with such people who I know. What would I say to members of my congregation who may be trying to make sense of all this? How should Christians engage with the call to change culture and society in response to all this? So here are a few of my thoughts.

First of all, there are professing Christians who seem to delight in what happened in Orlando, seeing it as God's judgement, and implying that they'd like to see more of this. That appalls me on many levels and I would ask such people, if they claim to be Christian, to consider a few portions of God's Word and whether their actions are in keeping with what God has said to us.

Jesus was asked once (in Luke 12) after some tragic deaths, what the role of sin was in their death:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Death is not the time to focus on the sin of others, but our own, to remember that we are all sinners in need to repentance. Not a time to strut and holler and gloat, but a time to be sombre and considered. Not a time to condemn the immorality of the dead, but a time to consider our own mortality. No a time to debate where others stand with God, but a time to wonder where we ourselves stand. Not a time to judge, but a time to seek God's mercy, asking to be spared from judgement ourselves, and give thanks for Christ who saves us.

We could consider the example of David, who was persecuted by Saul, hunted down and threatened with death. Yet when Saul was at his mercy (in 1 Samuel 24) what did he say? What did he do with his enemy?

May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you.

And when Saul died at the hands of the Philistines, David wept.

Now there was something special about Saul – he was an Israelite, and more than that, the Lord's anointed. But we find similarly merciful attitudes elsewhere.

  • God says in Ezekiel 33, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked."
  • As Jesus gazed over Jerusalem, thinking of the prophets they killed, he wept – not over their evil primarily, but over their refusal to come and be gathered by Jesus within is loving arms.
  • In Romans 12–13 Paul calls us to love our enemies. The state bears the sword, it has a role to uphold justice on earth, and God himself will avenge injustice in eternity. So the role of the church is simply to love, to forgive, to show grace to enemies.

There is no room for Christians to delight in the death of anyone. Christian or nonchristian; friend or enemy; moral or immoral. To delight in this massacre as some do is to depart from God.

But then there are people whose reactions are very different.

In the Guardian Owen Jones calls this the worst attack on the LGBT community since the Holocaust, rebukes newspapers that didn't have it on their front page and condemns those who prefer to describe it as an attack on humanity, rather than the LGBT community.

I think there's some validity in the notion that we should acknowledge this was an attack in the LGBT community. That certainly seems to be a strong motivation for the attack, and the choice of target. It's an important perspective that should not be ignored. But there's also a wider perspective. Because this is the worst attack since the holocaust, it is understandably a particularly awful tragedy for that community. Yet there are other communities, other groups, that have faced far worse tragedies since the Holocaust and do not make the front pages of our papers. If this is the reaction when nearly 50 people are killed in a gay club, what should our reaction be when 200 are killed in a Baghdad marketplace? When 100 are killed in a church in Nigeria?

Then in the Huffington Post Connor Doherty says that tolerance is not enough.

If you are a person who believes “tolerance” is enough, you are contributing to the problem. You don’t need to beat up an LGBTQ+ person to commit a hate crime or encourage another person to do so. If you misgender Caitlyn Jenner, say problematic and incorrect things about bathroom equality, cringe at the thought of gay affection, or use phrases like “no homo” or “that’s so gay” you are contributing to the culture that fostered this crime.

“Tolerance” isn’t a real thing; anything but acceptance is just gross indifference or suppressed hatred. Loving Neil Patrick Harris, but finding gay sex “gross” is not acceptance. Embracing white cisgender gay men while rejecting trans people is not acceptance, and every time you commit one of the above acts you are telling criminals like Omar Mateen that they are not alone in their thinking. You are sending out the message that LGBTQ+ folks are a nuisance and an intrusion only meant to be tolerated for social appearances. By doing these things you are not only dehumanizing an entire group of people; you are providing the social ammunition needed to commit these kinds of atrocities.

If you think gender is a biological attribute rather than a psycological one, then you are dehumanizing people. If you think that homosexual activity is immoral, then you're telling violent murderers like Omar Mateen 'that they are not alone in their thinking.'

It's a stark choice – get on board with everything, or be a supporter of terrorism. I imagine that the hope of the author is that people will think 'I don't like terrorism, I don't want to be associated with terrorist, so I'll get on board.' But I wonder how many will hear words like this and react the other way: 'I can't get on board, so my only option is violent opposition.' When you take away the middle ground of principled disagreement with robust debate – what tolerance should really look like – then you drive people to extremes and as much as you might hope that people will run to your own extreme, the reality is that many will run the other way.

Ironically, having accused Christians of creating a culture of hate that implicitly condone violence, it is actually words like these that polarise and encourage conflict.If you tell people they can't disagree, they they can't even think differently about moral and philosophical issues, what room is left for discussion in society? Or indeed for freedom itself? Who decides what we're allowed to think and say and do? Whose view of the world is to be the unquestioned view of all? And what happens when someone does dare question? In a world where those in power can't be engaged in discussion, why would we expect to see less violence and conflict? (Incidentally the ever-insightful Marxist Atheist Brendan O'Neill has written an excellent article for Spiked.)

The fruit of that is evident. Where Christians have reached out in love, shedding tears, offering prayers, there has been an angry reaction from some quarters, saying that only people in the LGBT community – those who in some way share the victimhood of the slaughtered – are able to weep and Christian tears are no better than crocodile tears. But if only the community of the victim can weep, where does that leave the world? The western world has in large part discarded the notion that we are made in the image of God and having lost that common origin we see humanity fracturing into communities who are actively discouraged from sharing sorrows and sympathies, instead competing for status of greatest victim to claim the right to reshape society. Few today would know the words of Paul, in Ephesians where he describes Jesus as the one who breaks down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, or the words of John in Revelation where he describes a tree in the new creation whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Their is a purpose in Christ's reconciling work, not just of making peace between man and God, but also as a consequence of that, making peace between nations, peoples, communities. That is the trajectory of redemption history and it is a tragedy to see people fighting against that, trying to fracture mankind further still. In fact it is utterly perverse, sickeningly cynical, that some would use the murderous actions of a gay muslim to condemn Christian bakers.

In the life to come there will be people from every tribe and tongue, from all sorts of backgrounds and communities, redeemed at different points in their lives, delivered from all manners of lifestyles and sins. All wrongs will be righted, all victims avenged, all persecutions ended, all those raised to eternal life brought together as one glorious, global, godly community. All will be well. And so although I am sad to see the reactions of some, concerned about the negative, polarising, divisive influence on society, I am still hopeful and confident that better things are yet to come. And even now we see glimpses of that coming kingdom. On Sunday as thousands from the LGBT community queued to give blood, the Christian-owned restaurant chain Chick Fil A opened its doors – normally shut on a Sunday – fired up, the ovens, made thousands of meals, and handed them out for free.

A most wonderful example of the love Paul calls us to in Romans 12, or the goodness Jesus speaks of in Matthew 12:

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Far from being the problem, Christianity, the gospel – Jesus Christ himself – is the solution. May Jesus bring healing and hope to our divided, violent world.

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I stepped out of the house to go visiting today, but my car was welded shut by the ice – it took a Herculean effort to get the key in the lock, never mind turn it – and then the doors wouldn’t budge. While I was waiting for the ice to thaw (the deicer being in the car of course), I read something about fire.

You can’t have escaped the death of David Bowie, and the obsessive, hagiographic, championing of the radical, culture-challenging nature of his artistry. And of course, as with any popular movement, Christians jump on the bandwagon of relevance. I read one minister say,

On his 2013 record The Next Day Bowie took the words of St Catherine of Sienna and made them into a guitar strut of a Pause For Thought. The song (You Will) Set The World On Fire is taken from St Catherine’s words “Be who were you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire…”

In the lyrics of this song and the riffed up music he sets it to Bowie expressed perfectly Jesus intentions for all of us when he told his disciples he had come to give them life and life in all its fullness. As a rock star David Bowie lived a full life and if we lean and listen closely to the tributes and reminisces this week then we will hear him encourage us to do the same… like David Bowie “Be who were you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire…”

We are obsessed with the spectacular and wanting to be spectacular world-changers. Everything we do is worthy of public interest, displayed on Facebook and Twitter, we're dissatisfied with the ordinary, every child is a potential prime minister or president – we want to set the world on fire, and be remembered for it.

But is that what Jesus wants? Is that what his disciples should be striving towards. True, we are to be salt and light. We should stand out as different to the world. But i'm not sure it's a Bowie-esque spectacular fire that we should aspire to.

In Hyde Park and Lylehill at the moment, we’re thinking about how to comfort people in hard times and make a practical difference to them. We started with dying and bereavement, then looked last week at anxiety and depression. This week we’re thinking about the sick, and next  week about carers. So right now I’m thinking of homes where the husband has maybe been housebound for years and the wife rarely leaves so that she can care for him. I’m thinking of families giving their time and energy to care for elderly relatives, taking them, showing true hospitality. I’m thinking of people giving up their lives, their opportunities, their energy, to love and to serve.

They do not set the world on fire. They don’t have the time. They don’t have the energy. The world barely knows of them. Yet they do something beautiful and loving and far better. Their light shows us godly love and their salt gives us a flavour of the world to come. The reality for many people is that their lives will not be world changing. They will not set the world on fire. And if they think that’s what they’re made for, they will be confused, disappointed, perhaps go looking for ways to be radical that lie outside what they were meant to be. Really what people need to know is that we’re made to do a lot of ordinary things. Things that aren’t Facebook-worthy. That aren’t radical. That don’t set the world on fire. But which embody love for God and love for people.

One lesson we could learn from David Bowie is that as life went on, he left a lot of his radicalism behind. He became an ordinary heterosexual (for which some hated him), wearing dull clothes, writing serious, sombre songs. It seems that in the end, David Bowie found that being radical and setting the world on fire, wasn’t actually the be all and end all.

I’d actually love my congregations to be ordinary. To care more about looking after family than looking spectacular. To care more about loving God than being love by the world. To care more about making a difference with the individuals in their community than leaving a community behind to be a one-man army changing the world.  To have their own hearts burning with love, rather than trying to set the world on fire.

In 1 Peter 4:7–11 it says

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Pray. Love. Eat. It seems so predictable and ordinary that it could be a Julia Roberts rom-com. Yet here is faithfulness and grace, more glorious to God than fire and glamour, and something each one of us can strive for.

Peter ends his letter with some personal greetings and these words of encouragement for people who live humble ordinary lives, enduring suffering, but getting on with love:

the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

What precious hope for ordinary people with hard lives.

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Being the rock and roll person that I am, my New Year’s Eve plans consisted of doing the dishes while watching a documentary about James Clerk Maxwell on BBC Scotland. If you don’t know who that is, then you’re not alone – the presenter began by lamenting that no-one, even the people walking past has statue every day, seems to know the man described as 'the Scottish Einstein,' and compared by Einstein himself to Sir Isaac Newton. The aim of the programme was to rectify this great travesty and introduce us to one of Scotland’s greatest intellectuals who transformed science and deeply impacted the way the modern world works. Along the way we hear much about his his scientific achievements, but also the great importance of his family, his home, his marriage, his poetry, even his many dogs (all named Toby). Fail to pay attention and you might miss the two very brief references to religion – that from the proceeds of his sizeable family estate he helped build a church, among a great many other things, and when he died he was buried in the graveyard of his family church. Indeed that way his death is described – he dealt with the news that he had a month to live ‘stoically’ – you could get the impression that he had no faith in an afterlife and was matter of factly dealing with the material facts.

Coincidentally, I’m preaching about dying and bereavement on Sunday morning – we’re starting a new series on how we as Christians can bring ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ to our family, friends, and neighbours who are going through hard times. There are many ways to approach death, depending on your faith, your philosophy, your view of how the world works – and ends. One of those approaches is to be stoic. To acknowledge the inevitability of it and just get on with life until it happens, trying not to let it affect you until the final day arrives – to neither be overcome with self-pity, nor waste time on fanciful ideas about escaping death or what might happen in some unknown afterlife.

I suspect that many scientists, or at least the ones that the public are generally aware of like Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking, would take an approach like this, and I wonder if the presenter of the documentary on Maxwell wanted to find in him an intellectual predecessor, not just in physics, but in philosophy and theology (or atheology). But Maxwell was no Cox, Dawkins, or Hawking. Not only was he a greater scientist, but his approach to death would not have been the stoic approach of the naturalistic atheist.

This is what his Wikipedia article records about his death:

Maxwell died in Cambridge of abdominal cancer on 5 November 1879 at the age of 48.[31] His mother had died at the same age of the same type of cancer.[75] The minister who regularly visited him in his last weeks was astonished at his lucidity and the immense power and scope of his memory, but comments more particularly,

'... his illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man: his firm and undoubting faith in the Incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficiency of the Atonement; in the work of the Holy Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy, and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying — "unworkable" was his own word about them — and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Saviour.'

As death approached Maxwell told a Cambridge colleague

'I have been thinking how very gently I have always been dealt with. I have never had a violent shove all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.'[41]

No stoic shrug of the shoulders here, but a deep calm and comfort that came from Jesus Christ and the reality of the resurrection. Maxwell was actually an elder in the mother church of us Irish Presbyterians, the Church of Scotland, and an evangelical who was at least in part driven to study science because of his faith, saying,

I believe, with the Westminster Divines and their predecessors ad Infinitum, that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”.

It was his faith that sustained him as he was dying of cancer and no doubt comforted his grieving widow Katherine. As Christians we have a comfort and even a joy to face death with, not a mere stoicism and stiff upper lip. Thanks be to God!

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Seven things you shouldn't do

  1. Act like you’re the first person to mention Jesus in the debate. It’s arrogant and deceitful. Plenty of people have mentioned Jesus. Maybe they’ve been saying things you disagree with so you’ve not paid much attention, but Jesus has been mentioned plenty.
  2. Be a mind-reader. I’ve been deeply saddened to see some people assigning motives to others that they couldn’t possibly know of or offer any decent evidence for. That’s just plain deceitful and nasty.
  3. Tell people what Jesus would do and then ignore what he has said to us outside of the gospels. Jesus actually has a tremendously high view of the Old Testament and the Church has had a well established canon that the gospels are only a small part of, for the better part of two thousand years. If you want to dismiss all that, then when you call yourself a Christian, please add the caveat that you reject the historic orthodox teaching of the church.
  4. Say that Jesus would want us to love people without defining what love looks like and where this view comes from. The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil. Love can mean all sorts of things and there’s much that people love which they shouldn’t! What godly love looks like needs to be clearly defined. Since the law is fulfilled by love, then looking at the law of God will give us an idea of how we can learn to love.
  5. Say the answer is obvious and anyone who disagrees is a fool. This is a complicated issue where snap judgements are unhelpful. Particularly when it comes to commenting on the recent legal reading, not many of us are trained in the law and may not be fit to comment on what has been said. Be humble in any comments you do make, particularly where you lack expertise. On the other hand, if we recognise the complexities of the situation and the merits of other points of view, we may well get the hearing necessary to put forward our own concerns and find common ground to form laws that better protect our freedoms.
  6. Assume that our current circumstances should be the basis for the law. Laws should protect people in changing circumstances, especially when those circumstances become extreme. ‘They could have got a cake in another shop’ doesn’t a universal truth and the law needs to allow for situations where there isn’t another shop.
  7. Look at this situation in isolation. Think instead about the implications for the law in other situations of potential oppression, discrimination and inequality. Talk to Christians down south about the discrimination happening the referendum campaign, about the disparity in ability to speak up, even where freedoms technically exist. As Christians become more and more a minority, will we perhaps find the Ashers ruling a helpful one in protecting our ability to access printing services for instance?

Three things to remember

  1. History. The English Reformation faltered badly at first because Protestants were seen as money-grabbers and highly corrupt. It was only when they started getting burned at the stake by Mary that people began to sympathise and see that they sincerely believed what they were saying. No-one is being burned at the stake today, though I imagine that it will be increasingly costly to be a Christian, especially in terms of finance and job opportunities. That isn’t good, but good can come from it in showing that our witness is sincere.
  2. Our mission today: We aren’t here to run the world, to shape society into a Christian mould, or to increase our influence in government. We’re here to glorify God, witness to Christ, and love our neighbours. Court cases and political debates can become a distraction. Sometimes the good is the enemy of the best, because we end up giving important things a higher priority than the most important things.
  3. The future: This world is temporary, this suffering is light and momentary, and there will be no more tears or injustice in the resurrection life of the new creation. Jesus wins and he invites us to the party. So don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. Encourage your brothers and sisters by reminding them of the hope you have. Meet with them in church. Encourage each other in song. Hear words written to give us hope. At baptism, remember the life we are raised to as we are united to Christ. At the Lord’s Table remember that we will some day eat face to face with the one who has already died for us and by faith feeds our souls today. Read Psalm 2 and laugh at the foolishness of those who oppose and suppress God and our foolishness in worrying about what they might do for a few nanoseconds of eternity.

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Imagine a nation called Corporatopia where freedom of speech for businesses is carefully protected. A political group wants some leaflets printed to support their campaign against an upcoming referendum. But every printer holds opposing political beliefs and declines the orders, citing freedom of speech. When the referendum comes, the streets and media have been covered in political messages in favour of the referendum because there was no-one willing to print or publish material against it. When the people vote in favour of the referendum, are they making a free and fair democratic decision? Has freedom of speech really been upheld? Arguably, no. In upholding freedom for the businesses, the political group was left disadvantaged and effectively disenfranchised. It may have had the technical freedom to speak and produce its own material, but without equal access to printers, there was a massive disparity in power and influence that effectively curtailed freedom and democracy. Freedom of speech is upheld, but in a clumsy, on-sided manner that causes harm.

Now imagine a nation called Consumerlandia where freedom of speech is always upheld for consumers. Printers must produce any material that consumers ask for. Because of this, people with strong political views find that they cannot in good conscience become printers lest their hard work and even excellence be used to promote something they disagree with. They cannot in good conscience find employment in companies which produce such material lest they be asked to provide it. Artists no longer take up commissions, greatly limiting who can afford to enter creative industries. In political campaigns, everyone can avail of the market to have their say, but not everyone is able to get a job and creativity languishes. Freedom of speech is upheld, but in a different way to before that is nevertheless still clumsy and damaging.

Freedom of speech is a complicated issue, partly because we need to ask who we are protecting. In the recent Asher’s case, many have written about the stifling of freedom of conscience and the threat to freedom of speech in the form of businesses being forced to create promotional material for causes their owners are opposed to.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the errors of the judge in favouring the customer over the business here. I actually have some sympathy for the judge’s ruling however.

I am not a lawyer, my knowledge of the law is quite limited, I'm not a philosopher or ethicist, and I'm more than capable of overlooking obvious problems with my own thinking, so much of what I write here may well be horribly mistaken and certainly doesn't represent the thoughts of anyone other than me. But as far as I understand things, the judge has decided that the customer was asking for a message that had political content. Ashers were aware of this, aware of the political debate, and rejected the message on the grounds of its political content. Ashers would not dispute this – it was in fact a plank of their defence. But if I understand the judge correctly, she was said that rejecting the political message amounts to discrimination because the message is inextricably linked with the people who support it. If they did not support the message, they would not be asking for a cake decorated with the message. Rejecting the message therefore necessarily rejects the people who support it and effectively denying them freedom.

Some have argued that the customer could have gone to another bakery and then no-one’s freedom would have been violated. But what if such a bakery didn’t exist? What if every bakery denied his request. Would there still be freedom of speech? Technically, yes, but there would be a disparity in influence and power due to the forms of speech available. The ruling against Ashers assumes that your ability to promote a cause should not depend on the content of that cause (when the content falls under definitions linked to the protected classes of discrimination legislation). That, I think, is actually quite a reasonable idea, in of itself. But the implementation is clumsy and harmful.

Others have argued that this is he obvious ruling to make because businesses aren’t people, so the only people to protect and the only freedoms to protect are those of the customer. But of course businesses in a sense, don’t really exist. Businesses don’t make decisions, or ice cakes; people do, and people have rights and freedoms and consciences. To an extent, that is recognised, but the point is often made that by making money, and in particularly making money from the general public, you give up rights and freedoms. There’s an element of reasonableness in that: if you want want the benefit of making money from people, you should give something up in return, But in effect this idea says that only those who have no conscience can make money and only the apathetic can be commissioned to create art. That strikes me as dangerous for business, culture, and society in general.

But is there perhaps a compromise?

There are different sorts of people who have freedoms to protect. But there are also different sorts of businesses which have differing levels of public accountability, and offer different benefits to their owners and employees.

For instance a company in British law (or corporation under American law), has a degree of legal personhood that means that the company is legally liable for its actions, rather than its owners. Registering a business as a company (or incorporating it), means that the company acts as a person in a way that protects its owners. Such companies

On the other hand there are family businesses where the owning family are legally liable for the actions of the business and legally liable for paying the debts of the business. There are plenty of one-man or one-woman businesses where there isn’t really any meaningful difference between the business and the owner.

I wonder if a reasonable accommodation of rights would be to:

  • prioritise the freedom of speech and access to services of customers of businesses which exist as separate legal entities, protecting their owners from liability
  • prioritise the freedom of speech and ability to deny service to customers of businesses which do not exist as separate legal entities.

This would ensure that large printing companies for instance would have to make their services available to any and all political causes, ensuring that the nature of your cause does not limit your ability to promote that cause, therefore preventing discrimination and inequality. But it would also protect the consciences of business owners and artists who are then willing to retain liability in exchange for retaining freedom.

As a Christian, I read much about the responsibilities that we have, which Christians should focus on, more than our rights. That’s also a reminder that rights have responsibilities attached. Liability is a form of responsibility and seems to me, from a Christian perspective, to be an important factor in the issue of freedom and rights. If you want rights, you need to accept liability. If you accept liability, your rights should be protected.

I fear that there is a tendency to pursue options and views which lend themselves towards polarisation and helping one group at the expense of another, pitting freedoms against freedoms and establishing a hierarchy of rights. If we instead linked rights with responsibilities and liability with freedom, I wonder if we could avoid the worst problems of the polarised viewpoints and offer means of protecting all.

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Much has been said in the media and on social networks in the past few month about the terrible events in Gaza. If anyone can see images of homes and families being made homeless and children being shelled, and not be saddened and angered, there’s something wrong with them. And so there was been an outpouring an anger against Israel’s conduct. They’re a democracy, they’re much stronger, they should behave better. That’s the general sentiment I’ve observed around the world. But locally, there’s this idea that we have a particular insight into the situation because of the Troubles and a particular right to lecture Israel because the RAF never bombed Dublin.

But anyone who thinks that is utterly naive. Let’s compare the two situations:

  • Israel is a bit shorter than Ireland and at its widest point, only half as wide and has a population roughly equal to the Republic of Ireland and Belfast combined.
  • The population of Gaza is roughly the same as the whole of Northern Ireland and lives in an area not much bigger than the Ards Peninsula.
  • Israel main airport, it’s largest city (Tel Aviv) and its capital (Jerusalem) are within an hour’s drive of the Gaza border and within range of rocket attack.
  • Mortar attacks by IRA in five-year period of 1990–1994: less than 70.
  • Hamas rockets fired at Israel in 2014 so far: over 3,000.
  • Civilians killed during the Troubles: 1,855.
  • People killed by the Islamic militants ISIS in Iraq yesterday: 1,500.
  • Membership of the IRA: about 10,000 over 30 years, no more than 2–2,500 in any given year.
  • Membership of Hamas: around 10,000
  • Borders of UK: Ireland, a stable, neutral government that was fighting terrorists.
  • Borders of Israel: Egypt (been at war multiple times in the past 70 years), Syria (hostile and in a civil war with Islamic extremists), Jordan (vulnerable to takeover by Islamic militants), Iraq (not quite on the border, but not far away and a mess, full of Islamic extremists), Palestinian Authority (corrupt, unable to stop money getting into the hands of terrorists).
  • The threat to Britain from handing over control of NI: would probably actually make Britain safer and save both money and lives.
  • The threat to Israel from handing over Gaza and the West Bank: staging area for terrorists, possibility of takeover by militants, whole country in dire peril.

Really there is no comparison between the Troubles and Gaza. Fighting terrorists is inherently more difficult and costly in terms of human life in Gaza because of the population density and the ineffectiveness of the government there. Hundreds of millions of dollars, along with concrete and wiring, all intended for schools and hospitals and the good of Palestinian civilians, have been taken by Hamas and used to build their terror tunnels and fund their terror campaign. They are far better equipped than the IRA, have more civilians to hide behind, and face no effective opposition from their own people. The scale of violence is greater than anything we have experienced even at the height of the Troubles (never mind the fact that many people on social media will struggle to remember the ’94 ceasefire, let alone the really bad days of the Troubles). And the existential threat to Israel from allowing terror and chaos to prosper on its land borders is radically different to the tiny threat faced by the island nation of the UK.

Events in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Syria in the past 11 years have fractured the Middle East. Tyrants have brought down or severely weakened, but many worse people have gained power. Asad is an evil man, but would could replace him would be even worse. Saddam was an evil man, but Iraq has been a bloodbath since he was overthrown. We can tut and wring our hands from a distance, but the people of the Middle East are the ones really suffering and Israel has the most o lose from this continuing because militant Sunni Islamic extremists would be quid happy to see Israel destroyed.

Telling Israel to play nice while it is surrounded by chaos and hostility is idiotic and irresponsible. If the world really wants to be moral, not just give lectures on morality, then it needs to confront the problem of Islamic militants in the Middle East. If they aren’t dealt with, there is no way that Israel will have the confidence to change its behaviour. And abandoning Israel would set off a far worse conflict than what we’ve seen so far. What would a cornered, isolated Israel do to protect itself? What would confident, unstopped militants do to a cornered, isolated Israel? It would be a bloodbath and quite possibly a nuclear one.

So yes, Israel has in all likelihood done some awful things, but I’m not sure what better alternatives it has if it wants to continue to exist. I hope there are alternatives and that smarter people who know more about the region and the conflict and the people can find those alternatives. But criticising without any understanding of the situation, without any sympathy for the existential threat Israel faces, without any comprehension of how radically different the conflict is to the Troubles, has little value. I can’t see why anyone in that conflict would listen to a lecture from people who think they know better but evidently don’t understand the situation at all.

(I can’t help but wonder if on some level people are associating Israel with their supporters in the American Religious Right, who aren’t exactly popular over here, particularly with younger people on social media, and in some way equating their conflict with a view of the Troubles as a Protestant–Catholic religious conflict. Or thinking along the lines of: the Orange Order are bullies, they’re sort of Protestant fundamentalists like the Religious Right who support Israel, so we don’t like Israel either.)

What the western powers really need to do, in my (decided non-expert) opinion, is deal with the threat from Islamic militants, particularly in Syria and Iraq. If Israel feels less threatened by them, then perhaps Hamas by itself would be less of a worry and there would be a real possibility for peace.


I confess that in terms of statistics I have relied heavily on Wikipedia for the statistics here. I was inspired by the following  articles:

Some brief thoughts for Christians

Solidarity with Christians in Iraq

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.

Habakkuk 1:2–4 NIV

Any Christians reading this will I hope be following the terrible events in Iraq which in all likelihood will soon be almost devoid of Christians. The Palestinians and Israelis need our prayers, but so do the Christians. The violence in Israel and Gaza needs to stop, but so does the violence in Syria and Iraq. And if it stops, then perhaps peace will come to the Israelis and Palestinians too. Read the book of Habakkuk where corrupt leaders are overthrown by even worse men of violence and people cry out to God for justice and rescue. Give thanks that Jesus came in answer to that cry and pray for the day to come when he will return to bring an end to injustice and violence and deliver his people, wherever they may be found.

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.

2 Thessalonians 1:3–7 NIV

Further reading

Open Doors has some helpful resources:


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How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?

Habakkuk 1:2 NIV

Like many of the Psalms, the book of Habakkuk asks questions of God. The good book often asks where is the evidence that God himself is good. Some of what Habakkuk says wouldn’t be terribly out of place in 21st Century Northern Ireland

Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.

Habakkuk 1:3–4 NIV

With a paralysed executive up on the hill and general agreement that there isn’t much justice around parades – even if no-one can agree what justice would look like – and violence perpetually on the horizon, Habakkuk could be standing on the Ardoyne, asking these questions of God.

And the questions keep on coming. He’s struggling not only with the lack of justice by Israel’s rulers, but the promise from God that the Babylonians are going to come and overthrow them. Sure, Israel’s leaders are a pretty rotten lot, but the Babylonians are a

ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own

Habakkuk 1:6 NIV

God may as well be saying ‘I’ll bring down Stormont on the heads of those useless politicians… and bring in ISIS to rule in their place.’ Ask a Christian in Iraq how much of an improvement that would be.

There’s quite a lot that’s depressing about the the first half of Habakkuk. There’s an abundance of problems and an absence of justice. There’s judgement on bad rulers, but no sign of relief for the man on the street.

But there are glimmers of hope as the dialogue between Habakkuk and God goes on. God condemns those who oppress and exploit, and trample over the weak. He warns that their victims will rise against them. But most importantly, he warns that he himself is coming. We get the first glimpse of that in verses 15 and 16:

“Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbours, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies.

You will be filled with shame instead of glory.Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed!
The cup from the LORD’S right hand is coming around to you, and disgrace will cover your glory.

Habakkuk 2:15–16 NIV

There’s a cup coming for the unjust. Other prophets refer to this as the cup of God’s wrath (e.g. Isaiah 51:17, Jeremiah 25:15). It’s a cup that will be drunk by the nations who oppress God’s people in the final judgement at Christ’s return (Revelation 14:10). And it’s the cup that Jesus revels he will drink, as prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:42, see also Isaiah 51:22). Jesus drinks it so that Christians will not.

In other words, judgement is coming on the unjust. And as Habakkuk moves from complaint to worship, he pictures the coming of the Lord in might and wrath.

You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed.
Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high.
Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear.

In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations.
You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one.

Habakkuk 3:9–13 NIV

Destruction for the unjust. Deliverance for his people. A fearsome image yet a hopeful image. And by the end Habakkuk is moved to respond in two ways:

… I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.

Habakkuk 3:16 NIV

…I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

Habakkuk 3:18 NIV

He waits on destruction and rejoices in his deliverer.

There’s a lot of rejoicing in sport. (Unless you’re Brazilian.) A lot of tears, but a lot of rejoicing. When Brian O’Driscoll walked onto the pitch for his final rugby match, he was greeted by cheers and applause. That’s what happens when a star player comes on the pitch – their fans rejoice. It’s a wonderful scene, full of glory and encouragement.

But there’s an ugly side to sport too. A few months ago when Jared Payne was red carded in an Ulster Rugby match for tackling Alex Goode in the air, there were boos and jeers for Goode as he was carried off the pitch – there was a suspicion by some that he had played up the incident to get Payne sent off. And the boos continued throughout the match. It was ugly and dishonourable. It encouraged no-one and left a bad taste in the mouth.

But things could be worse. Imagine a crowd of supporters who don’t merely boo their opponents, but cheer when they are injured. People who rejoice in destruction. That would be worse than ugly. It would be contemptible. You wouldn’t want to be associated with those supporters and it would tarnish the reputation of their team. No good comes from rejoicing in destruction.

Habakuk calls us to wait on destruction and rejoice in our deliverer. But in this country too often people get this the wrong way round – they rejoice in destruction and wait on – actually they don’t wait on much at all. There’s not a lot of patience here.

Habakkuk calls us to wait on destruction and rejoice in our deliverer. But too often here, people rejoice in destruction. They take things into their own hands and multiply injustice and oppression.

Pray that this season, people would heed the call of Habakkuk. Pray for patience and pray that people would rejoice, not in destruction, but in our deliverer, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the way of Habakkuk, the life of faith, and the aspiration of any true Christian.

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I recently submitted a letter to a number of local newspapers. No idea if it will get published or edited. Given the number of letters they likely get, I doubt it will appear, so I thought I may as well put it here as well.

Letter regarding the Ashers Bakery controversy

There is a tragic irony that in the name of liberalism, tyranny threatens to descend upon those with a conscience and Christians, so often charged with being hypocrites, are being told to separate what they do from what they believe. I am of course referring to the recent furore over the stand of Ashers Bakery regarding a certain cake. There are a number of misconceptions and outright lies that form the basis of an illiberal reaction against the exercise of freedom of conscience.
Firstly, sexual orientation is being confused with lifestyle and moral causes. Like skin colour, sexual orientation is regarded as a matter of identity. A statement of fact. ‘I was born that way.’ So to refuse service on the grounds of orientation is equivalent to racism. Fair enough, but to my knowledge, Ashers have never had a problem with selling sausage rolls to homosexuals. But while there are no ground to discriminate on the basis of who someone is, a campaign to promote particular activities is something which has moral value – it can be viewed as good or evil – and so invokes the conscience. There are sincere conscientious grounds on which to oppose the activities and the campaign and therefore reasons to refuse service.

Others object that while business owners may have a conscience, businesses themselves don’t and therefore personal beliefs should not be projected onto services open to the public. Yet a few months ago, the new CEO of the tech company Mozilla was hounded out of his job for his private opposition to same-sex marriage. When the shady antics of big multi-nationals come to light, we judge the owners and directors as immoral for their action. Businesses exist only on paper. Decisions and actions are taken by real people with moral frameworks and consciences. It is bizarrely incoherent to hold people accountable for the way their business is run, yet not allow people to run businesses according to their conscience!

The reality is that there is nothing liberal about seeking action against Ashers. Can there be anything liberal about redefining discrimination as opposition to a lifestyle rather than hatred of an identity? Is it not instead tyrannical to impose such limits on men’s consciences? Is there anything liberal about restricting who can run a business? Especially one which is in no way essential to the functioning of society? We may soon see a society in which Muslims cannot be bakers lest be they be asked to produce a cake declaring that Jesus is God, Jews cannot be bakers lest they be asked to produce a cake celebrating the wonders of bacon, pro-choice feminists cannot be bakers lest they be asked to bake a cake with a pro-life slogan, and environmentalists cannot be bakers lest they produce a cake backing big oil. In short, business owners must be without creed or conscience. Is that the world we want?

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Some people have asked me for my thoughts on the Ashers situation and as a pastor in the Newtownabbey area where the company are based, it seems particularly relevant and appropriate to offer some thoughts and guidance. I'm slightly late in responding to this since I didn't have time to get on the Internet yesterday – I wasn't even aware of the story until last night! – but I hope that both Christians and secular liberals will find this helpful or at least provoke some thoughts.

There are three misconceptions I want to challenge, followed by some questions for liberals and encouragements for Christians.

It’s not about discrimination

There is a principle regarding discussions on the internet, that eventually every argument will involve a comparison to Hitler. this is known as Godwin’s Law and generally indicates the point at which further sane, productive conversation is unlikely to occur. After all, if you think someone is no better than a Nazi then you’ll probably not give their arguments much credence – including anything they might say to persuade you that they’re not a Nazi.

In any discussion about the ethics of a homosexual lifestyle, comparisons with racism are inevitably made and it is very difficult to have a sane, productive conversation beyond this point. After all, what could a racist possibly have to say about ethical conduct?

Godwin’s Law can quite deliberately be invoked to derail a conversation that should really never have anything to do with Hitler, Nazis or fascism. And sadly racism gets played as a trump card to ‘win’ debates about homosexuality even when it has nothing to do with the actual discussion. Racism is about discriminating against people on the basis of their skin colour. Homophobia would involve discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. This does indeed happen in the world and there are times when valid comparisons could be made with racism.

But not always.

There is no moral value attached to skin colour. It’s something you can’t do anything about and doesn’t lead you to do anything. By simply being black or white, you aren’t doing anything that has a moral value, so there is no room for conscience to declare you are doing something wrong and therefore have a principled reason to oppose action you are taking. It is simply a passive physical property of who you are. Therefore racism is wrong.

What about sexual orientation? Well let’s take the prevailing liberal view that it is not chosen, then you are born that way and that you cannot help being experiencing attraction to people of the same sex. Under that view, orientation is similar to skin colour and therefore homophobia is similar to racism.

But there is a difference. Skin colour is a physical property. It’s visible. Orientation is not. People don’t walk round with big flashing signs saying that they are attracted to the same sex. Orientation can only be known when people act or speak. Acting and speaking are active rather than passive. In many cases acting or speaking involves not simply passing on information, but promoting a lifestyle, directly or by implication. It involves assigning moral value to actions or a way of life. And as soon as you do that, the conscience is involved. When you are able to endorse something as good, others then have the right to conscientiously oppose it.

So for instance being black isn’t a matter of morality. Telling someone you are white should have nothing to do with anyone’s conscience. To refuse someone service on the basis of this information would be racist.

On other hand, promoting affirmative action for black people involves actions with moral value. Promoting white power invokes the conscience. Would it be racist to refuse to produce a cake with a slogan promoting white power? Would it be racist to refuse to produce a banner with a slogan promoting affirmative action? Not inherently. There could be a racist motivation underlying such a refusal, but there could instead be a reasoned, conscientious objection to the cause begin promoted, rather than a distaste for the customer’s identity.

Now if someone came into a cakeshop and asked for a birthday cake for a gay friend – or said they themselves were a lesbian, then there would be no principles ground to object. Refusing service would be homophobia, plain and simple. But what about a cake with a slogan promoting gay marriage? That is a cause with a moral value. It invokes the conscience. A baker could refuse service on the basis that they don’t like gays and that would be homophobic. It would be like racism. But they could also refuse on principled grounds of conscience. Just as a Christian baker’s conscience might compel to refuse to make such a cake, a gay activist baker’s conscience might compel them to refuse to bake a cake with a slogan opposing gay marriage.

As far as I can tell, Ashers refused to make the cake, not on the basis of the customer’s orientation, but on the basis of the cause the slogan would be promoting.

It’s not about businesses having no conscience

I’ve heard the objection, in other similar situations, that businesses have no conscience. Employees and owners might, but businesses don’t. And without a conscience, they cannot decline service on principled grounds. The actions of a business are not the actions of its employees and owners. They are not morally responsibly, so they cannot impose their conscience or their moral framework upon the actions of the business.

This concept seems to be very selectively applied however.

A few months ago, Mozilla – a technology company which produces an Internet browser – promoted an employee to be their new CEO. There was uproar over this because he had privately donated some money to promote a campaign in a vote about gay same-sex marriage, helping to fund those who believe it should not be legal. This was a private action. It reflected his personal conscience. But it was felt by many that this reflected on the company as a whole. And before long, he was hounded out of the job, resigning for the good of the company.

When a large-multinational engages in immoral (but legal) behaviour, the morality of bosses, directors, major shareholders, etc. is questioned. the actions of the company reflects the morality of those who run it. Their consciences, their moral frameworks, are not eld to be separable from the actions of the company. There’s a lot of sense in that because of a course a business is something of an abstract entity. It is something which exists on paper for legal and financial purposes, but a company can’t actually do anything. People do things. And so the actions of a company are the actions of people with consciences and moral frameworks. The decisions of companies are the decisions of people with consciences and moral frameworks. You cannot separate the actions of a company from the conscience of its owners and directors.

This is particularly true of small business or even large business with a small number of owners where the actions of the company really do reflect the conscience of a person, a couple, or a family.

If you cannot operate a business without exercising your freedom of conscience, then what does that do for the job prospects of Christians and indeed others who have strong consciences? Will they not be driven from many areas of business? In fact, is this not already happening?

What does it say about the sort of people who are permitted to run businesses? They must be law-abiding, but amoral. No strong conscience which would lead them to object to any philosophy, worldview, lifestyle, or behaviour.

Or more sinisterly, is the current action against Ashers saying that only people of a certain worldview, who uphold a certain set of values and a promote a certain way of living, are allowed to exercise their conscience and run businesses? What a chilling thought that is.

It’s not liberal

There are many who will insist that taking action against Ashers is about upholding liberal values. But is there anything liberal about redefining discrimination as opposition to a lifestyle rather than hatred of an identity? Is it not instead tyrannical to impose such limits on men’s consciences?

Is there anything liberal about restricting who can run a business? Especially one which is in no way essential to the functioning of society? Do we not see here an imposition of a certain worldview and an economic coercion against opposing views?


Questions for ‘liberals’

So-called liberals may cheer and celebrate the actions of the Equality Commission, but if the principles which provide the commission with its basis for action are given credence, what happens when the worldview in power becomes one which opposes you? Right now it may be one which serves your agenda, which promotes your views, but what happens when that changes? What grounds will you have left to oppose it? And in the mean time, how can you continue to call yourself a liberal when your worldview is imposed by economic coercion and tyranny of conscience?

Encouragement for Christians

This morning in my quiet time two of the passages I read were Philippians 1 and Psalm 12. And on Sunday I will be preaching on Habakkuk 3. I commend all these passage to anyone wrestling with how to endure in the face of threats and coercion, the probability of hardship for Christian businesses and the possibility some day of prison for the faithful.

There are two things which come to mind from these passages:

  • remain faithful because God is coming back to deal with the unjust and faithless
  • rejoice because God is our saviour

Here are some particularly pertinent quotes to mull over and stimulate you to pray.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

Philippians 1:18–20 NIV

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Philippians 1:27–30 NIV

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

Habakkuk 3:17–18 NIV

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There are some films I've watched more than twice. And would happily watch again and again. Casablanca, Harvey, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, The Princess Bride, most Pixar films. I know what's going to happen. In some cases I could extensively quote dialogue. But I would happily watch them again. Why?

Because a story is as much about experience as knowledge. More in fact. Some studies have even shown that knowing what is going to happen can increase enjoyment of a film because you start to eagerly anticipate what's about to happen. You can see that in action with toddlers demanding their favourite story books!

We're wired for story.

I'm thinking about that today because I've started into Reading the Gospels Wisely by Jonathan T. Pennington. In the third chapter he gives a list of various reasons why we need the gospels , which includes their power as stories

The most powerful discourse of truth is not abstract doctrinal propositions but stories and images and art because these engage our whole person, not just our minds. (p. 46)

I'm still mulling over whether 'powerful' is the right word, but he's definitely on to something here. Doctrine is great for precision, but if you want passion, then you'll get further with a story.

Fittingly he provides a story to illustrate his point:

Imagine that a man wants to take his beloved wife on a date to a romantic movie. At the last minute he decides that it would be far cheaper and much more efficient to go to Blockbuster, find the "Romantic Comedy" section, and together read all the synopses on the back of the DVD boxes. Why would that not have the same effect? Why would this be a failed date? Because it is the story – its setting, development, climax, resolution, and the fact that it takes time to experience – this is the film's power. The (often deceitful) summary on the back cover may guide one choosing a selection, but it cannot replace the experience of the story because story cannot be reduced to its content. If the narrative did not matter, then we could just have the synopsis and be done with it. (p. 47)

A great reason to spend time in the gospels. And a great reason to work harder on illustrations for sermons!


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