Iris and fundamentalism

The recent travails (largely self inflicted ) of Iris Robinson have brought to light the issue of how fundamentalist Christians interact with society especially when they are in positions of very considerable political power. As ever amongst such people there are many different analyses. I apologise for the biblical quotations in the second part of this piece but it is difficult to explain what people are arguing about without quoting relevant bits of Scripture. In addition my traditional defence: this is (as we have seen) part of Northern Ireland’s culture.The simplest strategy is that adopted by small groups such as the Exclusive Brethren: they withdraw themselves from all political and largely from civic life. I am no expert on the finer points of their theology but my understanding is that they feel that God’s law should be the guide for believers but is of little relevance to those outside their group. Certainly they seem to make no attempt to impose their views on anyone else. It is, however, noteworthy that some Exclusive Brethren in Australia have recently been involved in placing overtly political advertisements in newspapers.

The other Brethren groups seem to adopt a relatively similar position. John Darby essentially the founder of the Brethren movement (they object to the term denomination) was opposed to Christians having any role in politics as he felt that it would take them away from spending as much time on spiritual matters and also because it would involve them in having to compromise their religious beliefs. Most Brethren in Northern Ireland seem to adopt this position.

Groups such as the Independent Methodists are happy for their members to take part in politics (Nelson McCausland is a noted Indie preacher and theologian) but the church does not support the idea of a minister becoming a politician and remaining in the active ministry. A similar position has been adopted in the past by the Presbyterian Church with for example Rev. Martin Smyth who became an MP and ceased to be an active Presbyterian Minister in that he no longer had a congregation or specific functions within the church.

The Free Presbyterian Church is of course the one most noted for having active ministers who are also politicians; as I have noted before, however, that is a situation which is not popular with all members of the church and indeed the new moderator Rev. Ron Johnstone has been notable by his low media profile.

Of course much of the recent controversy has surrounded what a particular fundamentalist (Iris Robinson) believes. Her beliefs will be supported by many (as we have heard on the Nolan show) but by no means all fundamentalists. The concept of a modern society’s laws reflecting God’s Law is an interesting one.

Firstly one must note that the laws in the Old Testament were actually radically liberal for their time (over 3,000 years ago). The concept of “An eye for an eye” for example was actually designed to establish that the absolute maximum punishment for a given crime is proportionate to that crime. This prevented the idea of a powerful person killing a less powerful one for a minor offence. This episode which was contrary to what God had commanded shows that in such times excessive retribution was considered acceptable (though not to God): Genesis 4: 23-24 “And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.”

The next important consideration is whether or not the severe punishments referred to in the Old Testament were carried out. There seems to be no recording of a son being killed for bad behaviour (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) Adultery also seems to have not necessarily carried the Death Penalty. It is worth noting in the genealogy of our Lord that four women are mentioned. To mention women at all is remarkable in such documents from the time; the women themselves are even more remarkable. There is Thamar who “played the harlot” to get pregnant by her father in law Judah who would not give her, her husband’s brother as a husband as custom demanded. Then there is Rachab the harlot who helped Joshua and Caleb. Despite numerous attempts to say that she was an innkeeper / hotel owner: the Hebrew is very specific; she was a prostitute. Next is Ruth: a foreigner and finally Bathsheba who committed adultery with King David. As such these four women (all of them rather risky) are accepted in the lineage of our Lord. Some have suggested that this is a sign of God’s inclusively and certainly does not tally with stoning for adultery being frequently practiced. In addition the Children of Israel are repeatedly criticised throughout the Old Testament for failing God’s standards: these failures seem to mainly involve worshiping idols and most frequently of all exploiting the poor, rather than anything else.

Next we have the issue of which Old Testament Laws should be followed by Christians (even fundamentalists) today. Jesus specifically condoned picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath (Matthew 12: 1-8). There are also multiple episodes of him performing miracles on the Sabbath. He also gives examples where divorce is acceptable (Matthew 19:1-30) and of course refused to condemn a woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). In Acts 11: 6-9 Peter is told to kill and eat in a vision containing animals traditionally regarded as “unclean.” Paul suggests that the only thing a Christian should abstain from is meat with blood in it (a Brethren theologian I know suggests that this means that Christians should not eat black puddings but that is the only religious prohibition I have ever heard suggested).

The final and probably most important question is to what extent the “Law of God” should be applied to non believers. There is a school of thought that suggests that the Israelites are the forerunners of the Church and as the laws which applied to them apply (with the marked modifications made by the New Testament) only to Christians. As such the parts of the Bible which make demands which the non religious deem unacceptable are for believers only.

Of course much of what is “God’s Law” is also the sort of law one would expect even in a specifically secular democracy such as France or Turkey. Banning murder, theft, rape etc. is hardly controversial. In addition on the actual topic which inspired Mrs. Robinson’s latest remarks: opposing abortion is not solely the preserve of fundamentalist Protestants nor even that solely of people who believe in God. Analysing the possible positions of fundamentalists in positions of political power has unfortunately not been helped by the latest events and to be honest the Nolan Show is hardly a forum for calm debate of anything. The furore is such, however, that those politicians with a high level of theological and political understanding (such as Mr. McCausland) are unlikely to wish to publicly contribute. I suspect most or all of the DUP may now adopt something of a vow of silence on this subject for some time.