Praying for Ian Paisley’s Soul

I have prayed for the happy repose of the soul of Ian Paisley. Initially almost to make him turn in his grave, but then with sincerity. The Book of Common Prayer says that Christ died as a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”. Note the sins of the whole world – Christ’s death atoned for my sins, for your sins, for Ian Paisley’s sins.

Paisley’s sins? In my book, they were grievous.

Would The Troubles have happened without Paisley? Almost certainly, in some form or other. Would they have been as bad without him? It’s difficult not to believe that many people in their graves would still be alive today if he’d ended up the pastor an independent Baptist Church in North Wales.

As the Northern Ireland of Craigavon and Brookeborough became untenable in the late 1960s, that booming voice with its hypnotically rhythmic, staccato, delivery was everywhere. Denouncing O’Neill and his successors as ‘lundies’, or traitors; weaving grand conspiracy theories about Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholics, and implying that any amelioration of the anti-Catholic bigotry of the old Stormont state would only empower the conspiracy; popping up in Nationalist strongholds to start riots around marches and flags. Later, as The Troubles got worse, so did he.

His main object was always to destroy the Ulster Unionist Party and its old establishment hierarchy, whatever the cost to his country and his own community, so he could become Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He never had the slightest idea of what he would do if he achieved it. It was a suitably limited aim for a man made big only by the Fisher-Price scale of Northern Ireland.

After 40-odd years of denouncing every possible compromise as betrayal, he achieved his goal, and then turned his back on everything he had ever said and done to have a brief taste of power. That the “Chuckle Brothers” years of the late 2000s appear, in retrospect, as an all too brief golden age is a damning indictment of his political successor. Northern Ireland may have made Paisley look big, but it does not make Peter Robinson look any less petty.

Paisley’s God was an angry and vengeful creature, threatening an eternity of torment to those who disobeyed him, which of course coincided almost exactly with those who disagreed with Ian Paisley. I refuse to reduce God to the angry pastiche that Ian Paisley made of Him. I vehemently disagree that the Bible – read in its totality with one’s brain switched on – remotely supports that pastiche.

Christ warned us that we will be judged by God with the measure that we judge others, and that not everyone who said “Lord, Lord” would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is tempting to use those as proof-texts when dealing with the tainted legacy of a man who spent his life acting as God’s personal hitman. But the Holy Week story calls us out of that pointless game of finger-pointing.

Where were you when they crucified my Lord? It is easy to see Paisley in the role of Caiaphas, thumping his Bible as he watches the God he claims to worship being tortured before his eyes. Where would I have been? I hope I am not deluded enough to think I would have done any better than the apostles, and even the best of them did pretty badly. I think I’d probably have hit the taverns on Good Friday, telling everybody that while I thought that Galilean preacher had some good ideas, we all knew he’d eventually come to a bad end with the Romans . I’d definitely have to be righter and cleverer than that culshie smuck who got himself executed.

For that reason, as well as many others, I can only trust that God will not weigh my merits, but pardon my offences – and Ian Paisley’s too. Our right to damn one another to Hell must always die at the foot of the Cross.

I do not know why God created Ian Paisley or how he loved him; the folksy charm and Sunday-school-teacher humour always seemed an inadequate balance for the fanaticism, and the violent speech that emboldened still more violent men. But I trust that in Christ we will come face to face in heaven, as children of the same heavenly father, and therefore as brothers. So I mutter another prayer for Ian Paisley’s soul, to the God who is so much greater than Ian Paisley’s conception of Him, and so much greater than mine.

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