Disclosure: I’m a member of the Alliance Party. I am also a born-again evangelical Christian.
The first I heard was Naomi Long citing Matthew 6:5-6 on Facebook, concerning not praying in a manner to be seen by others. It was later that day that I heard the full story: Nuala McAllister had decided not to invite someone to say grace before the Lord Mayor’s dinner last Saturday night, and great was the gnashing of teeth over this break in tradition of about 25 years or so.
As a Christian, all I can see is virtue signalling. And it’s ugly.
I imagine that if I were Lord Mayor (can’t see it), I would ask for grace to be said. But you know what? I’m not known for giving thanks to God before meals on my own. On the other hand, I share willingly when others take time out to give thanks, and if asked I will say a simple grace. I enjoy the rhythm of meals at Corrymeela where silence is called during the meal to give thanks, each in our own way.
However, this was different.
In the first place, Nuala is not a Christian. As Lord Mayor, she will attend and has already attended religious services where God will be worshipped. On the other hand, dinner is not a religious occasion. It can be, but I don’t think a civic dinner could be so described.
And there is the crux of the matter. As a friend of mine once pointed out from the pulpit, Christians cannot expect non-Christians to do what the Bible says. Why would they? I believe the Bible is true, but they don’t.
Would it have been wrong for Nuala to call on one of the Christians present to formally give thanks? Of course it wouldn’t, although I think it shows great integrity that she wouldn’t just follow a tradition adhered to for rather less than my own short lifetime just to look “right” to the Christians.
But unless the Christians present at dinner who complained when interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph said grace before meals on a regular basis, it’s hypocrisy. Saying things to look good in public, but not following up in private.
In a world where Christianity no longer dominates (to the extent that true faith ever dominated, as distinct to the habit of church-going), we are fighting to witness to the truth we believe about God and his salvation through Jesus. I don’t believe that complaining about a non-Christian not arranging for prayers to be said at a secular occasion helps us witness to that truth.
But in the end, it comes down to this:
Christians cannot force non-Christians to do as a Christian would do. We can’t even make other Christians follow biblical norms.
We can and must try to persuade non-Christians that specific Christian beliefs about how we should treat others are things they should agree with. A great many of our laws are on the statute books because Christians and non-Christians agreed that values which happen to be in the Bible were in everybody’s interests.
But in the end, Christians need to allow non-Christians not to acknowledge God. We still believe God exists. It’s our job to honour and glorify him in our own lives, and to persuade others that God exists and is a great deal more than relevant. But we cannot force everyone else to agree with us.