At a recent talk on the 1916 Easter Rising by Philip Orr in one of Contemporary Christianity’s ‘In conversation with…’ series I learned much about its historical context. We had a sweep over the previous three centuries or so and the century since! What tends to be seen as a seminal stand-alone event moving history in a particular direction appeared more as one step in many along a road. Many of us participating in the conversation that evening were struck by the complexity of the context in relation to what was happening across Europe, across the world and locally in Belfast in the years immediately prior to 1916.
The question was asked about how the church should be speaking into the debate in the public square about this and other significant commemorations. Norman Hamilton, in his recent P.S., expressed his longing for the church to engage with the issues of our day and develop and articulate Biblically-informed wisdom. We hear sermons about listening to, repenting to and trusting in God and remembering what He has done, all of which is part and parcel of being followers of Jesus. But our lives largely consist of work, holidays, church and social activities. We discuss and make comments about flags, parades, welfare reform, terrorist incidents in Kuwait and Tunisia and natural disasters in Nepal. What about getting our minds, never mind our hands, more dirty with what’s happening in our messy torn world? Others are asking ‘Where is God?’ If we’re not involved as His people, then He is less present than He desires to be.
How might God desire to be present? We are familiar with many Biblical stories and texts like ‘being salt and light’ (Matthew 5:13 & 14-16), God knowing sparrows (Matthew 10:29) and causing the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sending rain on the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45), Joseph’s service to Egypt and Daniel’s service to Babylon, to name but a few. But do we take seriously enough God’s care, concern for and involvement in the well-being of those who do not acknowledge Him? I find two pictures helpful in grasping this. The parable of the mustard-seed growing into a tree that provides shelter (and possibly also food) for birds suggests that God’s people are to play a role in provision and protection for others (Matthew 13:31-32 & Luke 13:18-19). (Trees provide the framework for complex highly-structured communities.) Secondly, Paul, as he pleaded with the people in Lystra not to deify him and Barnabas, mentioned that the living God filled their hearts with joy (Acts 14: 17). Since God gives joy to everyone without discrimination, shouldn’t we also be engaged in so doing?
So what might this look like in relation to the 1916 Easter Rising? There are and will be strong feelings about it in our community. Some own it and will want to celebrate it. Others are reviled and recoil from it. I have learned more about how the Rising has shaped who we are now and has brought us to the space in which we find ourselves, whether or not we like it. The very act of denying something – historical or otherwise – makes it part of us. This is an argument for looking into the past more carefully and understanding it more fully. So where we may only have had a passing interest in the Rising we should delve into it to see how and why it has dictated the course of Irish history since 1916. The Proclamation of an Irish Republic deserves study alongside the 1912 Ulster Covenant, both having invoked God’s help. At the very least this should alert us to reflect on what emphasis we give to political ideology and how we should participate in the public square.
Ethel White is an an agricultural scientist.