We’ve now had a couple of days to reflect on an election which has seen some changes in the make-up of how Stormont will look in the future. Familiar faces have gone, party allegiance has shifted for many and the outlook for the governance of Northern Ireland is currently uncertain as talks begin to form a new power-sharing executive.
What exactly is our role as Christians in this post-election period? We can find encouragement in the fact that our role as the Church in Northern Ireland is unchanging.
Our role is unchanging because we serve a God who is unchanging. He is unchanging in his sovereignty; ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.’ Unchanging in his love,’ I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness’. Unchanging in his power, ‘It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.’ Unchanging in his grace, ‘all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’
In light of our awesome God who is unchanging, he has given us the most joy-inducing role a group of humans have ever been given. Jesus puts it best: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”
In an election period we can sense a heightened desire to become polarised as we are urged to pick a camp and dig the trenches. Sentiments can become less hospitable, rhetoric is sharpened and there is less willingness turn the other cheek as we are faced with the important task of determining who will govern our country for the next number of years. We are only human, and we are all vulnerable to stray onto paths which lead us away from this core command to love.
What exactly are we to make of this word “love” upon which Jesus places such emphasis? It is easy to relegate the notion of love to a position of lesser importance when put in context of the serious and urgent problems in the world. With global political instability rising, nuclear proliferation on the increase, religious extremism dominating news coverage – the notion of love as a serious tool to combat these issues becomes lost in the need for increased military spending, populism, power grabbing and more.
Where might the priority of love be on the scale of importance for us in Northern Ireland as Christians? Do we love others before anything else? Were we to describe those election candidates who we disagree with on almost every ideological issue in just one sentence, would that sentence be the three simple words “I love them”?
Christians I know are some of the most loving people I have ever met, and I am so grateful for their presence in my life. I think all of us, however, need to be on guard against anything which would seek to dampen our love. There is a false assertion that can creep into our mindset that we have matured past the notion of love as our first response into more ‘important’ responses given the situation that we are in. This is a lie and must be combated at all costs. There is nothing more important for you or I to do than to love God and love our neighbour. This love will manifest itself in different ways, but it cannot be substituted. We will never outgrow our need to love and there is nothing more important than it. Jesus doesn’t allow room for anything else.
Our love for God will mean that we are loyal to him above everything else, that we will be continually seeking and asking for a deeper joy in his presence through communion with him and worship of him. It will also mean we are passionate about being a witness to our land through our preaching that Jesus Christ has made a way to be saved and that God’s vision for human flourishing is an inherently good way for society to function. This will lead us to be vocal on some undoubtedly controversial and divisive issues in society, but we will do it out of a love for who our father is.
Our love for others will mean that we endeavour to make sure that everyone we encounter will get at least some glimpse of God’s love towards them. We will be faltering in this task, and it may require some extra effort when engaging in the public square with those who we disagree with, but dialogue grounded in an unconditional love is the only way to engage with society around us – there is no other way to have a genuine Christian voice to our society.
So, what is our role in this uncertain time for Northern Ireland? Let’s pro-actively love God and love others, and pray for help to compromise on this command less and less.
Tim Houston, CARE Church & Development Officer