Not too long ago it was assumed that people born in Ireland would be Christian; something which is no longer the case. This is good news for the church, says theologian Kevin Hargaden in this week’s reflection.
Read Peter 2:4-12
When did secularity become ascendant in Ireland?
Was it when pubs were allowed to be opened on Sunday in Northern Ireland, which only happened in 1989? Or was it when contraception was allowed to be sold in the Republic back in 1978? Was it when RTÉ’s first television broadcast began in 1961? Or was it the failure of the Anti-Jazz Campaign in 1934?
Contrary to prominent social commentators who worry that secularisation is somehow “killing God” (what is Easter if not the annual reminder that the faithful do not need any help in that department), secularisation is neither a monolithic movement, nor a particularly recent invention.
Life in Ireland has, as one would expect, changed a lot since 1934, 1961, 1978 and 1989. In many respects, we would wholeheartedly welcome these changes. Without getting lost in the footnotes on secularisation, we can take a leaf out of Charles Taylor’s magisterial A Secular Age and say that our society today is one where it is possible to not believe in God, whereas there was once a time when such a stance appeared impossible.
Not too long ago, maybe even in your living memory, it was assumed that people born in Ireland would be Christian. That is no longer the case.
And that is good news for the church.
There was a period of time – a very long period of time – when Irish society was shaped after a fashion by Christianity. The surrounding culture was influenced by the prevailing views of the clergies. It was easy to fall into the tragic mistake identified by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Wilimon, that holds that Christians are born in places. This is a dangerous error. No one is born a Christian. It is good news that the church can no longer assume that some natural process will turn baptised Irish babies into adult Irish Christians. Wilimon and Hauerwas argue instead that “Christians are intentionally made by an adventuresome church, which has learned to ask the right questions to which Christ alone supplies the right answers.”
In the week after Lent, as we consider the relevance of the Passion for the rest of our lives, it is useful to hold this text from 1 Peter alongside the narrative of Jesus’ last days. Reading this text, that summons us to the “living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him” alongside the story of how the rejection played out is instructive for understanding the theological weight of “home” for us, today.
Peter is explaining to the Christians to whom he is writing that to embrace this “living Stone” is to align yourself with a logic and an imagination that differs from the prevailing common-sense. This was true in the Roman Empire of the 1st Century and it is true of Ireland in the 21st Century. That there were so many decades here when common-sense and Christianity appeared to be the same thing might be the root of the relative weakness and unfitness of our churches. Cultural accommodation transforms the gospel in a way that dulls its ability to transform us.
Digging deep into the Old Testament, Peter explains how the foundation of our faith is not natural law or some universal moral sentiment, but the very specific events surrounding this particular man from Galilee. In verse 7, Peter echoes his friend Paul’s famous lines about the Gospel message being a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Peter quotes Psalm 118 and suggests that it is those expert in the ways of religion that are most prone to miss the significance of Jesus: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Those who build on the solid foundation of this living Stone (consider how this passage resonates with Matthew 7:24-27) are given a sort of manifesto for living in verse 9-12. Turning our thoughts after Passiontide towards the ethics of how we should live here and now is made possible by considering these words. The language of “royal priesthood” takes up the vocation of Israel, that we have touched on commonly through these Lenten reflections. It also further illuminates the angle from which Christianity is presented here as something at a disjunction from the common-sense of efficiency, meritocracy, utility, and self-interest that prevails in our age. The priest, after all, is the one set apart. There is a distance from the wider culture that is assumed here, one that the Irish church is unfamiliar with, but which she will find most rewarding.
We clearly see that Peter, as a devout Jew, is taking up the Hebrew Scriptures in the aftermath of the Resurrection. Verse 10 proclaims: “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” This could profitably be written over the door of every church on the island, especially as the Irish church is increasingly a multicultural tapestry informed by voices and wisdom from all corners of the globe. The identity that Peter is describing here cannot be equated to nationality. To be made a Christian is to be invited into something much bigger than a tribal allegiance.
In verse 11 he presents the location for our identity. We may have been born and raised in the same parish in which we now live. We may be able to trace our families back through a dozen censuses. We may have just arrived in Ireland two years ago with a visa from Abuja. But the Christian is “a foreigner and an exile.” What does “home” mean for Christians in Ireland today? This is the solid ground from which we construct our unique answer. We are interested in questions of home and of hospitality because we are not at home in this society. We do not seek justice for those who struggle without housing out of our largesse, but out of our discontent. Resident aliens have the distance from the culture required to see when a society has lost the plot. The foreigner and the exile can flourish, but they are never so indebted to the wider society that they cannot share harsh truths.
For a long time, Irish Christians were too at home in Ireland. Their faith suffered, and Ireland suffered. As Irish people collectively struggle with this housing crisis, there is a chance for us to live out this distinctive logic of the Gospel, in contrast to a ruling culture committed to dead-end ideologies of untrammelled markets and profit as a motivator for basic needs. This week we consider the strange wisdom of God, whose plan to set the world to rights involved betrayal, false trial, torture, and execution. The social challenge of housing comes into clear focus when we consider the position of our spiritual home in the aftermath of Easter. We who are called to be resident aliens can have the confidence to call for a justice that surpasses that of the market.
Turning again to Hauerwas and Wilimon: “From a Christian point of view, the world needs the church, not to help the world run more smoothly or to make the world a better and safer place for Christians to live. Rather, the world needs the church because, without the church, the world does not know who it is.”
It doesn’t matter when you date the rise of secularity. What matters is that this Easter we can rejoice that the captivity of the church to cultural accommodation has come to an end. When we look at the skyrocketing homeless numbers and consider the impossibility for those renting on small incomes, when we remember the plight of the refugee and think about the families priced out of ever having a secure home, we are confronted with the truth that “Christian values” are not driving this society. Maybe they never were? Regardless, by embracing the right of everyone to secure and safe housing and committing to the political policies and personal sacrifices required to make that happen, we can, here and now, start to fulfil our vocation.
1. The early church, emerging out of the empty-tomb of resurrection, faced a society that was profoundly hostile to all their claims. Why do you think it is that so many Christians fret so much about the prevailing winds of our relatively mild cultural climate today?
2. If it is true that Christians are called to be homeless in their home culture, what difference does that make for their ability to stand in solidarity with those experiencing material homelessness in their midst?
3. What are concrete ways that you can commit, during the fifty days of Easter, to help those experiencing insufficient housing? Are there particular steps you can take which go beyond charity, to seek justice and the long-term resolution of this problem which has plagued our society for so long?
For Further Consideration:
When thinking about the potential saltiness of being located as resident aliens in our culture, the 1987 film adaptation of Karen Blixen’s short-story Babette’s Feast is always an excellent way to prime our tastebuds. It tells the story of a French refugee who has been welcomed into a strict, rigid, religiously-committed Danish community and of the surprising, transforming grace that results.