An Easter message for Christmas: Flags and our identity


There is a story in the Bible about the moment just before Jesus was taken captive by the Government. Jesus was about to experience unimaginable pain and torture. He was going to be humiliated and He was going to face death. His best friends had recently deserted him at the time when He needed them most. One of whom was responsible for turning Jesus in.

Up steps Peter, the same Peter who denied knowing Jesus three times. He had a chance to redeem himself so he takes out his sword and cuts off the ear of one of Jesus’ captors.

If there was a moment for the son of God to use all the powers He had at His disposal, this was it. This was the moment that they had all been waiting for. Jesus could now accomplish what he promised and there would be no chance for anyone who stood in His way. The violence that they had planned for Jesus would be no match for the revolution He could now unleash.

Except, that’s not exactly how the story went.

There was to be no war, no fight, no last minute swooping down from the sky by Angels kicking everyones ass.

There was only a quiet rebuke by Jesus on the one person who out of everyone, had his back.

If there was a way of bringing about change this was definitely not it.

In Northern Ireland right now my home for thirty years, there is a chance for change. Dr Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan have been working with politicians of all the major parties, for several months to try and come to agreements on the most delicate issues in NI right now. Flags, parades and our past.

This is no easy task and there are those who do not feel like an outsider should be coming in and trying to fix our problems. There are deep held hurts and emotions, the culmination of decades of violence by both sides of the community. There are no easy fixes but there are fixes. There can be change and there can be healing.

But change brings one thing that we all can agree on is not desirable, fear.

For so long fear controlled our lives, where we went, who we talked to, the friends we made, what shops we shopped in, what we said, which football team we supported.

But change also brings about fear. A fear of the unknown. It doesn’t matter if the change is good. Fear is a strong emotion and people would rather sit comfortably in the world they live in than pursue change that could improve their lives.

This is also why Peter decided to take action against a soldier through violence.

His whole life had been dedicated to following Jesus and to the transforming message he came to live out and share. He and the other disciples had invested so much that now, when it all looked like it was going to be taken away, found no other alternative than violence  to protect what they had held so dear.

This is also perhaps why Judas betrayed Jesus; not in an act of evil but one of fear. An act of betrayal that would force Jesus to show His hand to finally exact his revolution. It backfired.

Perhaps Judas’ sin was more one of impatience than anything else.

So the fear, that the one person that their identity was based upon, was about to be destroyed led them to act out with fear and violence.

In Northern Ireland many people place their identities in their Britishness or their Irishness. This is manifested into an unhealthy devotion to a flag or to an organisation and the resulting ‘celebration’ of these through parades. A misplaced belief that their parents or grandparents died for a flag. A flag that even the Queen doesn’t fly on her home every day of the year. An identity that is more brutishness than Britishness.

Many people from their youth have been instilled with the impression that the other side can not be trusted. That they are trying to suppress their identity and that if they do not fight back, their basic human rights will be lost.

This, as complicated as our history in Northern Ireland has been and still is, is the basic motivation for the actions of those who protest using violence, who leave bags with bombs in a busy nightlife spot in the city centre, who hijack cars and force people to drive bombs to busy shopping areas during the busiest time of the year for retailers.

Back to Jesus.

For most of us reading this story for the first time it seems like all hope is gone. Jesus spent his adult life saying things that would get him into a lot of trouble. He had evaded his enemies for so long but now it seems they had finally caught up with Him.

Jesus was executed and all seemed lost until three days later, when Jesus rose up and defeated death. The twist in the tale was that Jesus was not defeated. He was not finished. He was just beginning.

It seemed that Jesus used submission and non violence to defeat death. He resisted the opportunity to use the same violence that was going to be inflicted on Him; so that we would not have to live with fear or hatred dictating how we lived together.

He showed that love was the one thing that was going to win in the end. Not hatred, not fear, but love. Love of his enemies. Love for the people that wanted Him dead.

For many of us who are used to the hatred and fear that permeates our political process in Northern Ireland, this is good news.

Once upon a time the violence and hatred we endured in Northern Ireland was about religion. This slowly changed into being about borders. Where your preferred the border to be determined your identity.

For too long the church has failed to make a positive impact on the situation because many of those in the church have put their trust and identity in their country, their flag, their ‘religious’ organisations that parade. The church has failed because we have become like Peter and Judas and believed that our identities were about to be destroyed. So we support parades because it helps us feel like our British identity is intact. Speaking from a Protestant background because that is what I was brought up in, many of this Church tradition would subtly look down on Catholics because they were unknown and couldn’t be trusted.

But when the church starts to base their identity on Jesus and not on a flag we can see that our identity is not threatened. In fact it reshapes our identity to a broader one which can include everyone.

Many of those in prominent political positions hold a belief in Jesus. But for some reason their outward actions lean more towards a belief in a flag. (Maybe due to a fear of not winning enough votes from certain sides of the community rather than anything else. See how fear can control everything).

Flags cause wars and create more hatred and fear. Jesus allows us to let our guards down in front of our enemies because there is nothing to fear.

This Christmas we have an opportunity to change how we think about flags and about ourselves.

Like Peter we have let our emotions take over and have been quick to act and slow to think.

This year let us look to Jesus’ example for how our identity can be based on something that brings peace and love rather than fear and hatred.

Let us this coming year care more about flying high our respect for everyone rather than a flag.

This Christmas may you feel the peace of love instead of the anger of hatred.

This Christmas may there be Peace and Shalom,
For everyone.

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