Ian paisley, the ulster Protestant leader, has gone to jail after the dismissal of his appeal against a three-month jail sentence for unlawful assembly at Armagh (see “Clearing a Political Slum,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Editorial, February 14, 1969). It is likely that the prison term will be doubled unless he submits to an order binding him over to keep the peace.

No longer can the British religious press ignore this dynamic figure, on the basis that the frozen mitt neither encourages nor enrages. In the British Weekly, Edwin Robertson professes to see in the Northern Ireland situation “an almost exact parallel with Acts 19:23–41,” which deals with a violent commotion involving Christians. “The Ian Paisley of the incident was perhaps Demetrius the silversmith … [who] feared Christianity as Ian Paisley fears Catholicism.” Both Ian and Demetrius saw that “this foreign religion would destroy church and state alike, the pillars of prosperity and the worship of God.”

The writer suggests how Mr. Paisley would translate Acts 19:27—“Not only will they ruin this British realm of Ulster, but the worship of the true God will also be defiled.” There is much more to the piece, enough to ensure that the author would receive the sort of uplifting correspondence that is the lot of all who are persuaded that Ulster’s Demetrius and Bishop John Robinson get a very bad press because of the opposition’s invincible ignorance.

Writing in Frontier about his native Ireland, W. Salters Sterling points to a fundamental problem: “From the religious standpoint there is no aspect of human life, public or private, which is not related to an essentially theocratic understanding of the world.… So long as there is a divided Church there must almost inevitably be conflict in matters affecting the body politic.” Paradoxically, it seems, the conflict in Ulster is kept going because of an impatience toward moderate opinion in an atmosphere which, like that found in a ball game between deadly rivals, thrives on “them” and “us.”

What Mr. Paisley did at Armagh was to take the fight into the enemy camp. It was an extension of this tactic that made him fly to London last January with a group of supporters and stand by consenting while they disrupted Cardinal Heenan’s participation in a St. Paul’s Cathedral service.

There was something basically bogus about that whole business, for nothing infuriates an Ulsterman more than outside meddling in his affairs; Mr. Paisley really cannot have it both ways. Moreover, the demonstrators in this case owed no allegiance to, and could make no claim on, the Church of England. Nor indeed did they come from any church of historic Protestantism—a fact that should be made clear to all and sundry. While Mr. Paisley’s concern for a “great Protestant church” like St. Paul’s is touching, the impression is given that in his view steady Protestant witness had gone out Sunday by Sunday from the pulpit till it was defiled on that occasion by a popish prelate. In addition, why should Paisley and party ingenuously persist in hurling the charge of “traitor” at the Archbishop of Canterbury? They have made it clear often enough that they feel he has no strongly Protestant convictions. Why then should they pretend to be grieved that he shows no strongly Protestant behavior?

Mr. Paisley professes to love Roman Catholics, but this has a hollow ring. To dismiss them as “blaspheming, cursing, spitting, Roman scum” is not the antidote to a steady diet of ecumenical treacle. It is far, in fact, from being an expression of the Gospel which Mr. Paisley has expounded more faithfully in the past, and which we hope he will faithfully expound again. This is not accomplished by behaving, as the Armagh judge said, “horribly irresponsibly,” and with “a reckless and callous insensitivity to the risk of personal injury” to others exercising their civil rights.

But there is something in all this that is much more disturbing than Ian Paisley. Despite the phoney priorities of TV and secular press (who love him dearly), he is merely a big player strutting on the stage. The tragic thing about Northern Ireland at present is that the conduct of Paisley and his supporters on public occasions should be regarded as reflecting the views of historic Protestantism and of responsible evangelical misgivings on ecumenical matters. The World Council of Churches, if it is honest, has reason to be grateful to Ian Pailsey. There will always be the gullible who contrast Roman Catholicism at its best (that winsome TV bishop) with Protestantism at its worst (the stick-wielding Ian Paisleys about their demonstrating business), and draw from the contrast thoroughly unwarranted and illogical conclusions.

It is not without pertinence that before the St. Paul’s service referred to above, eleven officials of other Protestant organizations signed a moderate letter of protest and sent it to Britain’s two top newspapers. Both declined to publish it, while both gave several times the amount of space to the more spectacular action of the few extremists, and to the notably unspectacular sentences of Cardinal Heenan. Opportunistic journalism must be served. That this way of bringing reasonable objections before the public eye was thus barred to the signatories might suggest that the vociferous tactics used in the cathedral were the only way left. The dangers of this train of thought need not be stressed.

People of moderate opinion are always vulnerable to intimidation or hopeless resignation, one being as bad as the other, wherein for the sake of a quiet life they abdicate their right to speak out boldly.

Some fifteen years ago, Senator Joseph McCarthy pursued a persecuting path camouflaged by lofty motives. These motives formed an effective smoke screen that for a time blinded and deterred those who might have opposed him. Among the few who did defy him from the beginning was Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. One of her statements on the whole sorry business has remained in my memory, though I don’t profess to have the precise wording. “Freedom of speech,” she said, “has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.” This suggests that sort of clear thinking we need today, with a wider application than the incarcerated moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.

What Ian Paisley has shown unmistakably is that the opposite of what is wrong is not infrequently wrong also.


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