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January 2010

THE ROBINSON AFFAIR AND GRACE... with lessons from U2 and The West Wing

Speechless is the general feeling on the street about the revelations last week about Northern Ireland’s first and second lady, Peter and Iris Robinson. Having said that they seem to be the topic of every conversation, so though initially a province was struck dumb, there has since been a torrent of political comment, lewd gossip and risky jokes and satire! There are few conversations they have not been mentioned in. For those outside our tiny little parochial boundaries, Peter Robinson is Northern Ireland’s First Minister in our Local Storment Assembly and his wife Iris also sat in that local Assembly. Both were also MPs at Westminster. Iris also sat on the Castlereagh Borough Council. Just a few weeks ago Iris Robinson said she was standing down from public life as a result of ongoing depression. Last week it was revealed she had attempted suicide after confessing an affair with a nineteen year old man (she was 58 at the time) whom she was wrapped up in business with, causing her to break Assembly and Council rules about what she hadn’t declared financially and in business interests.

The real live soap opera that has been acted out on our newscasts has extra sensationalism because of the Robinsons’ Christian faith and for my American readers that faith is one that you would be familiar with; the conservative right. The Robinsons could never be Republican in Northern Ireland but in America they would be Republican all day long! Iris Robinson’s most famous radio rant was in June of 2008 when, contributing about a Gay Pride March in Belfast, she shouted her disgust at homosexuality in quite a frightening tone. It was met at the time with much criticism so you can imagine what is being said now that it would seem she was having an affair with someone 40 years her junior at the time of her damning judgement of others.

It is Iris’s judgement of others that is probably at the heart of every comment or joke that has been made this past week. As a pastor I believe that Iris needs grace. The forgiveness that Christianity offers would be a very important part of her healing as we hear she is receiving acute mental treatment as a result of the bad decisions of the last year. I would indeed pray that she finds that healing of soul that grace can bring. Many, if not most, are struggling to find that grace for Iris Robinson because of the almost bullying, power-mongering judgmentalism that she herself used against others. Of course Iris is not alone in this and indeed is a victim of a fundamentalist Christianity that has forgotten the humility of the theology of grace and veered towards a Pharisaic arrogance in the minutiae of theological belief and pietistic legalism of behaviour.

That must be one of the lessons in this sad story. If you live by the sword or your own self righteousness you die by the sword of your own self righteousness. Or if we move from a paraphrase of Jesus to a paraphrase of Paul if you live by the law then you have to keep all of the law or you fall very badly when you make one error (and this error wasn’t a tiny one)! Luke 6:37 comes to mind (and needs to be in my mind as I judge her judgmentalism): "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

In an article I wrote recently about U2’s song Moment Of Surrender I touched on an antithesis of Iris’s stance. In a song fast becoming a U2 favourite they sing, “Two souls too smart to be in the realm of certainty.” This is the lesson of, one of their older most theological songs, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, where faith is assured but a stumbling sometimes tumbling journey ahead is recognised. In the midst of strong conviction of belief they recognise the frail vulnerability of the fallen human being. Trusting in the work of Christ should bring a humility that leads us all into a Sinners Anonymous type club without the anonymity, not a self righteous platform to look down on everyone else. It doesn’t give us excuse for constant falling but it should always remind us of our weakness. My friend David Dark wrote of “espresso shots of self righteous indignation,” that can spew from our mouths when there is an absence of doubt and it would seem that these very espresso shots, over a long period of time, is what has made Iris Robinson’s situation worse in the public sense.  Some have suggested that this recent Robinson affair could spell a mighty blow for Christianity in Northern Ireland. My hope would be that would be a time when the real following of Jesus makes a break from the flawed and false one and that Iris Robinson’s soul might be helped as a result of that.

As I wrote this blog I got caught up in a West Wing episode that threw more light on the judgements now being thrown at the Robinsons, mine included. It is the episode called In This White House and it is the one near the beginning of Series 2 where we are introduced to Ainsley Hayes. Hayes is a Republican who takes on Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn in a Television debate. Democratic President Bartlett liked what he saw and decides they should employ her as Associate White House Counsel. After the staff all get over the fact that he is not joking we find Hayes in two interesting situations. In the first she gets in a debate with Seaborn about gun control and after he rants all his reasons for hating the gun lobby she hits him with the fact that all his arguments of why he doesn’t like guns comes down to the fact “you don’t like the people who do like guns... you don’t like the people!” Apply the judgement to yourself and then apply it to your judgement on the Robinsons.  

 Ainsley’s second helpful scenario is when she returns to her Republican friends after her trip to the White House. They can’t wait to hear how Hayes has put those Democrats down and rejected the job offer but when she appears and listens to their vitriol ending with the phrase, “Did you meet anyone there who isn’t worthless,” she, much to their shock and awe, says that they can disagree with their policies but asks them not to ever say they are worthless. “Their intent is good, they are committed, they are righteous, they are patriots.” She as a Republican has learned a lesson that West Wing Series was very skilled to teach, that people may have different opinions but it doesn’t make them bad. Christian singer Rich Mullins used to say to me about fundamentalists, “They are no bad people, they are just wrong.”

The truth is that I was never a fan of Peter or Iris Robinson. Our politics are poles apart. We share a faith that in praxis is poles apart too, though our core beliefs are very much the same. I am not sympathetic to the way they have played out recent events; nine months before they share all in a sympathy raising press conference, 24 hours before a TV documentary was going to spill the beans; Iris stepping back from public life without resigning or losing her three wages until pressure was applied; Peter hoping to carry on as First Minister instead of giving his full attention to his wife’s condition; Peter claiming innocence by the letter of the law rather than critiquing his position by the spirit of good practice. However, I need to be aware that this couple have given their lives to the public good and our little Province has benefitted in ways from their work that won’t be as clearly spelled out as this recent affair. Yes, I am sure many of us would judge some of their contributions dubious and we are suggesting their espresso shots of self righteous indignation has helped neither the society, themselves or more importantly Christianity, but they have served and most of us have shirked from replacing them.

I think that Iris Robinson was right to resign and wrong to leave it so long. I am not sure in my mind that Peter Robinson can continue as our First Minister. However, those are my public judgements. If you move to the private lives of Iris and Peter Robinson I pray that they would know the grace of God and the grace of the people around them. I pray that they might find a way out of the storm that their souls must be in and that they would find healing that might give them a spiritual strength to hold their marriage together. I then hope that the whole incident might give them insight into the way we carry our faith in Jesus Christ around with us and that we might see a more grace-like couple wherever their lives go from here. I also pray that that grace would be the over-riding force of my judgements on them and this sad situation. Grace would be the most damaged thing if it was diluted because we didn’t like them or that we failed to respect their vocational contribution to public service.


I was asked on a panel, about The Church, at this year’s Summer Madness Festival what the Church had achieved in the last ten years and what I thought it should be concentrating on in the next ten years. The mood of the panel had been quite negative. The tone of the question suggested that we, the four Church leaders at the front, would struggle to come up with something. I had no problems. Fair Trade! I can remember, and yes perhaps it was a little over 10 years ago, when a few Christian students went into the nearest Tescos (It was called Stewarts in N. Ireland then) and on the back of our receipts for coffee signed our names and requested they stock Fair Trade coffee. I thought it was a pretty futile effort. How wrong was I!?

I can still remember the first time I saw the coffee on the shelves. I bought four jars to try and convince the manager, all the while thinking that if I was the only one buying them what good was it to buy four at once! Indeed, as I write this I wonder if it was this campaign that made me a coffee drinker; I had to do something with all that coffee! A little over a decade later and Fair Trade is everywhere and I am on at least four cups a day! Most of our Christmas presents this year, given and received, had the Fair Trade logo in the corner. It is a rare travesty to be in a cafe that isn’t Fair Trade. My children see it is as a given. The joy, just this year, of seeing that symbol on Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was such a rush!

I still hear conversations where people question the usefulness. Why we are so quick to knock the movements that change the world has to be something deep within our fallen nature or simply the forces of evil kicking back. I have been to Fair Trade projects and can declare how I have seen over the years the social and psychological changes, never mind the economic ones, of those who benefit from this strategy for justice; it is a spiritual thing! The Church has been at the forefront of this movement and I am proud to say that it is a social action that we have made great impact with. I think it is time to ask how we can develop it more. I pray the next decade will not see a Fair Trade tiredness but innovative ways to make it deeper and wider than the success it has been.

The next decade? There are many challenges for the Church. A real dilemma within is that most people are now seekers but not belongers. Younger people, and I am speaking under 50s not under 15s, are less committed to Church for many social, cultural and spiritual reasons. How does the Church, and myself as a pastor in that Church, care, disciple and evangelize in such a soulscape?

Outside the Church and maybe crucial to turning around the number of joiners will be how we as a Church take the Fair Trade model and begin to address all kinds of other social issues. After the debacle that was the environmental summit at Copenhagen this year when instant gratification and selfishness won over long term sense, we need Christians to stand forward in the care of the planet. We need to up the theology of how green issues are Biblical issues. Christians need to, whether they believe the prophecies of thinning ozone layers or not, start looking after their Father’s artistic masterpiece.

There are a plethora of injustices and human crisis for the Christian to start taking a lead. I believe that evangelism in the next decade will be all about our impact on society. About a year ago The Guardian, renowned for its anti-God stance, defended the Christian God against the Richard Dawkins onslaught because of the work that Christian Churches were doing in England’s inner cities. When we rekindle our vision for the marginalised, that Jesus called us to follow him amongst, and seek justice and shalom for those disenfranchised we will “declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his glorious light.” In ten years we will stand or fall on our obedience to “let justice roll down like rivers and righteousness like an never-failing stream.”




The standout releases of 2009 for me were The Beatles Remastered – all of them. In some ways they saved the year for me. Still working with students, as I was until November, and involved in the worldwide web of rock critique and the newly titled theo-musicology, I try to keep up to date with all things indie and contemporary. A few releases might have intrigued me in 2009 but apart from Mumford and Sons little grabbed me by the ear.  That I listened almost exclusively to The Beatles for the last three months of the year says it all. And yet there was enough in those 13 albums to keep me consumed.

It was 1976 when I first fell in love with The Beatles. They crashed into my developing fifteen year old pop consciousness and over the next year probably changed my life. Not in the Christ sense. That came about two years later.  In my Remastering of The Beatles in my life, however, I realised this winter that they played an almost John The Baptist role. It was these Fab Four mop tops that were at the very least the soundtrack of the world changing in the sixties, if they weren’t actually a momentum of the change, that started this rural Ulster boy to start thinking bigger things. My embryonic thoughts of the meaning of life and where answers lay to the questions my later adolescence was starting to ask were all wrapped around songs like Nowhere Man, Revolution, Eleanor Rigby, All You Need Is Love and Let It Be. My first meaningful conversations about art and life were with a fellow Ballymena Academy pupil Graeme McKee as a result of our Beatle obsession. As I have always said these rock songs asked the questions that I found the answers to in Jesus. That sounds like a glib cliché but true never the less.

Over the years I have of course delved deeper in my understanding of The Beatles catalogue as I have in my grasp of the Scriptures. So, Beatle songs, as well as the solo catalogues of each member, have kept my mind fertile for the development of the Christian worldview that has taken me a long distance from the confines of the seventeen year old rural Northern Ireland package of faith I assented to back in 1979. Writers like Steve Turner, who also shares my Christian faith, have opened up the depth of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which originally hit me as a confused drug induced psychedelic mush and songs like Blackbird, Tomorrow Never Knows and Carry That Weight among others have been unlocked to their social, political and emotional significance.

Yet, after thirty three years of listening, reading and writing about The Beatles I was shocked by how shocked I was by the new Remasters. It was a like a brand new discovery. It took me back to the original feeling I had when I had first put on the big black yellow label 12 inches of vinyl that I had brilliantly (or guiltily) swapped off a friend for old Smokie and Gary Glitter singles! The Remastering opened up sounds and energy that I had not heard before. Beatles For Sale and those earlier pop records were now real rock albums, harder edged than I had imagined. You could now hear all six months of the recording of aforementioned Sgt Pepper; every little sound carefully added. Suddenly with this more vivid soundscape you realised that The Beatles were more than the most prolific pop/rock band in history. Yes, their melodies were so brilliant that my children loved them as soon as they could differentiate songs and yes even their album tracks sounded like singles but in this new reality you could suddenly hear how brilliant a bass player Paul was and how amazing a time keeper Ringo was. Both have suffered for being the last two Beatles alive and for being media friendly and funny. What the Remasters shout out about the criticism they have received as musicians is - WRONG! They are brilliant and George too. At his death many had pointed out how it was his riffs, seemingly simple, that had given the songs their trademark. I was convinced but these new Remasters give a whole new insight to his playing, particularly on Sgt Pepper. John has always been the most loved Beatle, ironically for being the least loveable one! Any listen to these records will now make it very obvious that we got lucky when these four Liverpool lads found each other. It is unique that four guys with such talent can live in the same era, in the same geographical location, and then find each other and a world that will listen. The Beatles did. These Remasters confirm them the best band to ever to walk the planet.