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.