Is religion preventing people from the LGBT community living full and happy lives in Northern Ireland? That’s a question at the heart of ‘God’s Country,’ a new play by Colin Bell.
The play presents a complex picture of the life and career of MLA Patricia Williamson – who belongs to a party suspiciously like the DUP – and her relationship with her son Jamie, who fled Northern Ireland a decade ago, literally driven out by parents who saw his homosexuality as sin.
A focal point in the production is the homophobic murder of a young Catholic man by Lithuanian workers in Patricia’s constituency. Speaking at a charity ball the day before the funeral, Patricia refuses to condemn the murder and says that the man’s homosexuality (not his murder) is a failing for which all of society is responsible.
Patricia’s speech reflects a view that is common enough among conservative Christians. The logic flows something like this:
1. the bible says homosexuality is sin,
2. God does not bless people or countries that allow or condone wilful sinning,
3. therefore legislators should make laws against and speak out against homosexuality,
4. this will be ‘better’ for the homosexual, especially if he/she can get therapy and overcome this sin,
5. this will all please God, and he will bless the country again.
The play also explores tensions within the DUP-like party that erupt in reaction to Patricia’s outburst. She has a young political advisor who, while clearly sharing Patricia’s loathing of homosexuality, is horrified by the speech. It is the advisor’s job to manage the damage that Patricia’s speech could cause among the party’s more moderate supporters.
Last night I took part in a post-production discussion of the play with playwright Colin Bell and Ciaran McQuillan, Tinderbox’s Outreach Director.
Bell explained that he wrote the play in part to explore how far (or not) Northern Ireland had come in its treatment of LGBT people. He also said he had been fascinated by the Iris Robinson affair, and her condemnatory comments about LGBT people on the Stephen Nolan show.
Bell said that he knew people who expressed similar views to Iris while growing up in Northern Ireland. From my own academic research, I know that these views are indeed present within the DUP and among some conservative Christians in Northern Ireland.
For example, as the Rev. Ian Paisley was being pushed out as moderator of his Free Presbyterian Church, a group called ‘Concerned Free Presbyterians’ set up a website to rally the voices of criticism.
Although the Concerned Free Presbyterians website has now been taken down, at the time about half of the complaints were that Paisley, as Northern Ireland’s First Minister, would have to support rights for the LGBT community, including funding the gay pride parade. The other half of the complaints were about the immorality of sharing power with the ‘unrepentant terrorists’ of Sinn Fein.
That said, not all conservative or evangelical Christians would share the views on homosexuality presented in the play. Rather, there is a spectrum of beliefs among evangelicals about homosexuality.
For instance, I have heard arguments within evangelicalism both in Northern Ireland and in North America to the effect that Christians’ treatment of LGBT people today is like Christians’ treatment of slaves in days gone by. The say that the Bible was wrongly used to justify slavery, and that the Bible is being wrongly used today to justify discrimination against LGBT people.
Eliminating discrimination against LGBT people is presented as a logical outworking of the gospel because God takes sides with the marginalised.
When challenged that this view is ‘unbiblical,’ I have heard more liberal evangelicals argue that some of the bible passages translated into English reflect the prejudices of their translators. So, for example, the strong condemnations of the apostle Paul are really meant to be referring to paedophilia rather than homosexuality.
But even without going into biblical scholarship, we can observe the surprisingly irenic position taken by the Evangelical Alliance in the Republic of Ireland, which supports the proposed civil partnership bill.
I’m not a biblical scholar so I’m not in a position to evaluate the validity of all of these arguments. But I think that in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, social prejudice and institutionalised discrimination against LGBT people won’t be fully overcome without leadership on the part of Christians, or people from other religions, whose holy books have been used to justify their marginalisation.