Sharon and Paisley shared a belief that their people were chosen by God
American sermons related plight of Northern Protestants to that of Old Testament Jews
This land is our land: Dr Paisley at an Independent Orange Order demonstration at Ballycastle, Co Antrim in 1985. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Ariel Sharon and Ian Paisley shared more than bulkiness and belligerence. Each based his ideology on books of the Bible – the fundamental reason neither could contemplate compromise or regard enemies as equals.
The first five books loomed large in each of their ideologies. (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy constitute the Torah.)
Sharon will have been mindful of: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said: To your descendants I give this land . . . the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21).
To put it more colloquially – ignore the fact that other peoples live there, it’s yours. Covers a multitude of what most others would regard as sins.
Likewise, Dr Paisley’s fierce if futile determination to save Ulster from sodomy: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion.” (Leviticus 18:22-24).
Obituaries of Sharon and Paisley retrospectives arising from the BBC programmes fronted by Eamonn Mallie have downplayed the centrality of ancient scripture to their political actions and beliefs.
Sharon’s ruthless determination to cleanse the land of Israel of Palestinians was not rooted in analysis of contemporary reality – he didn’t see it primarily as a necessary response to anti-Semitism in the wider world, or to the Holocaust – but in the first instance as a duty conferred on the Jewish people by Yahweh.
Many critical analyses over the last few days of Sharon’s role in the establishment and consolidation of Israel have pointed to his leadership of the “special forces” group Unit 101 in the slaughter of scores of Palestinian civilians, including whole families, as they huddled in terror in their homes in the West Bank (as it is now) village of Qibya in October 1953.
The massacre was undertaken as retaliation for the killing by Palestinians of a Jewish mother and her two children. Sharon will have believed as he went about his work that he was wielding the sword of God – and will have had the same sense of righteousness when supervising the Phalangists’ pitiless butchery of more than 2,000 Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982.
This is not to suggest that religion can completely explain the ferocity of conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else. And Zionism isn’t the only religious ideology in play in the region. The point is no explanation of Sharon’s career can be complete without reference to the religious coloration of his political creed. It is said that, personally, he wasn’t particularly pious, but it was ultimately in religion that his actions found validation.
Observers who set no store on religion balk at fully acknowledging this dimension of Sharon’s legacy. In something of the same way, Paisley was presented in last Monday’s programme as having had parallel political and religious careers, each feeding off the other.
But this isn’t how Paisley saw it. It diminishes the role of religion in his life. He made no distinction between politics and religion. He was implacably resistant to political change in the North because he saw the state as the last hold-out in Europe for his brand of Protestantism. It, therefore, had to be defended unflinchingly and at all costs. In sermons in Free Presbyterian churches, and with added vehemence when addressing evangelical gatherings in the US, he routinely related the position of northern Protestants to the plight of the Jews as told in the Old Testament.
It would have been interesting – and still would – to hear him relate how the Bible pointed him towards the right path across rocky political terrain. He read the Good Book every day: what passages guided him at particular moments?
In times when he was beleaguered, the subject of scorn, seemingly isolated, did he find reassurance in scripture? Did he turn to Jeremiah at the end of a difficult day?
To what extent did God’s injunction to the Israelites to smite any community that stood in their way inform his own approach to Northern Catholics? (His pretence at having been a civil righter all along need not detain us.)
Saving the North
What was the extent to which his religion drove him in the end to embrace devolution and powersharing with nationalists? Was it that this was the only means he could see of saving the North from the otherwise imminent imposition of measures offensive to God – gay marriage, abortion rights, etc?
Those who fancy that religion doesn’t matter any more see no point in posing questions of this sort. But the lives of Sharon and Paisley remind us that the influence of religion is as real – and as malign – as ever.