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The IRA vs Ulster Loyalists and Zealots vs Tax collectors: God brings hardened enemies together

New Life City Church mural on the border of the Catholic and Protestant area in Belfast. Credit: Vossitich/Flickr/Creative Commons

An article on CBN, tells how the Holy Spirit is bringing together Catholics and protestants who were once deadly enemies in Northern Ireland.

Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland and two decades ago it was the center of a violent conflict between Catholics and protestants as the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) was seeking Northern Ireland’s independence from British rule.

The Union Protestants loyal to the British government were literally in an armed conflict with the IRA trying to stop this from happening.

War raged between the two factions for decades with British soldiers also thrown into the mix who were there to keep the peace. In 1998, a peace was reached between the warring factions and though the peace has held, there are still deep-seated resentments between the two groups.

And today in Belfast there is a distinctive Catholic sector in the city marked by murals of the conflict twenty years ago.

Though the two groups have put down their guns, God is trying to bring a heart-felt peace and a big part of this includes New Life City Church that sits on the very distinctive border between the Catholic and protestant sectors of the city.

In fact, half the church rests on the Catholic side and the other half on what is considered the protestant part of Belfast. According to the church’s senior pastor, Jack McKee, people are attending the church who twenty years ago would have shot each other given the chance. And even McKee was part of the conflict as he served as a soldier in the British Army in Northern Ireland.

Some people in the church have even spent time in prison because of their violent past, but now they sit side by side as brothers and sisters in Christ.

According to McKee, though the two paramilitary groups, the IRA and Unionists, no longer exist as political entities many of the members have simply transformed themselves into gangs involved in drugs and prostitution. He also states that political problems are still brewing beneath the surface.

Though the political violence has settled down, McKee said serious political problems are brewing beneath the surface. McKee added that he has had death threats because of his work bringing the two sides together.

He told CBN:

“I know that I am the most hated pastor in this community possibly in Northern Ireland. I don’t know any other pastor in the country who’s been sentenced to death or had more death attempts on them than I have, and I’m not overstating that.”

The Holy Spirit is in the business of breaking down these barriers of hate and uniting former enemies under the banner of the Kingdom of God.

It is interesting because this same potential conflict was seen among Jesus’ disciples as many believe at least one of the 12 apostles, Simon the Zealot, was probably a former terrorist.

18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot; (Mark 3:18 NASV)

He is also mentioned by this same name in Matthew 10:4 and Luke 6:15 where he is actually referred to as The Zealot and as one of the disciples in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit fell (Acts 1:13).

But the fact he was referred to as “the Zealot” has many believing at one point Simon was part of a radical group in Judea referred to as the Zealot Party who were fighting for Jewish independence from Rome.

The Romans considered them a terrorist group and many of the Jews would have looked upon the Zealots as freedom fighters.

The Zealots were very legalistic holding to Jewish traditions and were natural allies with the Pharisees. While the pharisees were trying to thrust legalism on the people, the Zealots took a more political approach and at times resorted to violence.

Within the Zealots were the Sicarii, assassins, who killed Romans and Jews collaborating with the enemy. They would carry curved daggers known as a sicarii under their robes and meld into the crowds during festivals where they would secretly approach people and assassinate them.

And some have wondered when Christ told His disciples to get swords for protection, and they showed Jesus that they already had two, that one may have belonged to Simon (Luke 22:38).

The Apostle Paul may also have been part of the terrorist organization or at the very least sympathetic to it. In Galatians 1:14, he describes himself as being zealous for the traditions of God. The Greek word “zelotes” used in this verse means “adherent, loyalist, enthusiast, patriot, zealot.”

Though we can’t be sure he was a member of the Zealot Party, we know that he played an instrumental role in Stephen’s death (Acts 7:58) and Paul was also actively persecuting Christians. As a pharisee, he was a natural ally of the Zealots and his willingness to kill Christians suggests he may have gone to the next level.

Some have even wondered if Judas Iscariot was a terrorist though this is less certain. The reason is that his last name “Iscariot” is a bit odd and some have speculated its similarity in the Greek to Sicarri indicates it was a play on the word suggesting Judas was once an assassin.

Though Judas betrayed Christ, Simon stuck with Christ through his attacks on the pharisees and even Christ’s statement they were to pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:21).

And this is where it got interesting, because one of Christ’s disciples was Matthew, a Roman tax collector (Matthew 9:9). From the priestly tribe of Levi, he would have been considered a collaborator with the Romans and a prime target for the zealots.

Yet here was a former tax collector and terrorist working side by side building the Kingdom of God. Simon stuck with Christ to the end and tradition states he took the Gospel to Persia (modern Iran) where he was martyred after refusing to worship the sun god.


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