16 July 2015
Missional engagement with the battle for peace
There is a great irony on 12 July every year in Northern Ireland. Our only unique national holiday has become as famous for its contention as its celebrations. This year tens of thousands of people marched and families celebrated the day peacefully and respectfully. However the violent actions of a small number of people in a small area continues to steal the narrative. A riot in Northern Belfast resulted in tens of PSNI officers injured, one who had his ear almost severed off and a car driven into a group of protesters hospitalizing a 16-year-old girl. In the past few days election posters and effigies were burnt on loyalist bonfires in the name of celebrating culture. Just yesterday events took an even more disturbing turn when photographs emerged of a new, as yet unnamed, loyalist paramilitary group who have posed with weapons and declared the PSNI and Parades Commission to be 'legitimate targets' – a phrase borrowed from Republicans in the dark days. On the Republican side, the ongoing activities of dissident paramilitaries mean that the threat level in Northern Ireland as assessed by MI5 remains 'severe.'
Of course there are thousands of everyday and inspirational examples of people building peace and good relationships. We have long championed these and continue ourselves to engage in the public square on the issue of reconciliation. But conflict and broken relationships remain in the heart of the Executive and on our city streets. Ongoing distrust and institutional sectarianism leads to very real consequences on policy development and the delivery of public services. Some of these are directly linked to the conflict like the cost of policing to avoid or minimise civil unrest together with the inability to agree on steps to address the past, parades and flags and victim's services. However these issues have been compounded by the deadlock over welfare reform. Although the welfare stalemate is partly a 'left/right' ideological dispute, a lack of genuine relationship and united political will across the unionist/nationalist divide further distances any resolution. The structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly, again a legacy of our unresolved past designed to make parties work together, ironically only exists and continues to work because of division. With Northern Ireland Assembly elections next year and the potential collapse of the Assembly before then being openly talked about by all sides, something needs to change. Meanwhile real impacts are being felt on government departments, public services and real people.
This present context, together with the past 50 years of history, politics, violence and injustice here leads me to again say that reconciliation is one of the most pressing moral and social justice issues in Northern Ireland today. This is true for politicians and civic society as outlined above but also for the Church.
Again there are individuals and parts of the Church in Northern Ireland vibrantly living out their 2 Corinthians 5 ministry of reconciliation and peacemaking, but it is difficult. The Church in Northern Ireland is doing some fantastic things which we continually celebrate both in the Christian community and in the public square. Preaching the Gospel, looking after the sick and poor and bereaved, marriage courses, children's ministries, running foodbanks, supporting missionaries - these are good and vital witnesses to Jesus in our community. They should continue and be celebrated and encouraged. But practical peacemaking is still not a mainstream part of our missional Church life in this unique cultural context. If missionaries were being trained from Northern Ireland to go into Muslim North Africa they would be given so much training in the culture of that people and place. Why are peacemaking and biblical reconciliation initiatives as not common parts of our Church fellowships alongside our discipleship and evangelism programmes? Perhaps we just don't see our cultural context because it's all we've ever known? Perhaps its busyness, or a failure to accept that peace-making is a command for those who have found peace with God? Questions continue to be raised about perceived political bias, ecumenicalism and the place of Christians in this murky debate. These are valid and worthy of careful consideration but by no means reasons for us to desert the battle for peace.
Back to the 12 July - the reason people parade on this day is to remember the victory of King William of Orange over King James at the Battle of the Boyne. A protestant Dutchman fighting a Catholic Englishman for the Crown of England on the banks of an Irish River. The 'Glorious Twelfth' is also about marking the 'Glorious Revolution' from which flowed 'religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, liberty of the subject, independence of judges to interpret the law and the development, both at home and overseas, of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.' These are things that any Western democracy will readily celebrate yet the biggest irony is that in the very place so closely linked with these events it is deeply contentious.
So finally, as always in PQ, how can Christians engage well with policy and civil society on this issue:
·How can the Church here be more missional in our specific context of ongoing conflict? How can the Church raise this to the fore internally and externally as a pressing issue of discipleship, morality and social justice?
·Civil and religious freedoms are vital to everyone in a flourishing society, so are there new ways for everyone to celebrate these important things without the trappings of some traditions which alienate some people? Can the Church help to co-create this new culture?
·Where are the places for the Church to challenge, and to be challenged, truthfully and respectfully on some the things which are done in the name of religion here?
·Can the Church bring any new perspective or thinking to bear on the stalemate of parades?