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Be reconciled

Is reconciliation in Northern Ireland naïve optimism? asks David Smyth

Against the backdrop of a political and nationalistic conflict that battered and bruised Northern Ireland for decades, David Smyth, public policy lead, Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, calls on the church to take the lead in peacemaking.

Imagine a violent guerrilla war breaks out in the UK from city tower blocks to quaint country villages. Your enemies’ are indistinguishable in a crowd, trust fades and communities polarise. Neighbours and work colleagues are mentally re-categorised by their perceived allegiances. The conflict dominates the political and media discourse for a generation. Meantime, most people are just trying to work and raise their family, helplessly caught between domesticity and a terrible chaos. This lasts for thirty years.

Now imagine where the church fits in. Burying the dead, comforting the bereaved, appealing for peace. Parts of the church speak prophetically of repentance and hope, parts of it remain silent, and parts of it act as chaplains to the forces of law and order. Missional and misunderstood, faithful and failing.

This is not just an exercise in imagination, but the reality of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It’s 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, and while much of the violence has stopped, the legacy of the conflict remains. The Troubles is perhaps the biggest moral and social justice issue facing Northern Ireland today. Forty-five per cent of adults experienced the death or injury of someone they knew personally, and a third of people witnessed a bomb explosion.

Northern Ireland has the world’s highest recorded incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder, and half of all recorded mental health issues are linked to the Troubles. The effects are transgenerational and endemic, shaping housing and education policy and linked to social and economic deprivation.

The Troubles is perhaps the biggest moral and social justice issue facing Northern Ireland today.

Now imagine again where the church fits in today. What does it look like to live as disciples and witnesses to Jesus Christ in this society? Where I grew up it was too easy at times to disconnect my faith in Jesus from the particularity of the people and places around me. I mistakenly thought that living with the transcendent allowed me to overlook the here and now. I’d forgotten that the incarnation was both a universal and a local event. For Christians, ethical living ought to involve something of the transcendent touching the here and now.

For Christians in Northern Ireland, this is not a call to forget the past, forgo justice or embrace cheap forgiveness. In the church words like grace, truth and repentance are embodied. Former prisoners share pews with former police officers and prison guards. The bereaved share communion with people who have murdered. The radical message of the gospel is the same to each one: you are no longer defined by your past, what you did or what was done to you, but by your identity in Christ. In the church there is the potential for the labels and relationship of victim and perpetrator to be replaced with brother and sister. This is breathtakingly difficult stuff.

The challenge applies to us all and is one that the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland has been working on for many years. Most recently we have developed the Be Reconciled resource along with Rev Catherine Simpson, to help local churches wrestle with these issues.

Leading the way

Be Reconciled is a Jesus-centred small group discussion resource to help empower the local church in peacemaking. It is a contextual response to our troubled communities based on the reconciling message at the heart of the gospel. For those who profess Jesus, there is a responsibility to live in new and reconciled relationships, not only with God, but with our neighbours and even our enemies.

Unfortunately, a concern for reconciliation within some parts of the church was too often dismissed as naïve ecumenism or a competitor to the preaching of the gospel. So, while there have been bold examples of Christian involvement in peacemaking, they have largely remained on the margins rather than the mainstream of day-to-day church life. The view of many was that it is best not to get dirty in the political fray or to betray your forebears in a part of the world where religion is often unhelpfully conflated with politics.

We contend that to overlook peacemaking would be a dereliction of discipleship for the church in Northern Ireland. It would be like sending missionaries to Palestine without training in the cultural context. So, to the heart of Be Reconciled: helping Christians to understand and practice peacemaking as an essential part of their witness and apprenticeship to Jesus in this place. Christians reclaiming a radical message where God invites His enemies to become His friends and His family (Romans 5:10 and 8:16). Living ethically is when our daily patterns of being, consuming and relating to others consistently reflect our morals and sense of justice.

What does the local church say and do when confronted by paramilitaries in their community or sectarianism in their fellowship? How does the local church respond to flags, parades and bonfires or acts of remembrance in their community? What practical, pastoral and spiritual hope and care is the local church offering to victims and survivors? How is the church contributing to a robust and gracious public theology of reconciliation in a society struggling with the legacy of the past?

Be Reconciled is just a short small group course, but the profound hope is that it creates the possibilities for new conversations. The local church giving space, language and shape to a different story, a different ethic, and a different way of life. In Northern Ireland as it is in heaven.

About the author

David is our lead on public policy. He is a former solicitor and represents the Evangelical Alliance on a range of government, civic and charitable forums. He serves in the space where faith, law, politics and culture intersect.

See more from David Smyth

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