On 18 April 2019 Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old journalist, was shot dead while reporting alongside police at a disturbance involving dissident republicans in Derry.

This was just a few days before traditional republican commemorations which take place every year to commemorate the Easter Rising. Public outcry following her death was swift and sincere, contrasting with the hollowness of the apology’ from the IRA which claimed responsibility” for the killing. They explained that she was tragically killed while standing beside enemy forces” and went on to conclude that they had instructed their volunteers to take the utmost care in future, when engaging the enemy”. Essentially wrong place, wrong time, not really our fault. Oh, and we will keep shooting at the police because they are legitimate targets.

People in Northern Ireland were shocked, hurt and angry. Fr Martin Magill, a friend of mine, seemed to catch the public sentiment in comments he made at the funeral which went viral: I commend our political leaders for standing together in Creggan on Good Friday. I am, however, left with a question: Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?”

The third commandment instructs us not to use the Lord’s name in vain, and the invocation of God’s name into this moment was not a casual thing. It was perhaps the strongest possible language a priest could use to challenge the politicians and community leaders in the room. The weight of it hung in the air long after people sat down from their impromptu standing
ovation. This one killing, even in the hours and days afterwards, pointed to a bigger story of purpose and justice in the world.


I know many atheists who were not content to leave the story of Lyra’s death as a random cosmic accident, about which the universe was cold and indifferent. For those who knew and loved her, her death meant something beyond sad feelings caused by neurons and chemicals in their brains. So much so that some of her friends confronted some dissident republicans by painting red, bloody’ handprints on the wall of their political’ headquarters. There was a strong sense that Lyra’s death required justice and should not be in vain.

Take this one killing and multiply it by more than three thousand to get to the number of people who lost their lives in the Troubles. Senseless, random, bloody violence. Now imagine the family members and work colleagues, the childhood friends and emergency responders. The clear injustice of the Troubles touched countless lives here in a small country you can drive across in two hours and with a population of Tyneside.

Impossible without God

It has always fascinated me that the language around reconciliation is deeply biblical. It’s almost as if reconciliation is the core story of the Bible and there’s just no other or better truth or words to wrap around the concept. Forgiveness, mercy, repentance, redemption, truth, restorative justice, good relations. Go to any conflict zone and you will find blessed peacemakers speaking and working out the biblical language of reconciliation.

In fact, in an interview we did a few years ago with the Northern Irish Attorney General, John Larkin, about dealing with the past, he said: Reconciliation is virtually impossible save in theological terms. I don’t think reconciliation is possible unless the divine command to forgive is acknowledged.” What surprising and profoundly encouraging words for the highest legal figure in Northern Ireland to offer.

So, what does justice look like for the wrongful taking of one human life? What if someone planted a bomb and took 20 lives all at once – would the taking of their one life in any way be justice enough? Reading scripture through the lens of Jesus and His one-time death penalty sacrifice for sin, I’m convinced that no further life should be taken.

Yes, we have the criminal justice system and, as a former lawyer, I absolutely believe it has a role to play in the good governance of our society. But, in the most awful cases, even when justice has been administered, why does it always seem to fall short? Fundamentally, I agree with the Attorney General: I don’t think true justice can be achieved in this life purely by human efforts, because it lies beyond human horizons.

It’s a good thing, then, that the God of justice is not limited by His human creation. In fact, He chooses to use us frail, broken vessels to pour out His mercy, hope and love to bless the nations. These sentiments were echoed recently at a conference I attended, which was organised by Thrive Ireland, a charity that has drawn some helpful lessons on how the state and church responded to the genocide in Rwanda that Northern Ireland could learn from.

One of the Rwandan pastors at the conference shared how reconciliation was often impossible in particular situations because the perpetrator had died or could not be found, or because the victim’s families refused to forgive the perpetrator seeking redemption. Humanly speaking, there was no potential for forgiveness or justice. His programme taught that both the victim and perpetrator find hope and rest in the cross of Christ. Their burdens can be laid down and redemption is possible. Even if they never meet in this life, perpetrators can find the hope of forgiveness through Christ and victims can find the hope of justice one day. At the cross, victims and perpetrators, justice and mercy can meet.

This all sounds very theological and it is. But it is also incredibly earthy and difficult and practical. Even more so when victims and perpetrators in Rwanda, now freed from these labels, are given a cow to share together when they leave the programme. The cows for peace project’ was started to help former enemies become neighbours and friends. Both families share a dairy cow. They share its care and welfare, milking and mucking out. They can drink its milk, sell or process any extra for profit, and share any offspring. As they drink and eat and work together daily, the families flourish in so much as their shared cow does.

As a former farmer, I love this even more than my lawyer-love’ of the legal system. This is the closest thing I’ve seen on earth to how I understand justice is in heaven. Where former enemies dwell together in peace, seeking the welfare of the other. In fact, the image of former enemies living as neighbours is taken even further in scripture. When we come to the Father through Jesus, He no longer calls us enemies but family. Just so we truly understand the language of family, we are called children and are somehow born again and adopted into His family. From enemies to family. This is part of the big story of scripture and the reason why anything less than this falls short of the forgiveness, justice and redemption we crave.

As I reflect again on the Northern Ireland situation and the death of Lyra McKee and thousands of others, I acknowledge that there are no quick or easy routes to justice. The journey from enemies to family seems too difficult, too great to imagine. Yet, it is already happening and is the testimony of many within the church, who now find themselves as family, brothers or sisters in Christ, with those who caused their greatest pain. Both find their hope and redemption in the gospel, which bridges the limited horizons of this world with the possibilities of the kingdom come.