One of the many things that the deplorable violence on the streets of Belfast in these last few evenings should waken us up to is that there is a difference between analgesic and cure! Fifteen years on from the Good Friday agreement things are so much better in so many ways in Northern Ireland. However, when we experience the kind of civil disobedience that we have in the past few days, over a band parade down a few hundred yards of street, we realise that all is still not well in with our soul. We might have erased the pain, and life might be more comfortable as a result, but there is a disease lurking deep within us that has not been dealt with. In fact the removal of the pain might actually have caused us, over these last fifteen years, to become so complacent that we might be causing continued damage where it really matters.
Power sharing, or conferences about shared futures for all, seem to be lacking in many things. Important ideas like compromise, reconciliation, forgiveness and hope are words that need to be opened up. Societal discussion needs to be had in a grace drenched space. We need real pragmatic decision making. We need imaginative vision that creates new ways of seeing the other. We need courageous leadership willing to take risks that reach out to everyone and not just their own. It might be easier to take a pill, washed down with a cup of water, than it is to face open heart surgery without anaesthetic but our sickness cannot be allowed to perpetuate the events of this last week.
AND... when I say the events of the last week I do not want to single out the loyalist community. Their actions are deplorable and a lose/lose scenario for everyone including every cause they claim to be standing for. BUT... we also need to diagnose that the events of our inglorious Twelfth have been caused by a lack of compromise on all sides of our community and a difficult decision that had to be made by the Parades Commission. The analgesic allowed this current crisis. Dealing with the disease will be the only way to end it! We will need to face the pain that we will need to endure to be healthy.
It is also important to make sure that the analgesic option is not used on the loyalist violence. Yes, it needs to stop immediately but when it does we should not see the problem solved but make sure that as soon as it stops we get to work on the causes. On Sunday evening in Fitzroy our assistant minister, Jonathan Abernethy-Barkley, was doing a meditative evening using the thoughts of eccentric but perceptive Irish spiritual philosopher John O’Donohue. It was very personal reflection but I couldn’t help, being aware of petrol bombs being hurled at the police just a mile or two away, to be struck by one reading about belonging: -
“Merely to be excluded or sense rejection hurts. When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness. We become vulnerable to fear and negativity. A sense of belonging, however, suggests warmth, understanding and embrace.”
It didn’t take long for me to be thinking about a community in our society that feels isolated. Loyalist communities are feeling cut off and adrift. They have watched their belonging in Northern Ireland become precarious. They feel they are being left behind and that they have lost their voice. It would be easy to have a discussion about whether they are right or wrong but when it comes to belonging it is not about debate. It is about feeling. If we really want to find the cure for our critical illness then we can’t dismiss this symptom. It is time to not just condemn the mindless and horrendous violence but to address the underlying causes. This is where our political and community leaders need to concentrate their vocations. This is where I need to reassess how I feel about those on the streets.
As a Church leader I have been challenged in the past week to shift my energies from condemnation to beginning to ask what to do constructively. What would Jesus be doing about our current situation? Would he stand at a safe distance in self righteous judgement? Or would he have a deep concern for those whose sense of isolation has caused them to lose their “flexibility and natural kindness”? Would he be directing his grace towards building up or further pulling down? Would he be reaching out to bring a sense of purpose, hope and belonging to the loyalists on the streets? Would he be asking some piercing questions of my own prejudices, sectarianism and lack of love? How has my impatience, lack of empathy, snobbish self righteousness added to the feeling of isolation in my fellow citizens? What can I do and say to raise their sense of belonging and make them feel a valued part of our shared future?
So, that is what I am surmising? I am yearning to get to the heart of our illness. The President of The Methodist Church, Rev Heather Morris, has Facebooked some very practical ideas about what we might start doing. I am keen that in the work I am involved in, across the city and the divide, to begin to ask more serious questions of what we do. One of Heather’s suggestions is that we write to our politicians and tell them we want peace. Again, perhaps instead of ranting at the failings of our political leaders we need to give them encouragement and a population swell of support to be brave and risk taking. Whatever, I need to reassess in my own soul whether I am part of the cure or just a contributor to the sickness.