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January 2014


Dangerous Night

Tonight as I drove home from a 4 Corners Festival event at Skainos in East Belfast I was listening to David Crosby’s new record Croz. The song I was listening to was like a soundtrack to what I had just experienced...

“Now some small parts seem right scattered here and there

One smiling face in a crowd that’s angry and scared

Can’t seem to see where it doesn’t get worse

It’s like one good thought getting lost in an angry verse


I try to write Buddha and it comes out guns

I vote for peace and the blood still runs

I want to believe I can pass happy to my child

But the truth gets lost and the system runs wild”

I thought that a “good thought getting lost in an angry verse” was as good a description of the evenings events as I could come up with. The Festival event was called Listening To Your Enemies while outside on the street people shouted abuse, threw stones and injured policemen because they didn’t want their enemies to be even in their corner of the city. I had entered Skainos early and didn’t have the intimidation others had arriving but at one point as the crowd surged towards the front of the building we had to move away from the window, fearing it might come in around us. Leaving, on a route lined by riot police, I found myself stuck behind an armoured Land Rover with Union Jack clad menace all around. It was tense. As Crosby was singing, the truth was getting lost as the system that has kept our city captive for so long was running wild.

Crosby carried on singing: -

“Send me someone who has doubts about it

Who has conquered their own fear and lived to tell about it

Someone who won’t give up in the frozen rain

Who’ll walk right next to me through the orchards and the grain”

That was what we experienced inside Skainos; people conquering their fears and yet not without doubts. People not giving up but seeking a way through the frozen rain. Jo Berry is a brave woman whose father was killed when the IRA bombed a hotel in Brighton in 1984. Beside her was Patrick Magee the man who had planted the bomb. He was also the enemy that those outside were protesting about. The discomfort of the situation was best illustrated when, as Jo spoke, a line of Riot Police walked down the corridor on the other side of a window wall. “We are just back from Beirut and it was easier than this,” Jo humorously commented.

The discomfort of what was going on outside was matched by a discomfort of what was going inside and yet a very different discomfort. Inside was filled with hope, a tangible and inspiring hope, but I felt that my soul needed spiritual riot police to protect me from the trauma that was being so honestly and eloquently shared. Jo’s tentative reaching out to Patrick and the nervousness of their first meeting. Patrick’s journey to re-humanise Anthony Berry and say, “It's difficult sitting with Jo because I killed her father. Even after 14 years of dialogue [with her] it's still difficult.” 

Their story was moving but the evening was far from finished. When Lesley Carroll opened it up to the floor the first woman to speak shared how her husband was the milkman shot dead in retaliation for the Brighton bomb. She explained how she had to attend tonight and shared about the thorn in her heart and her head, always there, but she needed to pay tribute to her husband to deal with that thorn in her head. Another man shared how he had been blown up in a bomb 38 years ago this very night and his good friend Jim Smiley was killed in the attack. Sweet mercy!

There were other comments, questions and challenges to Jo and Patrick. Jo shared how Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, injured in the bomb and whose wife was paralysed in the blast, has never spoken to her. Tebbit feels that she is betraying her father. Patrick shared how he had never come to terms with what forgiveness meant and wasn’t looking for it. Both were asked if they saw Patrick as a terrorist or a soldier. Patrick saw himself as neither and Jo saw him just as a friend! When asked by a loyalist ex-combatant if he had come to believe that what he did was not justified, as the loyalist now believed about his own involvement, Patrick stood firm in his belief that for him as a Republican what he had done was the only way.

In all the sharing and questions and disagreements, there was a humble gracious listening in the room. It is what 4 Corners had been aiming to do this year. To allow people to share their story but maybe more importantly to listen to one another’s story in a non adversarial way. This was exactly the atmosphere we had been hoping for. It was a grace space that our city needs more of. In that way, what was going on in the room was the very antithesis of what was going on outside where the vitriolic crowd was not prepared to listen at all.

As I drove the last mile home up the Lisburn Road, that looked so calm and unaware of the riots that our wee Festival had caused in another corner of the same city, I reflected on this dangerous night and dared to dream. David Crosby continued to sing me home...

“I wake up from a dream of a baby and a blast

Scenes from the television in the blue light it cast

Seek peace in your own heart sounds true, sounds right

I’m a troubled soul searching for peace in the night


Trying to figure out how it all fits together

Humans and sun and oceans and weather

And even if I dream alone on such a dangerous night  

Tryin’ to make all these pieces fit right


 Even if I dream alone on such a dangerous night

Somehow I know I’m going to dream again tonight.”



Reduced Shakespeare

There has been a lot of talk about the banning and unbanning of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s performance of The Bible; The Complete Word Of God (abridged) in Newtownabbey; probably too much talk. So why does this blog talk more? Well, I would rather the talk had been about something else. Instead of many of being embarrassed, in the same way that we were when my home council of Ballymena banned the Electric Light Orchestra some twenty years ago, I would rather be talking about what Jesus is for rather than what he might be against!  When people get in front of the Word of God, I as a Christian love that idea. More of it! It brings God into conversations. It allows God’s Spirit to become involved too. I remember as a teenage atheist, and pretty anti God, listening to Billy Connolly’s 16 minute comedy piece on The Crucifixion. At the time, I found it hilarious but even then I felt there were moments when it was more than close to the bone. However, it made Jesus real to me and put me in front of that cross. It was not Connolly’s intention to preach, it might even have been his intention to make fun of Christianity, but God cannot be mocked as the Scriptures tell us. Indeed in Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes about people preaching the Gospel for dubious reasons and claims that he doesn’t mind what the reasons are as long as it is preached.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company on the other hand are not about mocking or trying to be anti anything. As their name suggests they began as a way to honour, in an imaginative, humorous and popular way, the works of William Shakespeare. You didn’t find the literary world campaigning to get them banned. It was a strategic way to bring literature to an audience who might not ever have been exposed to such great work before. A quick investigation of the raison d’être of this Theatre Company should ease the Christian’s mind that they are not out to get us. Indeed, we should feel the honoured, and realise how highly regarded our Scriptures are.

An understanding of those Scriptures would also inform us that we need to be careful about what we define as irreverent, another accusation aimed at the play. We can too easily see God as some Victorian age middle class prude. The Scriptures are far from that. Not only is the central message of the New Testament that God moved into our very earthy neighbourhoods but The Bible has people relieving themselves, the produce of bodily functions often mentioned, the naked female anatomy erotically described. God is not at all queasy about such stuff and really doesn’t need us protecting him from things we think he might needs his eyes closed to.

In the end I go back to putting God back in the conversations. When The Bible or Jesus is portrayed in art, it does not need to be theologically perfect to be of use. I didn’t watch the The Last Temptation of Christ movie for many years as a result of it being banned. When I did finally see it I was fascinated by the theological issues it raised and the ultimate message that Christ had to die for the hope of the world. As a Presbyterian minister, that is the message I am eager to reach the world with and if a play or a film can open up such ideas and lead people to think or converse about such Christian truth I would prefer to fund it rather than trying to have it banned! The arts have a way to open up people’s souls that theological books, Sunday sermons and Tent missions often times can’t! Indeed the artistic nature of the literature of The Bible has more in common with The Reduced Shakespeare Company than it has with a theologian or preacher.

Two final side issues. In our new multicultural society, let us not complain when Christians are censored for having a Bible verse on their work van or when Christ is taken out of Christmas and then try to censor other rights of expression! And more interestingly, The Bible; The Complete Word Of God (abridged) had not sold too many tickets before the publicity over the ban. Reinstated, it sold out! It reminded me of the story of a Dublin sex shop in the early 90s that could not get any advertising on Dublin radio or any of the press. A quick letter to a Church headquarters brought a protest outside the store and within a few days they were front page news! They got their publicity! When Jesus told his disciples that we should be wise as serpents and gentle as doves he was using the very humour that The Reduced Shakespeare Company use BUT he wasn’t joking!



I made another great discovery this weekend. As I read Psalm 116 at our Fitzroy Church weekend, Dave Thompson (playing at the final 4 Corners event on Saturday night!) informed me that it is from that Psalm that Belfast gets its motto. Let me share from Wikipedia:

The city of Belfast has the Latin motto "Pro tanto quid retribuamus." This is taken from Psalm 116 Verse 12 in the Latin Vulgate Bible and is literally "For (Pro) so much (tanto) what (quid) we shall repay (retribuamus)" The verse has been translated in Bibles differently – for example as "What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?" It is also translated as "In return for so much, what shall we give back?" The Queen’s University Students' Union Rag Week publication PTQ derives its name from the first three words of the motto.

That the PTQ magazine has a Biblical basis! Who’d ever have guessed! Anyway, it is a mighty question to the believers of Belfast. “What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?” Indeed!  At the end of 2012 as the Flags Protest raged across our city a passionate crowd of Christians gathered at the City Hall one Saturday morning to pray for our city. It was one of the most inspirational mornings I can remember. This Saturday we are going to gather in a similar way. The Four Corners Festival will begin its final day of this year’s Festival with a number of prayer events. The details are as follows:

At 8.30am, people from all areas are encouraged to gather at the cobbled area in front of Belfast City Hall, for a time of united prayer. Copies of the Lord Mayor's 'Prayer for Belfast' will be distributed, and whistles will be blown at 8.45am to indicate the start of two minutes of silent prayer. When the whistles sound again, people are encouraged to pray aloud the Lord Mayor's 'Prayer for Belfast'. This concludes the prayer time and as people disperse, there is time to go for some refreshments to support and bless the local businesses, before heading to one of the four locations chosen as a focus of division, to pray for an end to division of our community. The four locations are:

North Belfast: The Lighthouse Project Building, beside the Duncairn Gardens 'peace' wall

West Belfast: Springfield Road Methodist Church, beside the 'peace' wall in Workman Way

East Belfast: The Skainos Centre, close to the Bryson Street 'peace' wall

South Belfast: The International Meeting Point, 133 Lisburn Road

Each prayer event will focus on the divisions that exist in our community between people of different religious persuasions and also (in South Belfast) divisions affecting international migrants and asylum seekers. We pray for an end to these divisions and greater understanding and tolerance.

This is an exciting possibility once more for the followers of Jesus in this city to show how much they love God and the city. This is our chance to quietly, and humbly come before God and petition God to help us bring Belfast together and also listen to what God might ask of us. Be great to see you there. Please pass this on in whatever social media way you can.

What will we give back…



Pete Seeger’s legacy was handed down to me through other people. That in itself is his legacy. Seeger was as much an interpreter of songs as he was a songwriter himself. One of his aims was to hand songs down so he probably would be prouder than annoyed that that is my relationship with his legend. I would call myself a Seeger fan yet I don’t own one of his albums. My first real exposure to his work was when a tribute album Where Have All The Flowers Gone was released in 1997, soon to be followed by If I Had A Song and Seeds.  The versions by Jackson Browne, Ani Di Franco and Billy Bragg connected. Even better was Bruce Cockburn’s Turn, Turn, Turn and Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome.  The Bruces indeed did exactly what I love, and what this blog is all about, and brought the social justice and art together under a Biblical umbrella. Turn, Turn, Turn maybe made even more famous than Seeger by The Byrds is a straight lift from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes and We Shall Overcome started out as a Baptist hymn.

Springsteen of course revisited the joy of recording this song and eventually released an entire album called The Seeger Sessions. This record, and the wonderful tour that followed, brought Seeger closer to my affections and also inspired my MTh thesis on music as a transformational power both spiritually and socially. The Seeger songs that Springsteen chose, and again they were not ones Seeger wrote but ones he used for transformational reasons through the Civil Rights Movement of the early Sixties, gave me musical references to the theology of James Cone’s book The Spirituals and The Blues. That Springsteen used five Christian hymns/spirituals on this record, and made it up to seven when he toured the record, was good evidence to me that music could make an impact for the spiritual and the injection of the spiritual into justice issues.

Indeed, as we celebrate the life and grieve the loss of Seeger it will be this I will carry with me most, as I reflect on a life in the sacred space of a death. Pete Seeger was not just a singer. He was an activist. He didn’t only love his art. He loved the human race. He chose not a road to commercial success but decided to take his art and use if for the good of humanity. He is remembered for more than the songs he sang, he is remembered for what those songs were about. He didn’t write We Shall Overcome but his use of that old hymn in the context of civil rights has led to it becoming, as Springsteen wrote in the programme notes of the Seeger Session Tour, one of the most used songs wherever there is injustice across the world.

In some ways we could see Seeger in one of Springsteen’s own songs. The Ghost of Tom Joad, so powerfully re-recorded on Springsteen’s new album High Hopes, could be a blend of Steinbeck’s fictional character Joad and the real life and vocational ambition of Pete Seeger: -

"Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me."

Mr Seeger, for your influence we thank you. We really believe we will go on hearing you…


4 Corners

This week is THE big week for the 4 Corners Festival. We have already had an amazing time in the Festival; a homeless feast in City Hall; marked the 100th World Day of Migrants and Refugees;listened topoliticians tell their stories at Stormont;  been provoked to think anew with Roddy Cowie opening up the psychology of Peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount; been partnered with Tenx9 at The Black Box; prayed for our public leaders at our Prayer Breakfast; and celebrated Robbie Burns at Sacred Heart Parish. It has been an amazing time so far.

This week we catch the wind and pick up speed. This is an intensive week of another varied array of diary opportunities and different imaginative contributions to bringing our city together. These events are for those with a faith and those with none. Use the resource that 4 Corners Festival is while you can...

MONDAY - 4 CORNERS, 4 STORIES with Belfast Church Leaders @ 7:30pm, South Belfast Methodist Church,238 Lisburn Road

After getting behind the public definitions of some of our politicians at Stormont earlier in the Festival we turn to our Church leaders. Clergy across the denominations will tell us their stories and we will get behind the public labels that divide Christ and find  the common personal faith in Christ and how journeys in that faith differ but have Christ in common.


Reading from his recent book Sorry For Your Troubles we will find Padraig open up the stories of so many deeply impacted by our troubles. Empathy, catharsis and hope will find their way into an evening of brilliant poetry.


Jo Berry’s dad was killed in the Brighton bomb in October 1984. Pat Magee was one of the bombers. In recent years they have began a journey towards understanding one another. It is not a Hollywood ending but it is a stumbling route in reconciliation. This will be a fascinating evening and one we need to learn from if we are to find ways though our fractured friendships and deep hurts.

FRIDAY - WORSHIP IN THE WEST: “THAT ALL OF THEM MAY BE ONE”  @ 7.30pm Friday 31st January at St Oliver Plunkett’s Parish Church in Lenadoon

An invite to come across the Corners of Belfast where you worship God and join in an evening of praise in Lenadoon. Again from behind our different Churches we can find common fellowship in worship.

SATURDAY -  PEACE WALL PRAYERS - IS CHRIST DIVIDED @ 8.30am, Belfast City Hall and then 10.30am in all 4 Corners

The theme for Week of Prayer For Christian Unity is “Is Christ Divided?” Certainly our city is. So we are beginning the day at City Hall to pray for our 4 Corners. Then at 10.30 we are gathering on the fault lines to pray in places that need healing most. Please join us and join our city in prayer.

SATURDAY - WHERE THERE ARE STORIES THERE ARE SONGS (and POEMS) @ 8 in 174 Trust, Antrim Road, 156 Antrim Road

Songwriters Anthony Toner and Dave Thompson are joined by poet El Gruer to perform their work and chat about how place and stories influence their art. Three outstanding talents will entertainment and while we are mesmerised by their gifts we might learn something about ourselves and our city.  

here's the programme pdf... 


Mandela Long Walk To Freedom

If they had  filmed all of the dramatic scenes of Nelson Mandela’s life then they would had to have left a lot of it on the studio floor. It is hard to tell the story of a long walk to freedom in the short format of a movie. Historical movies are tricky enough to impress an audience who knows the story but with me writer William Nicholson and director Justin Chadwick had an extra challenge as I had lived in Mandela’s life and indeed many of their sets for many years. So, how did they do? I thoroughly enjoyed, was moved and picked up a few insights from what is a very fine movie. 

If we talk about the film first. The key for me is the performances of Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie. Knowing the story what the film makers had to do for me was give it another angle or another dimension. It was the emotional dimension that caught me. There was more than one occasion when I felt the tears well up. It was the personal cost of Mandela’s life that came through in both his relationship with Winnie and then his daughter Zindzi.

Inside the story then I was struck by the Winnie part of the story. It was perhaps the first time that had sympathy with her. Without doubt Winnie lost her way in the years that her husband was absent from her and the violence and volatility of every day South African life. Winnie became a victim of the world she lived in, the pressures from her own people and the torture dosed out on her by the enemy. It would have taken a super human strength of character to have come out of it in a way that wasn’t a little damaged.  Indeed, the question that haunted me for the first time was whether or not Nelson Mandela was “lucky” to have been on Robben Island. Now don’t get me wrong I have been on that island many times and have sensed the barbarity of how he and his fellow prisoners were treated. Yet, the boring familiarity of the torture he went through was perhaps not so tumultuous and allowed him to mentally control it better and the time to find a long walk to freedom? Maybe?

In the end of course the reason we have this story is that he did find that walk to freedom and not so much that he found it but what it looked like when he came out of prison. There are moments throughout the movie when we watch a facial expression of Mandela’s that shows how much he is reading situations and people. The Governor of Robben Island, his fellow prisoners and eventually FW De Klerk. Mandela’s genius was to connect with people, even his enemies, and be able to read them and work out how to strategically work with them instead of against them. All of that allowed him to be a leader. The scene where he tells them that while he is their leader he is going to lead them even when it is not popular is something that we long for in our leadership here in Northern Ireland.

It is difficult for someone from a divided community to watch a movie on Mandela without being challenged and inspired. Another of the angles that the editorial team did in this movie was to show at the beginning that the outcome was never just assumed. The hedonistic, philandering and at times hot headed Mandela of the first half hour matured into the icon he became. Even his view of God developed in the few scenes where God is the focus. God is absent if not inconvenient at the start but when he is dealing with De Klerk he recognises that God has them both in a role for a time such as this! In the end the story of a life is that with focus, reflection and discerning wisdom we can make a difference. Perhaps not this magnitude of difference but difference none the less. We are all on a long walk to freedom... Another powerful Mandela flick!


Moyes down

I have thought about writing this blog a few times this season. I have held back in case I ended up with egg on my face. I still might.

When Liverpool and Everton were having regular Wembley derby matches, I always dreamed of a day when City and United would do the same. I was sure it was going to happen in March. I was excited though the closer it got the more frightened I became. My second worst fear this season was that City would cram in a ton of records and win nothing! Worse than that I feared we might win the Treble... and lose to United in the Capital Cup Final! I also thought that that result might save Moyes career!

It has been difficult for me as a Manchester City fan to get used to the shift in default position from playing Macclesfield in the League only 15 years ago to being given a very good chance to beat Barcelona in the Champions League. We have broken records this year. People have called us the best team in the world and, though I doubt that we are, we are one of them. It takes a lot to get your head around it. To rid yourself of the 40 years of doubting. The doubting that still feared losing the Capital Cup to United. You still believe that when Fulham come back from 2 down to equalize that we are certain to lose and not, as we did, win 4-2! Real robust (and there are few more robust than Ya Ya Toure!) reason for belief has messed with our heads.

The look on the faces of United players, fans and former manager at the end of last night’s game against Sunderland suggested that they are having the same experience. United were the team that believed, who came back in the last minute to win. As a City fan I have experienced that last minute, injury time, indeed Fergie time, stab through the heart. That was the default. We City fans are getting our heads round belief while United fans are coming to terms with the reality of doubt. That was the reason for the stunned facial expressions tonight. All is different in the world of soccer; for now!

I have been amazed at the Facebook messages in recent days. People seem to all agree with what I have been saying for a couple of seasons; this is an average United team. The last two season in particular I have wondered, and in the end stood back in awe, as United took City to injury time on the last day of the season in 2012 and beat us by a country mile in 2013. In derby games, some of which United won (remember RVP’s last minute free kick!), I kept asking which United players would get into the City team and could only come up with Vidic and Van Persie. I could not actually understand it. Sir Alex’s genius was the only explanation. Last season’s canter to the title must rate as Fergie’s greatest moment. Apart from Van Persie going to United and not City the manager was the only reason.

That signing of Van Persie is a clue to one of the reasons that United have failed so spectacularly this season. In the summer of 2012 United got their man early and City didn’t. Lesson learned, City bought early in the summer of 2013 and that has been part of the genius that has us playing so well. That genius was learned from United. So why did United not learn from United and fail so badly to sign players last summer. I am mystified by that.

Back to the main reason. My old history teacher Big Bob Mitchell told us that a man’s strength was also his weakness. Sir Alex’s genius caused him to make his worst contribution to the history of Manchester United. Being able to do things in management that others simply cannot do, he failed to understand the second part of that sentence. He did not realise that bringing another manager in to manage the team he left was simply a recipe for disaster. He didn’t advise an investment in new players last summer. It is a huge error but understandable if you can do what he did with who he did it for. Just look at John O’Shea’s medal count and ask how that happened; Sir Alex’s genius!

So, what now? Well let us add to our defence of Moyes, if that is what this blog is, and say that even Alex would have struggled last season if Rooney and Van Persie had been injured for. If they get fit soon and Mata, and maybe one other world class player, signs as it seems is likely do not count United out of that Top 4. The title I believe is gone, even for the mythical United, but Top 4 might be how many find that egg on their face. Be sure that next season the lessons will have been learned and there will be some big spending done. United will be back soon. Will Moyes be in charge? Hard to say but I think it would be harsh to judge him on the legacy Sir Alex left him. If he is given free reign and a big budget and it is still as bad as this next January then it might be time to think hard. Personally, even as a City fan, I would love to see him make it work. I think it was one of United's most radical decisions to go for faithfulness and not the quick hit European manager merry go round.

To conclude, a sting in the tale for United fans. Don’t blame it on an unproven manager. Pelligrini has won nothing either (and of course still hasn't!!!!)! And it just might be that in the post Fergie era you will come to stop saying “City bought the title!” There will be some buying done from the currently “Quiet Neighbours” and it will mean they will get “Noisy” again! Bring it on and let’s do a Wembley derby next season!


Winter Trees

(I wrote this one afternoon at one of our favourite north coast haunts; Murlough Bay. Being winter thre trees stood out. I imagined their shaping by the wind of the sea and how the Holy Spirit was such a win blowing across my life. I had the privilege of joining it up with a lovely song by Sam Hill called Listen To the Breeze and it went on our album under the moniker Stevenson and Samuel called Grace Notes... I used this on Sunday morning in Fitzroy as a meditaive piece after the sermon...)

Winter trees on a north coast headland

That drops into Murlough bay

Asking mystical questions

With  the serenity of their gentle sway

And I'm fascinated by the mystery

Did God peer down then bending

Pencil sketch them in the cloak of darkness

Or the distraction of the sun descending

They are so skilfully shaped like dancers

So brilliantly and beautifully bent

And I’m sure there ain’t no short cut

But a long slow consistent dent

And what of my life landscape

Do I stand there the shape of intrigue

Evidence of what can’t be seen

Like these winter trees?

NAKED WORDS ARE DANGEROUS - Pause For Thought 21.1.14


(my Pause For Thought on Vanessa Feltz' BBC Radio 2 show this morning...)

Is it just me or have our recent forms of communication like Email and Texting highlighted how dangerous and impotent words can be. It seems to me that the starkness of typed words can cause misunderstanding and often times hurt. 

I have experienced the danger of naked words myself. I finally realised that naked words are dangerous. They can be bitter. They can be sharp. They can poison the heart. They can slit the soul. Naked words are dangerous. Even the slender swerve of the S or the gentle curl of the Y. Words are all letters and can feel so hard. Words need to be clothed in a smile or a touch. Love is impossible to type. Four letters  just cannot express the truth of what love is. Yes, naked words are impotent. They cannot convince. They cannot transform. They cannot change the world. Even the robust roll of the R or the powerful pout of the P. They are all letters and can be so cold.  

God knew about the inadequacy of naked words. So he breathed into the spaces between and gave them clothes. When God had already sent a very substantial email, in the 39 books of the Old Testament, he was aware that it was far from enough. Naked words had to be clothed in flesh. They had to come alive. They had to move into the neighbourhood. They had to be given warmth and facial expression. Words needed to be met and connected with... maybe even embraced. They had to be experienced. So Jesus was born as God’s word - flesh on. In Jesus, God’s words, were given life... with the power to transform and rebirth... to bring love and peace.  

In the same way, it will be the clothes of what we do that will dress the naked words we speak, or text or type today, that will dress our naked words so that they can get heard.


Roddy Cowie

(this is the script for 4 Corners Festival event in Fitzroy when Prof. Roddy Cowie opened up the Psychology of Peacemaking from the Sermon on the Mount. It was a superb presentation of astute Biblical exegesis, blended with articulate Psychology, leading to inspiring and challenging discipleship in peacemaking... Thank you Roddy for allowing us to print it... listen to the talk here...)

When I looked at the 4 Corners website, I found a very daunting looking title, then I realised that it was mine. In truth, the title is accurate enough, but all the same, the talk is about a very simple idea. I think there is a need for a Christian theory of peacemaking. I want to ask your help to develop one.

The phrase ‘Christian theory’ has two words, and both matter. When I say theory, bear in mind that Universities have been my natural habitat for 45 years. What I mean is a set of ideas that live up to the standards that you expect in a University. They should have a coherent structure, and they should be compatible with the knowledge that we have. When I say Christian, I mean first and foremost properly grounded in the insights of the Bible. I think it is extremely important that those two go together. There is a line that rings in my ears, from Augustine, writing about scientists who are expert in their fields, but not Christian. He says:

It is shameful and damaging and greatly to be avoided that such a one should hear a Christian talk utter nonsense about their fields, claiming to speak in accordance with Christian writings.  

I would be happy if people remembered me as someone who took that to heart. I think Christian intellectuals have a duty to work out how specifically Christian ideas integrate with the knowledge that we continue to accumulate by the exercise of the powers that God has given us.

That is by way of general background. Now let me go to peacemaking. I will start with my route into the area, and then come to the Bible.

My home discipline is psychology. I started doing research on it in 1972, and I still do. My focus for the last few decades has been emotion. The tradition I come from is probably not the one people know best. It starts from the assumption that most of what people think and do can be understood pretty clearly if you understand the job it is set up to do. The problems come if you don’t understand the job, and particularly if you don’t understand how complicated it is. I was asked to apply that kind of thinking to a project called compromise after conflict. I hope that the reason is fairly obvious. Emotions have a huge part to play in achieving the kind of compromise that leads to peace.

When I looked at the literature as a psychologist, a few things jumped out at me. The first is that compromise has to reckon with emotion as well as reason. It is one thing to say that a deal is in everyone’s interest, but if it makes people feel betrayed or humiliated, it probably won’t hold. The second is that the emotions involved are not just glows or chills. They have intimate links to your judgments about right and wrong. Judgments about right and wrong that are grounded in strong emotions are incredibly difficult to shift. Last but not least, the emotional climate that you are working in affects people’s ability to find solutions to the problems that create conflict.

When you talk about emotional climate, there is one feature that seems to loom very large in ours. It is a pervasive sense of threat. A lot of background tells us what effects that is likely to have, and we would expect them to obstruct the road to peace in a multitude of different ways.

To start with, if people see the world as a place full of threats, they may respond with anger at one extreme, or hopelessness at the other. We see plenty of those, one in public, the other in private. In between those extremes are fear and stress. We see plenty of those too.

What all those emotions do is set you up to deal with the threat, and push everything else aside. It starts from the very beginning – the way you see things locks onto what you see as threatening, and doesn’t register other things that are going on. Beyond that, fear drives you to avoid the thing that you’re afraid of, and so you never learn that it isn’t as threatening as you thought. Beyond that again, memory directs your attention towards things that were frightening in the past, and away from things that weren’t.

It goes on and on. You don’t take in the full meaning of what other people say to you. Your thinking becomes inflexible. You refuse to consider options unless they are totally clearcut, and you misjudge risks – you overestimate them if you’re afraid, and underestimate them if you’re angry. All of that is based on solid evidence, and there is much more – but I need to move on.

I thought about all that as a psychologist, and tried to apply it to our situation here in NI. You can see the gist of it in posts that I put on a blog organised by compromise after conflict. But when I talked to friends, they would not leave it there. They asked, and kept on asking: how does this link to Christian teaching? I gave them easy answers at first, but they would not let go – and eventually, I realised that they were right. And so I started into the territory that I want to talk about now.

Let me begin with the easy answers. The sermon on the mount tells us that “blessed are the peacemakers”. Therefore, obviously, if we can make peace, we should. Along with that, the commandment that occurs most often in the Bible is “don’t be afraid”. Therefore, obviously, if we can combat fear, we should. Those had been in my mind from the beginning. What my friends made me realise was that they were just a beginning. So let me try to take you deeper.

I will start by looking a bit more closely at “blessed are the peacemakers”. It is natural to think the point is that peacemaking is a worthy thing to do, and it is well rewarded. But on reflection, I don’t think that captures it at all. If we just look within the beatitudes, there are three things to notice. The first is where this comes in the beatitudes. It’s almost at the end – a kind of climax. Second, that’s underlined by the blessing that peacemakers receive – their place in the Kingdom is as members of the Royal family, which is a towering honour. Third, the relationship is to be huioi – not just children of the household (that would be tekna), but the sons whose nature is a true reflection of the father’s.

It is a short step from there to remember that the Bible does, over and over, portray it as God’s nature to bring peace. One of my favourites among the psalms, psalm 29, describes God in the fury of the storm, but it ends: The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. Isaiah over and over puts peace at the centre of God’s will for creation: they will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain. Paul at his most poetic writes to the Philippians “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And of course, peace is at the centre of Isaiah’s promise of the Messiah who will reflect God fully: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Looking at all that, and much more, I don’t think the point in the beatitudes is that God rewards peacemaking. I think it is that to be a bringer of peace – true peace – is to have characteristics that reflect God’s. That is why peacemakers are huioi – children who reflect the father’s nature. That points us straight to a new level. What are the characteristics that enable people to bring peace?

When I ask that question, I find myself looking through the lens of what I know as a psychologist. And I come up short. I’m sure you all know that the Beatitudes begin the Sermon on the Mount. With that in mind, I read on through the sermon, and lo and behold: I realised that I was being pointed over and over to the kind of person who might have the power to bring peace. It is if Jesus told us in a phrase at the beginning of the sermon what the children of God will be like: they will be people who are by nature bringers of peace. Then through the sermon he expands, and lets us see them characteristic by characteristic. So let me follow through on that idea.



Let me begin this stage with something that I’ve raised already. I talked about the way threat – and the emotions that it generates – set obstacles to peace. I also mentioned that the commandment that occurs most often in the Bible is “don’t be afraid”. You may have read that it occurs 365 times, but that is a myth. In reality there are about 80 clear cases and 30 close approximations.[i] But the exact number is a side issue. What matters is that those whose nature is a true reflection of the father’s will also say, don’t be afraid. And the psychology makes it very clear that if we deal with fear, we ease away a major tangle of obstacles to finding peace.

Now let me reconnect, as I promised, with the Sermon on the Mount. When you look with these ideas in mind, you find that the theme of fear and counteracting fear plays a huge part in it. It comes to prominence in the last two thirds, that is chapters six and seven. About half of the material in those chapters deals with fear and anxiety, and what causes them, and what banishes them. It pivots on the end of chapter 6: Take no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Before that, in chapter 6, we have: lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal. Then come the lilies of the field: if God so clothe the grass of the field, shall he not all the more clothe you, o ye of little faith?  After the pivot, we have Ask, and it shall be given to you: seek, and ye shall find; and we have the man who built his house on rock, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not.

I hope I don’t need to elaborate. Jesus is spelling out one way after another to deal with fear. You don’t need to fear, because you can lay up treasure in heaven. You don’t need to fear, because the world is generous, and the things you need will come to you. You don’t need to fear, because your prayers will be answered. You don’t need to fear, because when trouble comes, what matters to you will stand firm. People who have understood those messages are in a position to be peacemakers, because they are not troubled in themselves, and their assurance flows into the people they meet. Nothing calms fear so much as seeing that the person next you is not afraid. And of course, it is even more powerful if you can share the understanding that lies behind your assurance.

There is another point that I will make briefly at this stage, because it links to fear. I had the pleasure of meeting George Mitchell at a dinner once. He is surely a man worth looking at if we want to understand peacemaking. What sticks most clearly in my mind is that even at dinner, he said nothing unnecessary or unconsidered. I was left in no absolutely no doubt that what he said was what he meant. It suddenly seemed obvious why he was an outstanding negotiator. You had the sense that what he said was to be trusted. It was neither frippery nor slippery – and you need not fear that you would be misled, either by design or by accident. And so I find it no surprise that in the sermon on the mount, there is a verse that always makes me think of Mitchell: Let your communication be yea, yea; or nay, nay. We know from elsewhere that the elaborations Jesus rejects are full of tricks. It you want to be a peacemaker, keep away from them: be like George Mitchell. 

Now let me move to the next level. The first time I talked about this area as a psychologist, one of the points that I tried to highlight was that emotions morph into moral judgements. You see something, and it shakes you. It is a very short step from there to the judgment that it was wrong. Once you’ve made that step, your room for manoeuvre vanishes. It is not just hard to tolerate – you mustn’t tolerate it. And in the blink of an eye, your space for peacemaking has shrunk. Yet again, when I looked through that lens, I found the theme was waiting for me in the sermon on the mount. Like fear, it is a theme that comes back at various points, and gives us a subtle picture.

At the centre of the theme is a principle that seems to me psychologically very striking: don’t base your actions towards other people on moral judgments. The most famous statement of the principle is “Judge not that ye be not judged” (7:1). That has various levels of meaning, but for a peacemaker, there is a very simple one. Once you move into the domain of moral judgments, you can be fairly sure that your adversary will be able to find a moral counter-argument. And once you have made a moral argument, is very hard to back off it, because nobody wants to make an agreement that violates what they themselves have said are moral principles. 

There is a complicated secular literature behind those points. Part of it is to do with the fact that long efforts to track down an agreed basis for human moral judgments have failed. Principles that seem completely obvious to one person seem like nonsense to another. That means that if a judgment is contentious, it is almost always possible to find some sets of principles that imply it is right, and some that imply it is wrong. That links to the way people move from the judgement that they don’t like something to the judgment that it’s wrong. A very plausible tradition says that they look for principles that line up behind their likes and dislikes. The result is that when people have different gut reactions to something that matters to them, it is very likely that the gut reactions will have pushed them to strengthen different moral principles. And once people are pushed into positions where they are arguing from different moral principles, finding a resolution becomes monstrously difficult. Another body of literature tells us that the minute people state a position explicitly, the chances that they will change it plummet. So absolutely, for a peacemaker, there are abundant reasons to remember judge not that ye be not judged.

There is a lot more to say on this, but I’ll make two points and move on. The first is that it isn’t just moral judgements that are a problem. Jesus says: “Whosoever shall say ‘thou fool’ shall be in danger of gehenna” (5.22). That also links quite tightly to the argument that I’ve just given. Particularly when there are moral issues at stake, it is deadly if you think that the only reason why someone might disagree with you is that they’re stupid. The word in Matthew is moré, which means a dull lump. If you want peace, don’t go there.

To close this part, there is a shift of level that it’s important to see. I have said that there are negative consequences if you let judgment govern your actions. But that doesn’t mean your motive should be trying to avoid bad consequences – that would be another way of letting fear dictate your choices. So it is no surprise to see that Jesus gave another motive. He tells his listeners, that’s not the way God does it: “Your father makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.” (4:45) That gives you a very different motive: be like God: be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. And of course, that links back too. I have said over and over that to be a bringer of peace – true peace – is to have characteristics that reflect God’s. So if you want peace, be like God, and don’t base your actions towards people on moral judgments.

The next step in the argument follows on naturally. If you don’t base your actions towards other people on moral judgments, what do you base them on? And I think there are two parts to the answer.

The first part is to think symmetrically: see that what goes for you goes for the other party. Jesus is very good with arguments involving symmetry, and two of the most famous come in the sermon on the mount.  One is, take the plank out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your brother’s. The other is “Do unto others as you would that others do unto you”(7:12).



Of course, symmetry as a principle for peace is one that we know very well. For every benefit that one side gets, the other side must have an equal benefit; for every pain that one side suffers, the other side must have an equal pain; and on, and on. It has been the founding principle of our peace since the Good Friday agreement fifteen years ago. Looking around, there is no shortage of unease that somehow, peace by symmetry has not worked out. As usual, I don’t think that should be too much of a surprise.

I’ve said that Jesus is very good with arguments involving symmetry, but that includes seeing very clearly where they go wrong. Think of the vineyard where the workers are hired at different times, and get the same generous pay at the end of the day. The desire for symmetry becomes poisonous: the ones who were hired first are soured because it isn’t equal pay per hour. Think of the Prodigal Son. Again, the desire for symmetry becomes poisonous: the elder son is soured because of an unequal celebration. Jesus knows very well that simple symmetry can bring division every bit as much as peace. Well, what would you expect from symmetry?

What Jesus points to in the sermon on the mount is more than simple symmetry. He asks people to offer their part of a good symmetry. You know how you would *like* people to behave to you? Then act that way, and trust that by symmetry, they will be drawn into acting that way too. You want your brother to see clearly? Then do what is needed to correct your own sight, and trust that by symmetry, he will be drawn to let his sight be dealt with. In that way, there is a chance of using symmetry as a tool for peace, instead of becoming a source of poison.

If symmetry is one principle that Jesus takes and turns in a distinctive way, much the same can be said of another. It is empathy. Empathy is emotional identification with a person – not just knowing intellectually that they are like you, but feeling their happiness as your happiness, their pain as your pain. That brings me to the second part of the answer to the question I asked earlier: if you don’t base your actions towards other people on moral judgments, what do you base them on?

Empathy has emerged as a major theme over the last few decades, not just in one discipline, but in several. The historian Jonathan Glover argued that failure of empathy was what allowed the atrocities of the twentieth century. On the other side, it has become clear that empathy is the key to altruism – that is, doing things because they benefit other people, not for your own good. Recently, Simon Baron-Cohen has argued that the hallmark of people we call evil is zero empathy. I could go on, you get the point. There is every reason to think that the ability to empathise is critical to peacemaking.

Quite characteristically, Jesus sees the point, and takes it a step further. He tells us not just to feel our enemies’ happiness as our own, and their pain as our own, but to love them. (5:44). I know that when I put it that way, I am raising issues. Some of the things that we call love don’t involve empathy. But the word Jesus uses here is agape, and that carries with it a sense of sharing and positive evaluation. It is not mindless passion – it blends judgment and warmth and interaction. It means, see your enemy as someone you would be glad to welcome as a dinner guest – one of your own.

Remember that I am a psychologist who works on emotion. It seems to me that that is a very acute judgment. Making peace is not just about an intellectual sense of symmetry with the person on the other side, or even with the emotional symmetry of empathy. It is about engaging with the person on the other side as someone you would welcome as your guest – one of your own.



There still themes that I would like to follow up, but time is finite. But there is one theme that I have to touch before I try to pull things together. It goes back close to the beginning of the sermon on the mount. Jesus says there: You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. (5:14). I don’t pretend it’s obvious what he means, but I know what I think. I think it means that we can’t hide. If we are like our father who is perfect, then we will be seen, and we will be drawn into the work of making peace. It is not a choice. It is God’s nature to make peace, and if we share his nature, then will be drawn into the work of making peace.

Now let me come back to the place I started. I said I thought there was a need for a Christian theory of peacemaking, and that I wanted your help to develop one. So let me sketch what the position looks like.

I’ve said that I see it, for a Christian, being a peacemaker is not a worthy action: it is a consequence of reflecting the father’s nature. To be that kind of person is to have overcome the sense of threat, which is a fundamental enemy to peace, and to be able to help others to move past it. It is to speak plainly and clearly so that you can be trusted. It is to understand how dangerous it is to judge people you disagree with, morally or intellectually. It is to be capable thinking symmetrically, so that you always see that what goes for you goes similarly for the other party. But beyond that, it is to see that not all symmetry will work for peace. The symmetry that works for peace is to act your part in the balance that you know should exist, and trust that others will be drawn into acting that way too. Beyond that, making peace depends not only on symmetry grasped as an intellectual principle, but also on emotion. At the first level, that means empathy - feeling our enemies’ happiness as our own, and their pain as our own. But in Christian peacemaking, it means more: it means seeing your enemy as someone whose virtues are dear to you, and who you would be glad to welcome as a dinner guest. Last but not least, these things are not choices. If you reflect the father’s nature, then you reflect it openly.

I said, if you remember, that I thought there was a need for a Christian theory of peacemaking, and that I wanted your help to develop one. I think that what I have said is the beginning of a theory. It is something that we can say without embarrassment to the community at large: look, this is what we can offer to the long project of bringing peace – not just to Northern Ireland, but to humanity. It is not fanciful. It fits with what we know from many sources. However, it is very much a start.

The theme that I have left out of the sermon on the mount is merciless self-criticism. I have no doubt at all that that is also central to peacemaking. And so I end with Jesus at his least conciliatory: if your right eye offends you, pluck it out. Our theories are the intellectual eyes through which we see the world. And if our theories are flawed, then we should set about them with a will.

I absolutely think that should apply to what I’ve said here. Developing a theory of peace that is both Christian and credible is much too important to leave any room for complacency. That is why I was dead serious when I said I wanted your help to develop one. Please take what I’ve said, and pull it to bits, and see what’s wrong, and what’s missing. But don’t stop there. Put it together again, and make it work. Because if nothing else, I am very sure of this. Jesus was absolutely serious when he said “Blessed are the peacemakers”. If we care about his blessing, we have to care about peace.