Prof John Brewer officially retired from Queen's University Belfast this past week. John has been a huge influence and friend to Fr Martin Magill and myself in our efforts at peace making. This is my blog from 10 years ago, a day or two after John had spoken in Fitzroy. I repost it as my own Tribute.
Professor John Brewer’s talk at Fitzroy’s monthly Faith On Trial, on Sunday night, was fascinating, inspiring and at times controversially confrontational. Brewer is the now the Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen University, Belfast and as a sociologist has spent a lot of time researching religion and the Northern Irish Troubles.
John's last two books are a case in point; Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland (with Francis Teeney and Gareth Higgins), Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland (with David Mitchell and Gerard Leavey). Both books are of huge importance to a group of disciples of Jesus, like the one who met on Sunday night, as they ask how to engage with our peculiar Northern Irish divisions.
Brewer began this particular night with various readings from the latter of these two books. Before that, he laid out the Biblical context of such a book with a reading of the sheep and the goats parable of Jesus in Matthew 25. His clear call from this passage was that Jesus would have been in tough places and that prisons, included in that Gospel text, were tough places. His conclusion was that a group of Church going activists would want to be where Jesus called us to and that this passage linked us with the ex-combatants of both the loyalist and republican movements.
His readings from the Ex Combatants... book were fascinating. Both loyalist and republican communities had a rich social imagings of religion deep down. For some it was a reason to be involved in the cause. One Catholic combatant quoted, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice” from Jesus Beatitudes as a reason to be involved in the movement.
Others spoke of how they believed that faith in God had helped them through the hard times of prison or even protected them in cars riddled with bullets. Some prayed for all prisoners and prison wardens even though they admitted that had they had guns they would have shot those whom they were praying for.
Yet others testified to finding Christian faith as a conversion moment away from the violence. Brewer added that a lot of guilt and shame of past actions was down to religious belief. These combatants had not a lot of good things to say about the Church. They felt that they were shunned and seen as scum by the Church of the Jesus who made clear that those who entered heaven would ne the visitors of the prisoner!
That other book, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, had been critical of the established Church’s involvement in peace and reconciliation.Brewer was keen to make a distinction between some Church people being very involved and the Church establishment’s lack of leadership. He differentiated between “prophetic presence” and “prophetic leadership.”
Indeed he recognized that he was in Fitzroy a church that had been a “prophetic presence” but he was provocatively asking where the main Churches had been in opening up public conversations about forgiveness and hope. Were we prepared to go into those tough places and hear these stories that he was sharing tonight and be surprised at the influence of religion on those wrapped up in the violence of our past, to engage and bring grace and personal and social reconciliation to such people; people, that we need to remember from Brewer’s Biblical text, Jesus was keen to be around.
My thoughts? I believe that Brewer’s work is very important to the Christian response to the Troubles and the post conflict work of reconciliation. I have long been concerned that we are too complacent in this “peace time”. I have concerns over our established Church’s desire to be involved.
Fitzroy has been an anathema for many other Presbyterians simply by being involved in the tough places. I am not confident that the establishment will give a strong or prophetic lead out of fear of being damned liberal or ecumenical or other words used to stone those passionate about this Biblical mandate.
To counter that, I guess, my predecessor in Fitzroy, Ken Newell, was elected Moderator but I doubt that that would happen now. I also need to add that leaders in Presbyterianism have been present in the recent flags protest though I am not sure how courageous or imaginative or radical the prophetic leadership role.
For me personally I am convinced that I have more freedom, and perhaps less media or church distractions, by going under the radar in being a “prophetic presence.” Having said that fear of my denomination and the media have caused me to compromise my following of Jesus into the tough places many times.
To go back to the spiritual wisdom of the republican quoted earlier. I would strongly argue that he had the outworking of his Biblical exegesis wrong in using it for violence and murder but I think his actual exegesis was shrewd and the reason that Brewer is a long way away from experiencing his desired established Church involvement.
It might be down to that quotation, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice...” Most translations have translated that word “justice” as “righteousness.” However, the republican has a surprising theological buddy in the eminent Reformed scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff argues convincingly in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs that the Greek here might be closer to justice than righteousness.
That of course changes emphasis from personal piety to, a more in keeping with Calvin’s dream, social redemption. While we can be distracted in the personal the mess and struggle of the tough places can be excused. What is of no doubt whatever after tonight is that it is time for some of us to give a opportunity for listening.
It is time for Churches like Fitzroy to engage in meaningful grace driven ways. To be accused of being cold to and dismissive of these ex combatants is an indictment on the Gospel and much more like the goats than the sheep in Matthew 25.
Could I ask of Professor Brewer that these two valuable books might be made available at a price that a minister or any other Christian for that matter can afford. Books like these should have a wider audience and influence than just in the Academy.
I would love to read Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland but haven’t £50 to spend on such things. I found Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland very helpful in a series of talks I gave in the U.S. last year but had to borrow it from the Union College library. I found it so helpful that I would like it as an everyday reference.
To conclude can I add that when I first asked for the said book, a book that criticised the established Church’s involvement in reconciliation, the Presbyterian library didn’t have it and had to order it in! Oh dear! Maybe the thesis of the book proven in where the book wasn’t stocked!