Someone was murdered in Northern Ireland.
The killers are believed to be terrorists.
These are the bare facts and they could have been plucked randomly from the headlines of any paper over the past 40 years. Switched off yet? Even the words ‘Northern Ireland’ sometimes do that. Familiarity breeds contempt. Not this again. But behind every one of the 3,000 deaths in the Troubles lies a unique story.
‘Story’ is a word I’m forever hearing these days. Everyone loves stories. But then we always have. Stories run deep and connect us with something personal, almost touchable. The acoustics change when a lecture, news report or conversation turns into a story. Facts engage our brain but stories – they connect with our heart.
Increasingly our modern lives can feel a bit semi-detached, half-here and half-not; one eye on a screen, our minds multi-tasking, working, talking, listening and composing our latest hilarious tweet. But stories still have the power to draw us in completely to another place.
Our story is hard to tell. I could try to weave history, culture, religion and nationality into a colourful Ulster tapestry. But this would completely miss the nuanced threads of our everyday life.
Growing up here you are subconsciously taught to make lots of tiny judgements every day. Little things. Subtle things. A shared and silent language. Someone’s name, address and accent, the school they went to, the newspapers they buy and the sports they follow – all form inferences of being from one side or the other. One side is then cast as familiar, trustworthy, safe and right. The other as foreign, deceptive, dangerous and wrong.
Our story is also hard to tell because it’s so long and complicated. It moves from the conflicting plots of the political macro-narrative right down to the account of an individual’s life and death. An individual like James Morgan – a 16-year-old schoolboy walking down a country road in the summer of 1997. He was abducted, beaten to death with a claw hammer and set on fire. Police divers recovered his body from a pit used to dump animal carcasses.
James was killed for being a Catholic.
Or an individual like David Black, killed recently just because of his career choice, the threads on his back, a prison officer’s uniform. This family’s pain and disbelief is a story just beginning. Random, senseless. Blood, violence and death. A hair’s breadth from hopelessness.
But stay with me.
Just when the Goliaths of brutality and despair threaten to overbear, we recall threads of hope. Like the story at Darkley on 20 November 1983. Deep in the rolling hills of South Armagh, a small Pentecostal congregation met to worship at their little wooden church. As they sang the opening hymn, Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?, gunmen arrived. When they left minutes later, 40 shots had been fired and three elders left dead.
They were killed for being Protestants.
The Catholic Bishop of Armagh visited one of the victims’ wives the day after the killing and he recalled how the first word on her lips was ‘forgiveness’. And with those three syllables, profoundly spoken from the reality of blood, violence and death, we see the beginnings of hope.
We recently remembered those killed by the IRA in the Enniskillen bombing. It was Remembrance Day 1987 and hundreds gathered to remember those fallen in war. A sudden and indiscriminate explosion killed 11 people. One of them was a nurse called Marie Wilson. Her father Gordon held her hand as she lay and died in the rubble, life robbed from her. That night he prayed for those who had murdered his daughter saying: “It’s part of a greater plan, and God is good. And we shall meet again.” The story of hope larger than life.
The stories that emerged from Darkley and Enniskillen prophetically showed that the cycle of violence could be broken and that peace was possible. But there’s still a lot of nothing today where living, breathing and laughing people should be. This is difficult stuff, in fact in a place so tribalised, it would almost be easier if we could have a brand new identity. Or even be born again….
Jesus-followers are called to live within this tangle of faith, politics and culture. Bearers of hope in the middle of despair. Words like forgiveness, peace and reconciliation take on a new meaning, a true meaning with Christ at the centre. We are called to live out kingdom citizenship above our cultural, political or religious upbringing. First century Jews struggled with this just like 21st century Christians and it is not unique to Northern Ireland.
Now this doesn’t mean we withdraw and live piously in the clouds or cloisters. As citizens of the UK, Ireland or both we can’t abdicate responsibility, we must engage meaningfully, peaceably and selflessly in the turbulence around us. But rather than focusing on the diametric of defending the United Kingdom or seeking a united Ireland, could we inhabit a third space – seeking first God’s kingdom? What would the first steps of this even look like?
Well, first, making peace is risky. Be prepared for ridicule. Peacemakers might be called the sons of God but they will also be called naive and a whole lot worse.
Second, imagine if Christian leaders began to develop real relationships with those on different sides of the political divide. Acting out of an attitude of forgiveness, respect and love and always pointing to Christ. I can audibly hear the shouts of ‘naivety’ ringing in my ears. ‘It will only work if it’s reciprocated, we’ll be walked/paraded over, used as door mats, only on these pre-conditions….’ But if some wives and fathers of those murdered can choose to forgive, is it so far-fetched to believe that others could do likewise? When you’ve heard someone tell you their story, shared a coffee with them and met their family, you still may not agree with them politically. But there is at least a relationship for dialogue.
Finally, unless we begin to deal with the past, it will dictate our present and hold the future captive. Trying to move Northern Ireland forward while largely ignoring the past is like trying to treat a cancer with a sticking plaster. The legacy process will be painful, uncomfortable and those in government might have the most to lose but we need to do something.
This is only a snapshot of our story; a tumbling jumble of threads. But it’s not the end. My challenge to you is to tell our story, the inescapable violence but also the inescapable hope … and to play your part as it unfolds.
Image by David Berry/Shutterstock