“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Ephesians 2:14
The marching season in the North reached its climax last Monday; the day brought with it an innovation. The city centre stores in Belfast opened once the parade was past. A BBC interviewer asked people for their reactions—most were in favour, but one Loyalist lady was less than impressed. “I don’t like it”, she said, “this was our day”. Her words were an expression that she believed that the public holiday was part of her tradition and that the people from her tradition were now being pushed aside .
It is not only particular days that particular groups assume belong to themselves; it is also particular places in history. On both sides of the community in the North, there are those who believe themselves to be the victims of thirty years of violence while the other side were the aggressors. The controversy that arose from Lord Eames’ report stems from the belief that the fault lay with the other side.
Perhaps there will never be a full resolution of the Northern divisions, and never normal politics on this island, without some sort of full-scale truth and reconciliation commission which allows anyone who wishes to do so to make a submission; which gives a voice to those who feel that their views are being ignored, including people like the lady who didn’t like the shops being opened.. Given the massive costs of inquiries and tribunals that have been held in this country, and their general failure to produce any results, it would seem wise to question whether an Irish truth commission would achieve anything, other than letting people tell their own story. But perhaps allowing people to tell their story is an important thing to do, even if it does cost the nation money.
Telling one’s story can be important in healing memories. It was a realization that came to me a couple of years ago in an exchange of emails with friends about school days.
Our school was a special one for people with asthma and frail health. It was not cheap, back in the mid-1970s, fees were around £2,000 a year, as much as a working man was earning. Fees were paid by local authorities, who deemed a special education necessary because each of us had missed so much time at ordinary schools.
The school was run by fundamentalist Christians who regarded it as their duty to educate us in their faith. Morning assemblies, evening epilogues, worship twice every Sunday, no opportunity was missed to preach to us their version of the Gospel. Their work was presented to us as charitable; we were reminded of the generosity of those who had established the trust that had founded the school; there was never any reference to the fact that it was the taxes of working people that were funding the whole operation.
In the first decade after leaving, I had a very benign view of the school, I might not have agreed with their theology, but they sought to do the best they could. Thirty-odd years after leaving, it is hard to be so sanguine.
I recall no real physical abuse, the odd staff member might have been over-enthusiastic in punishments, but there was nothing systematic in the way that occurred in some Irish schools. There was persistent bullying, to which the staff mostly turned a blind eye, as was normal in the 1970s. More seriously, there was an ongoing emotional and psychological battering. Staff considered it reasonable to have strange and arbitrary rules – I once had to clean the gym for three days because a friend lent me his football boots to play in a match. They considered it reasonable to subject us to a borstal-like regime. They considered it reasonable to constantly preach a religion that regarded even most Christians as doomed to eternal damnation.
If it had not been for a saintly few, whom I remember as Christians despite their theology, it would have been an intolerable experience.
A friend in England told me that she had learned to forgive people, otherwise it would be very difficult to get up every morning. Perhaps she is right and that one should simply forgive and let go; I was clever enough to mostly evade, avoid and get around the excesses of the regime, but I remember boys with terror in their eyes. Perhaps, I thought, a chance at the truth would not have been a bad thing.
If truth is important to memories of a small, long-closed school; might not it help communities filled with memories of violence, violence that extends from the inflammatory words of preachers to the murders of the paramilitaries?
Truth and reconciliation are not easy processes; the point is made clearly in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul writes, that Jesus, “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” The peace process of which Paul writes comes not through any comfortably concluded agreements, but in Jesus setting aside the old way of doing things, Jesus setting out to create a single humanity so that he “might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross”.
The peace process in the letter to the Ephesians is one that includes everyone, not just the peaceably minded, but those who feel alienated, those who feel their traditions are being pushed aside. Jesus “came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near”. It is very easy to forget those who are ‘far off’ from what we believe, to think that we can have a new Ireland built simply on a consensus of those who stand on the middle ground. This applies as much here as in the North. Look at the number of hard Left-wing candidates elected last month; there are a lot of people who feel alienated, a lot of people who feel trodden on; a lot of people who feel that those in power do not care about them.
A reconciled society is one where everyone’s voice is heard; no matter how much we may disagree with them. It is one where people have a chance to voice their grievances and their hurts, and to tell their version of the truth. It is one where every person counts, not because we are trying to be liberal or inclusive, but because each person is someone for whom Jesus died. Paul says to his readers that they all have a place, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God”.
In Jesus “the whole structure is joined together” says Paul. He is the one who is able to hold together opponents and enemies. Jesus’ response to the protest of the lady who did not like the way the Twelfth had changed would not be to exclude her as a voice from the past, but to tell her that there is also a place for her in the future.
“He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall”.