Moving to be rector of a small country parish in Co Down in 1989, one of my first and most urgent tasks was to try to support a family threatened by the IRA. The woman’s first husband had been a policeman who had been murdered by the IRA and her second husband, another policeman, realized his life was in danger when he was advised that a stranger had been seen photographing their house and car. It was a stark and immediate reminder of the daily reality of life for many people at the time.
There was hardly a family in that farming community of ninety Church of Ireland families that had not been touched by the Troubles, whatever claims the IRA made about their campaign being against “British rule,” it was ordinary Protestant people who felt the brunt of it. Many of the people who suffered most during the Troubles were those who had also been disadvantaged by the decades of Unionist rule; in the city of Belfast, the lot of working class Protestants had been little better that of their Roman Catholic counterparts.
The news of the death of Martin McGuinness brought memories of visiting families whose loved ones were remembered in photographs on the sideboard, those whose attendance at church took them past the graves of those who had been shot or bombed. Yet I read a piece by the Revd Trevor Morrow, a former moderator of the Presbyterian church, who recalled the McGuinness of recent times and how he had welcomed the opportunity to share in prayer. I recalled a recent interview with Ian Paisley Junior and how he spoke of how his father and Martin McGuinness had prayed together.
The Good Friday story tells us a story of forgiveness of the dying thief; it tells us the story of God’s forgiveness of each one of us, the story of Jesus standing in our place so that we do not receive the punishment we deserve. A man in the North once said to me, “”Ian, there are two sorts of people in the world: there are sinners saved by grace, and there are sinners.” Of course, only God can judge us, but if the Revd Trevor Morrow and Dr Ian Paisley believed McGuinness to be a sinner searching for grace, then who are we to question?
Perhaps Martin McGuinness is a reminder to us that we all need God’s grace, that we all need to turn from our own ways. The Good Friday story reminds us that death is not the end, that the way is opened to a life beyond this one – a life where our old divisions are forever set aside.