Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered at Belfast City Hall to support a pair of events that aimed to restore hope and calm to a city rocked by pre-Christmas protests and riots. As has been well-documented, the disturbances have been sparked by the City Council’s decision to fly the union flag only on designated days.
The first was Saturday morning’s Peace Prayer, which I attended at the dusky hour of 8.30 am. It was simply five minutes of silent prayer, after which participants dispersed.
The second was Sunday morning’s Peace Rally, held between 11 am and noon. At the close of the rally, those present were encouraged to make as much noise as possible, to make the point that the voices of ‘the peaceful silent majority’ (as organizer Paul Currie put it) have not had their voices heard.
An editorial in today’s Belfast Telegraph bears the simple headline: ‘Prayers for Peace Must Be Answered.’
So whether our political parties can conjure up a statement, policy or an action that resembles an answer to prayer remains to be seen.
In an age of apathy and cynicism, it is of course natural to wonder if events like the peace rallies really matter, or if they impact on those with the power to engage meaningfully with the deeper issues that lie behind the flag protests. Then there are those who would dismiss the rallies as the self-righteous action of middle-class do-gooders.
In particular, the prayer rally leaves churches and Christian activists open to charges of hypocrisy. This is due to the institutional churches’ inability to own up to their own roles in contributing to division throughout our history, all the way up to the present.
As Rev Steve Stockman, the minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast, pointed out on his blog, it was a younger generation of Christian activists who organised the prayer rally. Is this, in and of itself, a (hopeful) sign that younger Christians may be willing to engage differently than their elders in the public sphere?
Similarly, writing last week on my own blog, I said that the impact of ‘statements’ by church leaders seems increasingly irrelevant ‘… in a context in which the influence of churches is rapidly declining in everyday life.’ I added that ‘…in a context in which the churches have not (in my analysis) seriously and systematically confessed their role in propping up this island’s sectarian system – such statements almost always get dismissed or drowned out in the general clamour.’
For me, the non-violent, public action of the prayer rally is an example of Christian activists (finally) giving up on assuming moral authority and instead using more humble and therefore appropriate methods. Such methods implicitly assume cooperation with secular allies and carry no expectation that religious voices will be privileged over any others in the public sphere.
The Telegraph editorial rather vaguely and generically concludes that, ‘…people at all levels will need to work much harder to prevent further protests.’
Indeed, two peace rallies – no matter how powerful those who attended found the experiences to be – is only a beginning of a process, should it develop, that could:
- encourage policy makers to engage meaningfully with the underlying issues that have made the flag controversy so dramatic, including the failure to ‘deal with the past’ in a systematic way and the failure to articulate an inspiring vision for a ‘shared future’
- encourage the so-called silent majority to re-engage in politics despite the structures of our political system, which to a large extent excludes people who do not want to vote for an ethno-nationalist based party
But the real point of the peace rallies, it seems to me, is less about provoking others out there — like politicians or flag protesters — to do something differently. It is more about people asking themselves what they might do themselves to build a better future.
It could be said that this is happening slowly and tentatively in the church sector through the musings of Stockman (and others) about how the churches and Christian activists might re-think their public role. Doubtless there are other examples from other spheres. But it may take some time for such efforts to reach a ‘critical mass’ across varied sectors of civil society.
Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com