Can the Churches Provide a Vision? Prof John Brewer on Religion, Conflict & Peace

john-brewerAre churches – in concert with other groups in civil society –better placed than our politicians to articulate a vision for the future that is gracious and hopeful?

John Brewer, Professor of Post Conflict Studies at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s, thinks so. He has been among those contributing to discussions on the present role of our churches, which has gathered some momentum after the disturbances on the 12th.

Brewer’s interventions have included a blogged invitation to the Orange Order to start rethinking and remaking its role, and repeated calls to the universities to make their expertise available to church, civic and community leaders who are interested in constructive dialogue.

Brewer was on the platform last night at Féile an Phobail, with a lecture on ‘Religion, Conflict and Peace in the North of Ireland,’ at Oliver Plunkett Parish Hall.

The lecture encompassed research published in two recent books: Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland and Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland.  

Brewer acknowledged that there’s a commonly held view that the churches ‘did nothing’ to contribute to peacemaking during the Troubles, serving merely as chaplains to the tribe and making division worse.

Part of the achievement of Religion, Civil Society and Peace was providing empirical evidence that this was not the case; for example through highlighting the behind-the-scenes work of priests at Clonard Monastery, the self-critical activism of Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), and the courageous example of individuals.

Having said that, in the book and in this lecture, Brewer reiterated his finding that the ‘institutional churches’ were largely impotent as peacemakers – engaging in ‘speechifying’ rather than getting stuck in to the more difficult work at the coal face —  which means that now, as then:

‘The institutional churches have no legitimacy. … The institutional churches are incapable of helping us to inherit a shared future.’

Brewer claimed that the churches have ‘evacuated the public sphere’ on most issues related to peacebuilding and reconciliation, and that this is obvious in relation to its relationships with ex-combatants.

Indeed, some of the most important findings of Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace were that in no cases did the witness of the institutional churches encourage combatants to forsake violence for peaceful methods, and that in many cases combatants and ex-combatants felt stigmatized and rejected by the churches, who they felt considered them ‘scum.’

Brewer said that in light of what the Bible has to say about the merciful treatment of prisoners, these seems an issue that the churches could bring to the public sphere, but:

‘The churches are not envisioning a shared future for us or saying ex-combatants should be part of it.’

This statement is no doubt controversial, and an understandable response might be that Christian advocacy for ex-combatants would be insensitive to victims and re-traumatize them.

While this was not a major focus of the lecture and discussion that followed, Brewer did cite an ongoing survey research project which revealed that in Northern Ireland, victims (those who had been directly harmed or had a person close to them harmed) were more tolerant of ex-combatants and less likely to advocate punitive measures against them (such as forcing them to emigrate or pay reparations).

Brewer said that this tendency may be linked to victims’ capacity for empathy, having suffered themselves, and suggested that their gracious example – while not always reflected in the public speeches of some victims’ group leaders – could serve as ‘moral beacons’ for the rest of us.

What remains interesting to me about Brewer’s work is that despite his consistent criticism of the ‘institutional churches’, he remains convinced that they can transform themselves, reoccupy the civil sphere, and provide some sort of example and direction for a better future. Brewer’s optimism about this may be rooted in comparative research on the role of institutional churches elsewhere, such as South Africa or Poland, which demonstrates that institutions aren’t always so hopelessly constrained that they can do nothing.

Having said that, Brewer lamented that this generation has not yet seemed to find its Alec Reids, Ken Newells, David Porters and John Dunlops. When it does, he said, he hoped those leaders would cooperate with a broader base of civil society activists than the previous generation, which he felt constrained its effectiveness through a ‘go it alone’ approach that centred too exclusively on Christian groups.

All of this suggests that even if the churches are ‘better placed’ than politicians not just to contribute, but to lead, debate on the thorny issues of the past that dog our present, it will be a huge challenge for them to gain legitimacy among secular actors and even among Christians who are disappointed with the historic record of the ‘institutional church.’