Telling Stories about the Future: David Porter and Heather Morris on the Role of Christian Activists

“We are a people who find it impossible to live with each other’s story. This is a distortion of our faith, and a failure to recognise that our faith is a story … a story to be told in the living of our lives.” – David Porter


“Can we tell stories of what the future might look like?” – Rev Heather Morris

DSC09634Stories of the past, and of the future, framed the conversation generated last night at Contemporary Christianity’s annual Catherwood lecture, delivered by Canon David Porter, a former director of Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), member of the Consultative Group on the Past (Eames-Bradley) and now director of reconciliation ministries at Coventry Cathedral.

You can listen here (thanks to Alan in Belfast for recording):

The event capped a flurry of faith-based activity in East Belfast this week, including a jam-packed meeting to pray for peace on Wednesday night and the re-launch of ECONI’s (now Contemporary Christianity) For God and His Glory Alone on Thursday morning. It is the 25th anniversary of For God and His Glory Alone, a document that outlined ten biblical principles that make for peace, encouraging Christians to use the document as a spur to reflection and action.

This is in the context of the invitation to American diplomat Richard Haass to come to Northern Ireland to assist in sorting out flags, parades and dealing with the past, an invitation that represents a failure not just of our politicians – but of our whole society – to come to grips with the Troubles and to commit to working together for a better future.

Those who spoke at these events were clearly calling Christians to get involved, seeing the present juncture as a fragile and critical phase in our “post Troubles” transition that requires a refusal to accept a benign apartheid, a “shared out” future, and a naïve “drawing a line under the past.”

Porter’s lecture was a mixture of reflections on the history of ECONI, peacebuilding lessons that were learned through his involvement with ECONI, and the further development of his thought through his work in Coventry over the past five years. Rev Heather Morris, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, responded to his lecture.

Both Porter and Morris drew attention to the importance of stories and storytelling. Our public sphere is full of competing and oppositional stories about what happened in the past, who was/is responsible, and what it means to belong to our so-called “two communities.”

As Porter acknowledged, “history is working against us,” when we consider the long-standing nature of the stories we have told ourselves about “The Other.” The stories go back centuries, drawing on violence, trauma and oppression that occurred long before the Troubles. That’s compounded by the still very raw pain that victims and survivors of the Troubles continue to experience. Porter said:

“We de-story the lives of others, render them meaningless and illegitimate. We are a people who find it impossible to live with each other’s story. This is a distortion of our faith, and a failure to recognise that our faith is a story … a story to be told in the living of our lives.”

Porter quoted American theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who defines reconciliation in terms of shared stories:

“Hauerwas says that when my enemy can tell my story and I can say, ‘I recognise that story,’ that’s a form of reconciliation.”

In a context like Northern Ireland where trying to concoct an agreed “story” about the past is both futile and, I would say, unjust, Hauerwas’ definition provides something, albeit something imperfect, to strive for:

An understanding of where The Other is coming from and an ability to understand why “They” might tell their story that way.

Porter added that storytelling must happen in an atmosphere of mercy, in which there is a refusal to continue drawing boundaries around “them” and “us.” He related how after the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in the Second World War, it was decided to write “Father Forgive” on the wall of the church.

Some thought that the message should have been, “Father Forgive Them.” But this, Porter acknowledges, would have minimised the suffering inflicted by the Allies on German civilians (as in the firebombing of Dresden) and made it more difficult to honour our shared humanity. He said:

“Reconciliation happens when we can memorialise the suffering of our enemy.”

For Porter, storytelling, like the “Father Forgive” memorialisation in Coventry Cathedral, is a mechanism through which we can discover the humanity of our “enemy.”

Quoting directly from this post on Slugger O’Toole, Porter noted Prof John Brewer’s repeated challenges to the churches to work more actively and intentionally for reconciliation, raising Brewer’s question of whether or not the churches are so bound up in maintaining our sectarian divisions, they are even capable of doing this.

Porter thinks they are capable, but only if “we let the church be the church,” not just another interest group striving for political power or resources. For him, much of what it means to be the church is creating safe spaces for healing, where people can listen to each other’s stories, where violence is never justified, and where forgiveness and mercy are the defining ethic. He said:

“Our challenge is to let the church be the church. A place of forgiveness and mercy. It’s our only gift to give for the future of reconciliation in this country.”

Morris’ response pushed listeners to think about what the church “being the church” might look like in the “real world” of life on this island? She said it is a question to be approached both in hope and in fear.

The fear, Morris said, is justified,

“because we know we have not lived [the story of our faith well]. We are a church broken. … But humbly and with grace we need to speak.”

Morris added that she detected a hunger among some Christians that “the church wants to be the church,” evidenced in the energy behind the re-launch of For God and His Glory Alone, the prayer meeting in East Belfast, the Hope and History Campaign, and on websites and blogs.

She suggested that moving forward, Christian activists should be guided by four pointers:

  1. Holding on to Repentance and Responsibility. It is not the task of Christians to demand that “The Other” repent; rather our own self-critical repentance (individual and collective) should be our priority.
  2. Thinking Theologically. Christians must be prepared to wrestle with Scripture, recognising when interpretations of the Bible have been destructive for relationships on this island and articulating alternative theologies for reconciliation.
  3. Telling Stories of what the Future Might Look Like. She urged Christians to move beyond “vague imaginations” and start telling stories in the living of their lives, finding ways to cross boundaries every day. She asked if this could be a future “where we don’t want to celebrate in a way that harms the other?”
  4. Creating Spaces for Wrestling with Issues of Identity. Can Christians imagine this island as a place where people are free to define themselves and their communities in ways that recognise the identity of “The Other” as one that can enrich our lives, not threaten them?

Porter and Morris both have enough experience of ministry in Northern Ireland to know that what they are asking Christians to think about and to do is not easy. Their words have met hostile receptions before, both inside and out of the churches.

But for those who are listening (those with “ears to hear,” to put it in biblical language), Porter and Morris’ words are the beginning of building a vocabulary, a narrative, a story about how we might speak more mercifully with and about each other … and that’s one step on the road to a better future.

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