Can Faith & Politics Enrich Each Other? Discussion at the Festival of Ideas and Politics

faith&politicsLast night’s Faith and Politics discussion at the Duncairn Centre for Culture and the Arts, part of the Imagine!2015 Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics asked panellists to reflect on times when faith and politics had enriched each other. While conversation (inevitably?) slipped into examples of times when religion had exerted a divisive or violent influence on politics, particularly on the island of Ireland, speakers managed to introduce some positive examples and, perhaps, generate some further thinking.

Rev Dr Lesley Carroll of Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian spoke about her experience as a member of the Consultative Group on the Past (CGP), noting the strong faith backgrounds of most people on the group. She said that the press at the time had even commented that the CGP was ‘too supernatural.’

Carroll explained that her own experience of Christianity had led her, and others in the group, to use language like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘a shared and better future’ at the beginning of the process. But over its period of consultation, and in conjunction with her reflection on her own pastoral work, the CGP’s language changed to ‘a shared and more reconciled society.’

This shift in language recognised the difficulty of the task of reconciliation and that it ‘was better to be realistic than offer a promise that can never be fulfilled.’

Journalist Liam Clarke opened by saying that he is an atheist, albeit one who practices Buddhist meditation. He included a Buddhist reading, about how the Buddha was asked about people who despise the doctrines of others and insist that they alone are right. The Buddha’s response was that people should abandon doctrines that lead to the suffering of others.

Clarke then noted some examples of people of faith he had observed working (often out of the glare of the spotlight) in the public sphere, rather than clamouring noisily for the ‘rights’ of Christians, who are not a repressed minority. He said: ‘People of faith should be known for what they do. I’m more impressed by those who give their time, who act.’

Dr Duncan Morrow, a lecturer at Ulster University, former director of the Community Relations Council, and member of the Corrymeela Community, began his contribution by explaining that for him, there is a ‘huge difference’ between religion – an organised system of laws and rituals, and faith – the ability to ‘walk with a certain degree of uncertainty’ and to ‘act in trust.’

He sees a faith-informed Christianity as ‘always a criticism of the political,’ pushing us ‘beyond politics to something else … like faith, hope and love.’ Morrow added that this is always a challenge to the powers that oppress, so the task of faith becomes establishing humanity in the midst of power.

I also was a member of the panel. My contribution drew on my research as an academic sociologist of religion. I focused on conveying what works best when people of faith venture into the public sphere. (You can read a full text of my contribution on my personal blog.)

I suggested that what works best is when people of faith deliberately move outside their own, seemingly dying, institutional churches and work together in small groups or organisations in their efforts to enrich public life.

I said that if people of faith step outside their institutions they can maximise their potential to enrich politics in these three key ways:

  • Serving as critics of their own religious traditions, and when appropriate, publicly ‘repenting’ of the sins of their religious communities. This can open up new avenues of discussion and cooperation with so-called ‘enemies.’ The example of Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland in the years leading up to the Belfast Agreement, in their critique of their own tradition and their emphasis on repenting for its sins (rather than demanding that others repent), shows that this can be done. In a Northern Ireland that continues to be polarised, could the example of Christians repenting, for instance for the role the churches have played in fostering division and violence down through the centuries through to the more recent Troubles, inspire politicians to show some risky leadership and do the same?
  • ‘Modelling’ alternative ways of life that challenge the status quo. In Northern Ireland, and also on the island of Ireland, it is all-too-easy to fall into the patterns of separate and segregated lives. What we say and what we do, often unconsciously, excludes the ‘other.’ There are some examples of people who have challenged our easy segregation by taking deliberate steps to encounter or include the other. Intentional ecumenical communities like our hosts tonight, Corrymeela, embody this principle. Fr Martin Magill’s ‘ecumenical tithing’, where on Sunday evenings he worships in Protestant churches, is another example of seeking encounter. The prayers before Eucharist of the Benedictine monks in Rostrevor, for the leaders of the Protestant churches as well as the Catholic Church, is an example of inclusion.
  • Raising the level of discourse into the public sphere. It is no secret that our politics are often divisive and confrontational. A lot of what passes for public discourse belittles or demonises the ‘other,’ without adding any constructive or fresh ideas to the discussion. Religious leaders and spokespeople for small groups of people working together have an opportunity to raise the level of public discourse in the ways they talk about sensitive issues such as dealing with the past, victims and survivors, and what we mean by reconciliation. Given the reluctance of so many of our politicians to commit to dealing with the past, we need other voices who will keep it on the agenda, for the sake of those who continue to suffer.

crowd2The discussion was chaired by Corrymeela’s Susan McEwen, and the question and response session raised further issues, including the teaching of philosophy (as opposed to or alongside) religion in schools, the extent to which conflict on the island of Ireland has been ‘about’ religion or about ethnicity and ideological differences, secular morality vs. religious morality, the role of violence in Europe in the last century, and more.

One participant brought up John Howard Yoder’s book, The Politics of Jesus, a major theme of which is that the churches should voluntarily give up power in politics and rather serve as a loving example, or model, of how to live a better way – on the side of the marginalised and the oppressed.

Another gave an example from Sri Lanka, where a group of Christians from different ethnic groups decided that they would deliberately join opposing political parties to attempt to change the level of divisive discourse and politics from within. For him, this represented a time when ‘politics wasn’t about churches trying to get stuff for themselves’ but rather was an attempt by Christians ‘to model a different way to do politics.’

One of the last words of the evening went to Lesley Carroll, who responded to a question by arguing that the attention of people of faith in politics should focus on the needs of others. As she said: ‘It’s an affront when we use theology to blind ourselves to the human reality of suffering.’