Irish Churches Peace Project Conference featuring Terry Waite – Questions and Reflections

Photo 27-03-2015 4 44 16 pmThe Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP) held a major conference to mark the closing stages of its programme, 26-27 March at the Hilton in Templepatrick. The conference featured as keynote speakers former hostage Terry Waite, Rev Emmanuel Murangira of Rwanda, and Rev Dr Johnston McMaster of the Junction’s Ethical and Shared Remembering Project.

Waite, reflecting on the role of religious institutions in reconciliation, said that ‘established religion is not enough,’ adding that:

‘What’s required is a real church, people who have taken a different road themselves and can therefore have compassion and understanding for their opponents. That is partly the way to peace.

Here, in Northern Ireland, if individuals in church begin an inner investigation, that will communicate itself to the wider community and eventually have an impact.’

ICPP is an initiative of the Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, and Methodist churches, as well as the Irish Council of Churches, which during the project represented a number of smaller denominations.

ICPP received £1.3 million in funding from the EU’s PEACE III Programme (Special EU Programmes Body). Additional funding was provided by the Northern Ireland Executive through the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) of the Irish Government.

ICPP’s work will conclude in June, but it is hoped that the programmes and resources they promoted will be sustainable in some form at the grassroots level.

The conference was an opportunity for the ICPP to communicate about the work its six ‘Good Relations Officers’ have been carrying out from their bases in Fermanagh and the border region, Newry and Mourne, Strabane and Northwest, Greater Belfast, Craigavon, and Armagh, Dungannon and Cookstown.

ICPP also showcased the resources it has developed over the last approximately 2.5 years of the project, including three study and discussion guides for church groups, a resources directory, and a guided discussion booklet for the film Forgiveness: A Step too Far.

These resources are free and currently available in printed form from ICPP. They will soon be posted on the ICPP website. When the project ends in June, the resources will be available from the Irish Council of Churches (any remaining printed copies or on its website).

It is impossible to evaluate the strengths and limitations of the ICPP by relying on what’s presented in a 1.5 day conference. But during one of the small-group discussions, a fellow attendee asked me what I, as a professional sociologist of religion, could conclude about the ICPP from the conference.

I said that it was fairly well-established among scholars of religion that during the Troubles, the institutional churches had been very limited in their peacemaking efforts. While the church leaders may have issued some joint statements advocating peace, the institutions did very little by way of bold or practical efforts. That was left to brave individuals (Prof John Brewer et al call them ‘religious mavericks’ in the book Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland) and small groups working outside the structures of the institutional churches, such as Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland.

The ICPP is interesting because it is a project of the institutional churches, which perhaps could signal that the institutional churches have come to see peacebuilding and reconciliation as more central to their mission than during the Troubles, when they did not even offer much support to the brave Christian individuals and groups who were working for peace. All the resources and projects presented at the conference looked very worthy, with examples of relationships being established for the first time, and examples of good practice feeding into the small-group discussion resources.

Having said that, it is telling that the institutional churches secured outside funding for their peacebuilding project, rather than investing substantially from their own resources. There’s nothing wrong with this – I think the churches have just as much right as any other group to bid for ‘peace and reconciliation’ funding and if their projects are judged better than those of other groups, they should receive the funds.

But it is not clear to me if by siphoning off the peace work into a ‘project’, ICPP has allowed the institutional churches to conclude that peace is now being done so they need not prioritise it. Did ICPP simply offer a form of limited support to individuals who were already engaged in this type of work before the project got off the ground?

All of Ireland’s largest institutional churches pick and choose where they will invest their funds. Will any of them devote additional funding to peace and reconciliation training and projects now that ICPP is ending?

Responding to my comment about the ineffectiveness of the institutional churches when compared to the religious ‘mavericks,’ another attendee said that this showed a lack of leadership in the institutional churches.

I replied that a lack of leadership on peace and reconciliation issues is not surprising, given that clergy in all the main denominations receive very little training on the religious history of Ireland, the sociology of religion in contemporary Ireland, or theologies of reconciliation in divided societies. While Edgehill (Methodist) and the Church of Ireland Theological Institute now have modules on reconciliation, these are relatively new.

Clergy also receive very little training about how to care pastorally for people who have been traumatised by violence. Although some groups, such as the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health, are now developing resources for clergy in these areas, many clergy were themselves traumatised by their experiences of ministry during the Troubles. The institutional churches need to develop better support structures for clergy who face these difficulties, too.

We can’t expect church leaders to see a need for the churches to contribute to wider social and political reconciliation if they have very little historical understanding of how churches contributed to religion in the past, how religious structures continue to reinforce social and political divisions, and how divisive theologies have been developed and used to justify violence. We can’t expect church leaders to work actively for reconciliation if they need more support as they navigate their own and others’ experiences of trauma.

Will any of the churches devote additional resources to training clergy in religious history, sociology, and theologies of reconciliation in the years ahead? Would the churches even be so bold as to come together and organise a module for ministerial candidates from a number of denominations to study these issues together? Will they develop better and more specialised pastoral approaches to trauma?

These are just some initial questions and reflections about ICPP and the institutional churches. I hope we can gain a fuller understanding of ICPP’s contributions, and the sustainability of some of its initiatives, as times goes on.

Summaries from Keynote Addresses

The talks by the three keynote speakers were all thoughtful and at times inspirational, bringing a very human touch and perspective on the difficult work of reconciliation in contexts around the world.

I have written fuller reports of each keynote on my personal blog (see links at the end of the post). Below are some highlights.

Waite shared some general thoughts on the importance of talking with and eventually negotiating with ‘terrorists,’ before sharing about his experiences as a hostage. He said:

‘What we have learned is that with every terrorist group throughout history, eventually you have to talk with them and you can talk with them. There is a difference between talking and negotiating, and first you have to talk, to begin to understand them and form a relationship of trust.’

He said that when he was first taken hostage, he held himself to three principles:

  1. No regrets: Don’t regret, because you have tried. If you begin to regret, you will become demoralised.
  2. No self-pity: There are many people who are worse off than you. If you indulge in self-pity, you will become demoralised.
  3. No over-sentimentality. Don’t say, ‘if only I had been a better husband or a father.’ You can’t live your life again, so don’t let the past dominate your life now.

Although Waite didn’t keep absolutely to those three principles all the time, he said that striving to meet them was important for sustaining him.

McMaster’s talk drew on ideas he has been developing over the years with the Junction, as well as his 15 years as coordinator of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ ‘Education for Reconciliation’ programme in Northern Ireland and the border counties, which was wound down in 2012.

McMaster opened by citing research from the Irish School of Ecumenics, which revealed that Christians on the island of Ireland overwhelmingly think of reconciliation in individual terms (between individuals and God and between individuals) rather than social terms (for instance, between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the island of Ireland).

[I carried out this research, which included surveys of faith leaders and laity on the island of Ireland. For further details about the data, see an article I wrote for Shared Space.]

McMaster described Christians in Northern Ireland as ‘culturally captive to individualism,’ arguing that this contributed to ‘a lack of awareness that social reconciliation should be part of what it means to live as a Christian’ on this island. There is also a lack of awareness that the bible should be ‘read as a socio-political text … a book written in the shadow of [the Roman] empire.’

He also identified ‘three strands of practice’ for reconciliation:

  1. Reconciliation as Social Justice. This means naming and putting right injustices, developing just laws and institutions, and showing a preference for the suffering of the vulnerable.
  2. Reconciliation as a Re-ordering of Power Relations. McMaster noted that justice tends to mean different things for different people. Those with power tend to favour punitive justice, while those without power tend to favour restorative justice. This calls for a re-ordering of the practice of justice in relation to the practice of power.
  3. Reconciliation as Forgiveness. McMaster argued that a ‘divine’ approach to forgiveness ‘does not wait’ for the other to make the first move. It includes mercy and compassion. It avoids ‘Christian quietism and political pietism.’

Murangira, who was living outside the country, travelled to Rwanda within days of the genocide in 1994, to search for any of his 102 known relatives. Fewer than 10 had survived, including a three-year-old cousin, Rachel, who had witnessed her parents and nine siblings murdered.

Rachel had stopped speaking and when Marangira took her into his home, she did not speak again for three years. She remained tormented by night terrors and memories of what had happened. But at the age of 12, Rachel attended a community court for perpetrators in the genocide:

‘The man who was giving evidence was the man who had rescued her. But she also recognised him as one of those who had participated in killing her parents. He had picked her out of the bodies and taken her to an orphanage.

When Rachel came back from the trial, she was totally shaken. She went to church on the Sunday and when she came back she said to me, “I think I need to forgive that man who killed my mother because if I don’t forgive him I will think about him forever and I don’t want to do that. I need to forgive him.”’

Murangira said that he was angry that Rachel wanted to forgive. Murangira spoke about finally deciding to forgive, acknowledging that it was not an easy process or decision.

Murangira’s story was one that can inspire Christians in Northern Ireland to continue or take up the work of reconciliation. But it is also a story that reminds them that before beginning such work, it is wise to count the cost. Reconciliation is difficult, unpopular among many, and the churches risk become compromised by the political process.

Fuller Summaries of Keynote Addresses

Terry Waite

Rev Dr Johnston McMaster

Rev Emmanuel Murangira

Photo of Terry Waite by Brian O’Neill

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