Can NI ever adopt forgiveness as a permanent attitude rather than a transaction?

How does forgiveness fit into the cut and thrust of political point-scoring, binary positions and contested history?

Canon David Porter admitted that one of his memories of being in Clonard Monastery was “shout[ing] at senior members of the Republican movement and get[ting] away with it down in Parlour 4, normally about midnight when our patience got a bit thin at the end of a long evening of haggling over what was the way forward” between the ceasefires and the Belfast Agreement.

The former director of ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland, since then renamed to the Centre for Contemporary Christianity) is now Chief of Staff and Strategy for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

He’d returned to the west Belfast church to deliver a talk at the closing event of this year’s 4 Corners Festival which aims to bring people out of their own corner of the city of Belfast to encounter new places, hear new perspectives and fresh, and make new friends. Porter’s address was followed by reflections from Dr Nicola Brady, the general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches.

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Porter recalled the 15 ‘Forgiveness papers’ produced by ECONI between 2001 and 2003, and observed that despite …

“thousands of words written … on the theme of forgiveness as it relates to … Northern Ireland … here we are, all those years later, and we still cannot find a way to talk to each other about the harm that we did for each other over 40 years. We no longer have that vocabulary, despite our high practice of Christian faiths and our commitment to follow in the way of the one who while we were still his enemies loved us and died for us and bought our forgiveness.”

Given the “high practice” of faith in NI, albeit not universal, and never beyond criticism, I share some snippets of Porter’s 25-minute address.

He noted the power dynamics of forgiveness that can be see after a war which ended with comprehensive defeat and unconditional surrender, and can be followed by “the magnanimity of forgiveness … because there was nothing else for a people who were totally bereft and at a loss”.

“Whereas here [in Northern Ireland], if we’re honest about it, nobody’s really won. We fought ourselves to a standstill. And there are two challengingly, competing narratives about the moral framework about which we understand what happened over the last 40 years. And neither of them is dominant and therefore forgiveness becomes profoundly difficult and complex as to how it’s offered, who receives it, and how that reception goes about in the life of the community.”

He dismissed transactional forgiveness and instead promoted the model of forgiveness that he saw at the heart of the Gospel narrative (living in the light, living in love and choosing the life of God), illustrated with stories from Coventry, Dachau and former Secretary of State Peter Brooke. living in the light, living in love and choosing the life of God

“Sometimes it’s about learning to live with ourselves and to forgive ourselves.”

He quoted ethicist Lewis Smedes who said: “love makes forgiving a creative violation of all the rules for keeping score.”

Porter explained:

“Wherever you draw the line in this community, all of us are complicit. We’re all not culpable, which is something I was very insistent on when we did The Consultative Group on Dealing With The Past. Because those who made the moral choice to pick up a gun or plant a bomb, they’re culpable for that. But all of us are complicit as [Steve Stockman] himself wrote a song for an ECONI roadshow in which it said: ‘you may not have pulled the trigger, but did you point your heart?’”

He went on to say:

“Biblical forgiveness, for me, is moving from the transactional to the relational. I really have lost patience with these arguments of who repents, who offers forgiveness first. That transactional understanding of it, forget it. That’s not what I see In the New Testament. I see forgiveness as living in the light, living in love and choosing the life of God. Forgiveness enables redeeming not forgetting. This pain, and the pain of many in this community, has to be remembered.”

Noting that retired British soldiers once deployed in Northern Ireland now live with PTSD and are forgotten in light of Iraq and Afghanistan. “That needs to be remembered, not forgotten” he said. “It needs to be redeemed in our relationships. And biblical forgiveness elicits repentance as a step towards reconciliation. It isn’t reconciliation. It does not require repentance … As, Martin Luther King said, ‘forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude’.

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The theme of this year’s 4 Corners Festival was ‘scandalous forgiveness’. In her address, Dr Nicola Brady remembered:

“A politician at an event I organized a few weeks ago said that the absence of forgiveness is poisoning our political and public discourse. People are still holding on to anger for things that happened centuries ago. Never mind the more recent past. And while that’s still the case, how can we hope to build a stable foundation for a genuinely shared society and one in which were not always just lurching from crisis to crisis?

“Fundamentally, it’s about digging deeper. A lot of the painful realities we’re dealing with now – the political breakdown and it’s devastating consequences for our communities, the challenge of Brexit and the increased polarization that it’s brought, together with the fact that violence continues to blight the lives of so many people across the city and beyond – all of this clearly prompts us to confront the reality of an unfinished piece and to ask ourselves what’s been missing.”

She recalled the moment that the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa was invited back into membership of the World Council of Churches in 2016, having accepted the sinfulness of their past behaviours that led to them being banned for decades over support of apartheid.

“Through his tears [the Clerk of the Dutch Reformed Church] said ‘we closed the door, but our brothers and sisters never did’. For me that was a really helpful image because in a lot of my work up to that point around forgiveness, we had tied ourselves up in knots about this relationship between forgiveness and repentance and whether you could have forgiveness without repentance and it’s very difficult to model something and support people in their journey towards it if you don’t have a clear understanding of what it is or what it should be.

“But this idea of leaving the door open and letting people know that it’s open for them should they decide to do what’s necessary to walk through it is much easier to get your head around.”

This, Brady admitted, “takes courage to do” in a city that “bears the physical scars of our conflict in a very real way before we even start to think about the human impact”.

And recent consultation work reminds us that “while we’re all getting very exercised about the possible return of a hard border to this island, there are people in this city living on peace lines who have continued to live out their daily lives in the shadow of the hardest of hard borders and there hasn’t been that same concern by the whole of society.”

As well as seeking “the good of the city” in the words of Jeremiah ((or “the welfare” or “the peace” depending your translation) Brady reminded the audience that while their wounded city was once “synonymous with conflict and division, [it] also has been able to be a beacon of hope” to visitors from Colombia and beyond.

She quoted from Dr David Ireland who said that “the shadow of religion and its community should be one of safety”. Brady acknowledged that while there were “examples of our church communities where this has certainly been the case” where were “some cases where it has not, and many more, probably the majority, struggling along somewhere in the middle trying to find their role and having some good moments of outreach or some good elements to their witness, but not really finding the way to sustain that witness and engagement in a very holistic way”.

Delivering a speech in Harvard, Dr Ireland had gone on to say that faith communities have an important role to play in challenging attitudes and behaviours that keep people and communities trapped in cycles of pain and disadvantage, when they “earn the right to challenge”.

Churches need to listen to the strong criticism about “coming in and trying to fix this community” (even if done with the best of intentions or a feeling of insecurity) rather than being willing to journey alongside a community and understand what people have been through and are going through.

“[Clergy] feel this pressure to be the person with the answers and when there are no easy answers, they can start to worry that maybe they have nothing to offer.”

Drawing to a close, Brady noted:

“When I’ve researched cases where people from churches have provided transformational leadership and communities, it has invariably involved having the courage to ask the difficult questions and listen respectfully to the answers in all their painful complexity.

“And also in what they tell me is that the question that moves people on is not about forgiveness, at least not directly, but it’s what kind of future do you want to give to your children? But you can’t come in and jump straight to that question. You’ve got to earn the right.”

She warned against rushing past the listening and understanding stages and jumping too quickly to reconciliation which can happen “if we don’t upset the apple cart by asking too many difficult questions about how each one understands it, and what it should look like, and critically what it should feel like.”

Sometimes we risk ending up with over-simplified and superficial notions of what reconciliation is and how it can be measured. And sometimes we even find it reduced to a numbers game where if we get so many people from this community and so many people from that community and they take part in a project together that that’s reconciliation.”

She finished by explaining how the Irish Council of Churches had rediscovered ‘lament’. Methodist theologian Dr Johnson McMaster argues that when a section of the community denies or represses its hurt, anger and sense of loss or injustice a collective apathy, social paralysis or internal/external violence can follow.

“It’s therefore important for individuals and groups to find meaningful healthy and nonviolent ways to express their deepest feelings, to name pain, to vent anger, rage or feelings of vengeance. If we think of some of the challenges of where we are now, concerns about collective apathy and social paralysis are very much to the fore.”

And Brady noted that McMaster was aware that “the anger or rage … may be against God” which is quite biblical though often wrongly dismissed as a sign of lack of faith.

So going forward, perhaps communities as well as churches could consider following the strategy outlined by Brady:

“1. Having the courage to name the big questions without feeling that you have to know the answer or answers in advance.

2. Leaving the door open for people and being proactive yet respectful in the invitation as you let them know that that door is open for them.

3. Speaking up for our local communities so that they don’t get left behind while being aware the same time that we’re all part of something much bigger and that wider focus on exchange is important too, in supporting people to have the confidence to make their contribution in whatever way that might be, in whatever roles they might have in society, and providing the spaces where we can come to be restored and lifted up by others and lift others up so that together we’re better able to meet the challenges.”

Food for thought in an often tit-for-tat political environment that spills over into community sentiment, distrust, anger and deafening confrontation rather than intentional listening.

Photo credit: Bernie Brown. Videos filmed by Alan Meban.