A Wounded and Wonderful City
Not so many years ago I would have been seen as being at the heart of the church. Engaged in youth ministry; adult faith development; attending meetings of the Episcopal Conference in Maynooth; leading young people in pilgrimage; giving talks at the International Eucharistic congress in Dublin and religious conferences in Los Angeles. Now however I experience myself very much at the edges of life in my church. The emphasis on doctrine being defined succinctly; the restoration of old practices; liturgies that are often cold and repetitive; language being used to convey exact meanings rather than being allowed to blossom as a tool for their religious imagination. It is no surprise that the church is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the lived lives of people and communities. And yet, I still find myself fired by the vision and mission of the person called Jesus. I have discovered that being at the edges of the church brings you into some great company! It is surprising who meet at times at the fringes and the craic is great!
I want to share with you something of my struggle to find a theology of hope as I encounter this wounded and wonderful city. A theology that is open and welcoming to all and that gives a dignity and a purpose to the lives of all.
Just to assure you of the depth of theological depth we are going to get to tonight, I want to state at the beginning that my talk could be summarized in five words: “Faith is not like gin.”
Billboards often have interesting and amusing posters. British telecom used one that depicted two ostriches standing back to back with their heads buried in the sand. The slogan ran: “I won’t ring my brother until he rings me.”
The aim is to hook into our feelings of guilt to make us use their products. Another for eggs following the salmonella scare sparked by some words of Edwina Currie a few years back now had a well done up lady egg, with the slogan beside her saying, “I used to have a boyfriend until someone poached him.” And there was a round of toast and a poached egg beside her.
There was also an advert for gin on a giant billboard that you could see as you drove across the Albert Bridge. In the distance you could see a large blue swimming pool. As you drove closer you could see a slogan rising out of this swimming pool that stated “Out of the blue comes…” and right behind this slogan was a bottle of gin being carried as it were directly into the outstretched hand of a shapely lady in red bikini who was lounging at the side of the pool. I want to state that my focus was not on the shapely lady in the red bikini, who just happened to have blue eye shadow, black mascara, a diamond ring on her left hand, small studded earrings…no, I did not notice her at all, but the message was clear- “Out of the blue comes gin.”
Whatever the Christian life is like, it is not like that. It does not suddenly appear as of out of the blue. Faith belongs right at the heart of our life experience, and relevant theology can only be drawn out of that lived experience. Otherwise, it not only risks becoming irrelevant, but it ought to be seen as irrelevant.
But if faith is not like gin, so too I would suggest that building peace and reconciliation in this wounded city is not like gin – it does not come out of the blue. Healing and reconciliation cannot be built upon playing on the mistrust and suspicion between communities. We need courageous religious, political and civic leaders who are prepared to take the risks of reaching out and building new relationships faith, identity and culture are fully embraced and cherished by all. We ignore the past at the risk of recreating it in the future, but facing up to the past must not only include looking at violent acts, but also the violent unjust political structures and systems that facilitated discrimination and lack of equality.
Reconciliation is a word we have become almost too used to. Maybe we need to discover a new meaning for this often used word. It comes from the Latin. The fact I know that is given I failed every Latin exam I ever sat in St. Malachy’s.
We can break it into four parts. Re: meaning again. Con: meaning with. Cili is the Latin word for eyelash, and ation denotes an action. So reconciliation literally means the act of bringing back into eyelash contact. The ability to touch eyelashes with another person, to look into another person’s eyes without barriers or obstacles between us. For me, that is a very new, different and dynamic understanding of reconciliation that’s calls us to go further than we ever even thought about before.
I believe that what we are being challenged to face up to in these days in this wounded and wonderful city is summed up very well by T.S. Elliot in his poem Four Quartets:
...Last season’s fruit is eaten
and the fulfilled beast shall kick
the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,
And next year’s words await another voice.
We are waiting on another voice and we are being challenged to create something new.
Tolkien was writing his epic stories about the struggle between good and evil and confronting the evil power as a Catholic at the same time of CS Lewis. In his book, the Fellowship of the Ring, he says:
I wish none of this had ever happened…
Can we all not identify with that statement in relation to the recent conflict in this wonderful city? But he goes on to say:
The only choice you have to make is what will you do with the time that has been given you?
The only choice we have to make is what will we do with the time that has been given to us. So as a community that is home for people who profess both different faith and no faith allegiance, how can we together promote the healing of this wounded and wonderful city?
I would like to remind us of those verses from the book of the prophet Habakkuk.
"God how long will I cry for help while you pay no attention? I denounce oppression and yet you do not save. Why do you make us see injustice everywhere? Are you pleased to look on tyranny? All we see is outrage, violence, quarrels, wars."
Those are the words of Habakkuk 600 years before Jesus, but they could almost be read from our daily papers right now. They also could be applied to the experience of the conflict here in this city.
There are people who tell us that we need to move on from the past. To almost as it were put a line under it. Perhaps though one of our problems is that we have forgotten too soon the horror of the conflict we endured, and in doing so have robbed ourselves of the energy we need to create a new shared city together. It is no accident that among those most committed to peace today are those most affected by and involved in the experience of the conflict, now working towards a new vision.
How does God respond through Habakkuk?
He says, "There is a vision that you've got to hang onto."
He describes it in rather vague terms.
"Write down the vision; inscribe it on tablets so it can be easily read since this is a vision for an appointed time. It will not fail, but will be fulfilled in due time."
The vision is then proclaimed by Jesus in the fourth chapter of Luke's Gospel. It is the vision of what peace will look like. It's a part of the Gospel that I think is very precious and we ought to go back to it many times to build up our hope, to build up our determination about what can be. Jesus proclaims the vision as he comes into the synagogue in Nazareth where he grew up.
You remember the passage. It's the beginning of his public life. They give him the scroll to read. He unrolls it carefully until he finds the words of the prophet Isaiah. Then Jesus reads,
"The Spirit of God is upon me. God sends me to proclaim good news to the poor, to give the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim God's year of Jubilee, of blessing.”
A vision that speaks of the time when all debts will be set aside and where all people will be welcome. An opportunity for a new beginning. A time for peace, when everyone will share all that God has given for all. A time where there will be fullness of life for every person." That's the vision. What would that mean for this wounded and wonderful city?
You remember what Jesus said at the end of that incident? He gave the scroll back to the assistant and then he sat down and all the eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Jesus said, "This day, this passage is fulfilled even as you listen." The reign of God (that's what Jesus is describing) is at hand ready to break forth. When we listen to Jesus and follow Jesus, that vision will come forth in its fullness. Habakkuk reminded the people that it would take faith to make this happen, "The upright person will live by faith."
That's how the vision will be fulfilled -- when we live by faith. What does it mean to live by faith though? It doesn't mean giving ascent to doctrines. We recite a creed at every Sunday liturgy, and we believe in this doctrine, that doctrine, one after the other.
At times in the Church today it seems that we are too busy defining doctrine and defending orthodoxy to take the risk of imagination and creativity that will lead to the path of peace. That is not what is meant by faith when Habakkuk talks about it or when Jesus talks about having a faith as little as a mustard seed. No, the faith he's talking about is the faith of our relationship with God.
Luke in his gospel portrays the messianic mission of Jesus as bringing the power of God’s justice to those in need: those who are poor, captive, blind, oppressed. His mission will be filled with illustrations of this mission, from the cleansing of the leper and the healing of the paralytic, to the raising of the widow of Nain’s son and the Sabbath healings of the woman bent double. Several times he warns the rich not to neglect the poor. Luke’s gospel is filled with examples of what we might call subversive activity!
His message of justice for those who are vulnerable evokes the voice of the prophets of Israel who also challenged Israel for its lack of justice. In Luke we find the recognition that if we are to commit to building a reign of God based upon justice and equality and dignity, then we must have the courage to challenge the inherent unjust systems and structures within our community.
What would it mean in our wounded and wonderful city to truly work for a situation in which all could freely express their identity and culture without threat or hindrance from others?
Luke also emphasizes the boundary-breaking character of Jesus’ mission. While his hometown audience in the synagogue in Nazareth is asking him to do in his hometown what they have heard he did in Capernaum, Jesus provocatively recalls the mission of Elijah to Namaan the Syrian and that of Elisha to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon. Here Jesus is challenging them to look beyond their own self-built borders that both hem them in and keep the foreigner out into a recognition that the reign of God speaks of a welcome for the stranger and an openness to the world.
What would it mean for this wounded and wonderful city if we looked beyond our own green and orange borders to both recognise and celebrate the richness and to recognise the woundedness of those we perceive to be the “other”? What would it mean for this wounded and wonderful city if orange and green together reached out in welcome to those wounded and wonderful people who have come from foreign shores to find a new home among us?
The outcome of Jesus’ inaugural proclamation is to trigger the hostility of the hometown crowd. Just as the prophets of Israel were rejected, so the hometown crowd threatens to throw Jesus off the cliffs at the edge of town. Several times Jesus alludes to the fate of the prophets in Jerusalem. It is being made clear for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear that even at the beginning of his mission, Jesus is to face opposition and even death in the pursuit of his mission. For Luke, the death on a cross is a “necessity” (the Messiah had to suffer…”), not as a grim stroke of fate or to make suffering into some kind of noble idealism, but a clear recognition that if you set out to lead the kind of life that pursues healing, inclusion, welcome for all, the fight against unjust social structures, the turning on their head of long accepted social norms, then you will be asked to give nothing short of everything.
If you want a really clear example of what this means when Jesus proclaims the reign of God and how the world has to be transformed to become that reign of God, you find it in the story of Niall O’Brien.
Fr. Niall O’Brien was an Irish Columban missionary priest who worked in the Philippines during the Marcos regime. In the 1970s he found workers cooperatives in the villages and was accused by the authorities of being a communist. In 1983 he was arrested with 2 fellow priest and 6 lay workers who became known as the Negros Nine. They were falsely accused of the murder of the town’s mayor and four accomplices and sent many months in harsh conditions in prison. Fr. Niall wore a stole when he celebrated eucharist that had a particular logo on it. It was an image of the dove of peace that was coming in to land, but it was prevented from landing by circles of barbed wire. On the barbed wire were two hands with blood coming from them, as it were from pulling the barbed wire apart. The message was that the dove of peace could only land when we had the courage to absorb the pain of the barbs. A wonderful modern day story of the passion. Who will have the courage to absorb the pain of the barbs to allow the dove of peace to land and for healing and true freedom to begin?
But we examples of countless men and women who on the streets of Belfast absorb the pain of the healing process as they proclaim the work of justice, teaching justice, teaching the need for change, for the transformation of their community, once filled with injustice and division to be replaced by equality and a respect for difference. A community where orange and green are not seen as a source of conflict but part of a growing array of different colours and cultures in this wonderful city.
One thing that I struggle with is when I listen to people talking about getting rid of orange and green politics. It starts to sound like an unattainable aspiration to rid our community of something precious that is at our core. For me, patriotism and loyalty are good things. I am proud to be green. I am also proud of my grandmother who came from Berlin Street in the heart of the Shankill Road. So my greenness is tinged, but not tarnished by orange!
Loyalty and patriotism are causes to be celebrated, but be when orange and green demonise each other and create fear and suspicion then they become distorted and life taking rather than life giving.
I want to borrow a story I heard was told by a priest in Derry a number of years ago. In Belfast there are two Gods; a masculine god and a feminine god.
The masculine god is orange and he marches to the beat of vibrant drums. He loves to tell story tell of forefathers and of battles fought and won. His songs are angry and tell of faithfulness and fidelity and a heritage hard won. His favourite colours are red, white and blue and he dreams of a future when his loyalty will be rewarded by a restoration of power and privilege.
The feminine god is green. She is somewhat melancholic and constantly laments a fourth green field and calls her sons and daughters to mourn over what has been lost. Her songs are sad speak of betrayal and victimhood and of innocence stolen away by the oppressor. She dreams of a future when the fourth green field will be restored and the foreigner in her midst will be banished forever.
Both gods share allegiances from their followers that amount almost to worship.
And in the middle of this struggle between these two gods are the crucified ones. The one who is shot; lying by the side of the road. The one who is tortured. The disappeared. The one who receives brutal beatings and kneecapped. The one who is expelled from his home and his family. The one who was a victim of collusion and false imprisonment.
Allegiances to worthy causes became distorted and violent and often resulted in the re-crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the streets of this wonderful city. And what we did to each other in the past we now do to Moslems today.
When you read the four gospels as the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, it is interesting to see the imbalance. We have his teaching, his miracles etc. and then we have the huge narrative of the passion. Why are they imbalancing the story with that of tragedy? It could have been summarized as the passion happened but had no lasting consequences. Instead, the gospel writers dwell on and highlight the depth of the passion story, seemingly inviting reader and listener to pause over this. In doing so the gospel writers are tapping into the passion of Christ as an unfathomable sea of diving love. There is healing here for the brokenhearted; for the abandoned. There is hope for the prisoner caught with injustice. There is passion here for you and for me.
How did people recognise Jesus after the resurrection? At Emmaus they didn’t recognise immediately, but only when he showed his hands and revealed himself as the crucified risen savior by whose wounds we are healed. Thomas would only believe when he could literally touch the wounds in his hands and in his side.
It was the crucified, risen one whom the disciples encountered and that is no less true today. We often find him as the crucified risen Saviour and we meet him in our own experiences of crucifixion. But for many, that is where hope is born and where healing begins… we worship not a distant god…
Speaking in Sri Lanka in January 2015, Pope Francis said:
“It is a continuing tragedy in our world that so many communities are at war between themselves. The inability to reconcile differences and disagreements, whether old or new, has given rise to ethnic and religious tensions, frequently accompanied by outbreaks of violence… It is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustice, hostility and mistrust left by the conflict. It can only be done by overcoming evil with good and by cultivating those virtues that foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace. The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity.”
So what is on the agenda of church life today if not the healing of a city that has been both wounded and wounding, and how can such healing be facilitated in and through churches?
What would be happening in our churches if we not only took up that task, but made it the priority commitment across our churches today. What if all our churches’ plans/visions and missions were measured against the barometer of advancing healing and reconciliation in our city? What a pity, and scandal even, that such an explicit commitment to peace and reconciliation is missing from the pastoral plans of our churches and dioceses and our parishes. It seems that peace and reconciliation is seen as an optional extra rather than a core task at best, and at worse it is seen to be the work that is carried out by the mavericks of our churches.
Let is look at a scene at the end of John’s gospel. It is a beautiful dramatic scene and we can imagine it being played out on stage:
The main light is on Jesus, serving breakfast. What he didn’t serve up for breakfast was a generous helping of:
Where were you when I needed you most?
He didn’t serve up “I told you so you eejits!.accusations etc but a deeper more hopeful relationship…
The disciples have gone back to the fishing boat; the place where it all began for them. They have been out fishing, perhaps trying to tell themselves that it never happened, trying to blot out their disappointment and heartbreak with Jesus.
The boats are a symbol of their discipleship, a reminder of all they had left behind- and it is Peter who takes the initiative.
“I am going out fishing,” and the others follow. Peter even now is the leader. It is his gift. They spend the night fishing and catch nothing. In the morning a stranger on the shore tells them to “cast to starboard.” They did, and their boats nearly sink.
Something is happening under the surface for Peter. Memories of the first day that same thing had happened, and when memories are stirred, feelings and emotions are stirred – and so Peter jumps over the side and runs to the shore.
This is the old Peter we are familiar with; the Peter who acts before he thinks, not the Peter who has gone back to the boats saying, “It is over.”
His memories are stirred and he is away. He runs up the beach and Jesus is there, and the charcoal fire is lit. If it were possible to imagine this on stage, the spotlight turns from the excited Peter. He freezes – and the spotlight turns to the charcoal fire, and for Peter, watching on, other memories are stirred, and how he must wish that the ground underneath him would open up – as he remembers the charcoal fire in the courtyard; and his three denials.
Now he wishes he had not been so quick! Now he wishes that the others would catch up and be at his side, but he is alone with his memories.
Jesus says: “Bring some of the fish you have caught.” Peter shouts in reply: “I will get them.”
Can you imagine the relief for Peter? Anything to get away from that scene and that stare from Jesus that has brought memories back into the front of his mind.
He gets the fish and they begin to cook breakfast.
Jesus says to Peter: “Simon, do you love me?”
This was a loaded question for Peter – “If they all run away, I shall never leave you” must be running through his mind. It was his constant boast of loving Jesus more than the others.
And Jesus asks him: “Do you still love me more than the others after all that has happened?” – and another memory is evoked. Memories come flooding back as the door to memory is thrown wide, uncomfortable – to be reminded of empty boasts and promises. How must he be feeling at this moment?
Jesus asks him three times: “Do you love me more than these?”
And Peter gets angry. Not because he thinks that Jesus doesn’t believe him, but because his memory is stirred as he remembers the three times he denied him. His memory is stirred, and his feelings are stirred too, and Peter now left feeling the full force of these memories at the other side of that charcoal fire.
Three times Jesus gets him to say “You know that I love you.” And three times he tells him: “Feed my sheep.”
As we watch that scene unfold on the stage before us as we sit in the audience it seems that Jesus is deliberately provoking Peter’s memory. He is deliberately getting him to bring back the memory; the feeling of failure, so that he can take them and transform them.
As if to underline his message, this is his third appearance after the resurrection. It is as if he is saying to Peter…
”Peter, be aware that my grace is greater than your weakness …my grace is greater than your darkest hour.”
From that day on, Peter would still remember the mistakes that he made, they would still be in his memory, but the memory has been healed and transformed. So much so that the charcoal fire, which had symbolized failure, would symbolize his reconciliation with God. “Troubled valley has become the gateway to hope.”
Jesus did not tell Peter to forgive and forget, but to remember. To remember, so that the memory might be healed of its pain and disappointment.
Not only did not betrayal and cowardice not bring rejection, it brought him breakfast, fellowship with Jesus.
The story of Jesus’ invites us to bring our city’s shames; betrayals and hurts to the surface so that they can be transformed and we can be healed, and so that we, rather than hiding from them, can include them as part of our life stories – part of what makes us the people and the wonderful city that we are.
What would it look like if we worked to make the kingdom of God a reality in wounded and wonderful city. Fr. Ciaran Early was a regular visitor to this part of the city during the 1980s. Here is his vision of what Belfast would look like it the kingdom became a reality:
God reigns when we recognise the eternal value of ourselves