19th November 2015

Cherishing the baby: a personal view

The philosopher Charles Taylor has identified three strands of secularisation in the modern West: the withdrawal of religion from public institutions, the decline in religious belief, practice and commitment and the cultural conditions in which a belief in God is no longer axiomatic. As Jonathan Rowson of the RSA puts it:

“This form of secularisation is not about people no longer believing in God, but a deeper recognition of what it means to have a religious worldview in the context of so many worldviews, when they are often not the easiest to have or to defend publicly.”

1003The work of the Fermanagh Churches Forum might be seen as an exploration of this third strand, of what it means for us to be authentically Christian in a society polarised not only by its traditional divisions but also by an often bitter debate about the role of religion in a diverse and shared future. We have constantly to hold the tension between an acknowledgement and celebration of what is good about our faith and an awareness of the ways in which it has been and can be still complicit in destructive systems and patterns of behaviour.

How can we cherish the baby while giving the bathtub the thorough scouring it so urgently needs? Our autumn and winter programme has given us the opportunity to ask ourselves this question in relation to three core Gospel imperatives: of non-violence, justice for the poor and peacemaking.

During Community Relations Week in September, at the Manor House Hotel near Enniskillen, we held a conference entitled A Bridge Between Two Distinct Worlds: Remembering the Past and Looking Towards the Future. Organised by Eileen Gallagher, supported by Fermanagh and Omagh Council and facilitated by Dr Johnston McMaster, it concentrated on two crucial events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. As the programme explained:

“The focus is less on history and more on how we use memory. It will look at the limitations of re-enactment, the paradoxes of memory, what we forget to remember, how we honour the dead without glorifying violence and how we take our own responsibility for building a different future without being controlled by voices from the grave.”

These two 1916 events represent huge instances of what C.S. Lewis called “Christianity and …”; in these cases nationalism and its sedate elder brother patriotism. There are dual temptations for us here: either to identify with ‘our’ tribe, buying into the core myths of blood sacrifice and a warrior god, or to distance ourselves entirely, refusing to see any connection between our own faith and that which, at least in part, motivated their actions and attitudes.

It is vital, if we are not to make the same mistakes again, that we find alternatives both to uncritical repetition of those violent myths and to a crass dismissal of those who fought and died as credulous fools. The first may lead to something like a direct re-enactment of those old tragedies, but so may the second. If we do not acknowledge and deconstruct the glamour of violence in the service of religion, we and our children are in danger of falling prey to it once again, the disease all the more virulent when we have had no inoculating exposure.

Our response to poverty, and in particular to the poor within our own society, brings out similar tensions. Traditionally Christians have been sporadically good at ‘charity’, though with such cold strings attached that the word bears little relation to its synonym of love. But we have been fairly useless, with a few notable exceptions, at striving for the social justice which should be charity’s bedrock and underpinning.

As with the issue of violence, some are tempted to justify oppressive behaviour, the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, with new religiously-sanctioned categories: ‘strivers and shirkers’, ‘hard-working families and scroungers’. Or, at the other extreme, we might want to say that our failures as Christians have been so legion, so humiliating, that the relief of the poor ought to be taken out of our hands altogether, left to the state or to secular professionals.

This would be a pity, as faith-based groups can, with care and humility, bring something particular to their tasks. At our AGM in October we heard vivid and passionate presentations from two such organisations which deal with particular aspects of poverty: the Trussell Trust with crisis hunger and malnutrition; Christians Against Poverty with the multiple burdens of individual and family debt. Both of these are principally assisting rather than campaigning groups, but there is something about the simple starkness of a foodbank amidst glossy supermarkets, of honest debt advice against the jaunty backdrop of payday lending adverts, that speaks more eloquently of inequality’s obscenity than any number of speeches.

And finally peacemaking. As I write, we are about to hold the third in a series of five seminars, again faciliated by Johnston McMaster, on the theme Still Up for the Challenge? Reconciliation in a Crisis Society. We have been looking at the concept of reconciliation, at the cluster of prophetic words which surround it and at the history of our churches in Northern Ireland and the many opportunities which have been missed.

6The easy responses here are either to cling to our traditions, ‘my Church, right or wrong’, or to reject them entirely, washing our hands of any hope that Christians, so long enmeshed in the conflict, could possibly be part of the solution. But the whole premise, so far as I can see, of the existence of interchurch groups such as the Fermanagh Churches Forum is not only that we can play such a role, but that we must.

Treading with great care, remembering always the hurt that has been inflicted in the name of charity, the violence in the name of the Prince of Peace, the exclusion in the name of truth, we have a path to follow. Narrow it may be, overgrown in places, heavy underfoot and hard to discern in the dim light, but we know it is there, and it leads us on. As we draw to the end of 2015, I thank all those who walk with us, across Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, and our small earth.

(Article written for the CONNECT inter-churches fora newsletter)

20th September

Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

With my Fermanagh Churches Forum hat (with a secretary bird’s feather?) on, I’ve been collecting names for our forthcoming conference as part of Community Relations Week.  It will feature the brilliant Johnston McMaster, and will explore an issue of acute importance to us all: how we remember the key events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

The conference is open to all, and free of charge, though it is necessary to book in advance, so that the Manor House staff know how many of their delicious lunches to prepare.  To book a place, just send me a message by Thursday evening at the latest.

Here are the details:

Fermanagh Churches Forum Conference (in association with Fermanagh and Omagh Council)

Venue: Manor House Hotel Enniskillen

Date: September 29th 2015

10.00am – 4. 00pm

‘A Bridge Between Two Distinct Worlds: Remembering the Past and Looking towards the Future’.

A day conference exploring how we can remember the two crucial events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. The focus is less on history and more on how we use memory. It will look at the limitations of re-enactment, the paradoxes of memory, what we forget to remember, how we honour the dead without glorifying violence and how we take our own responsibility for building a different future without being controlled by voices from the grave. The exploration will bring ethics and memory together and build a bridge between two very distinct worlds, the past and the present/future.

10.00am – 10.25am:  Registration – Tea / coffee on arrival

10.30am Welcome

10.40am – 11.10am:  Dr. Johnston McMaster: ‘The Challenge to Ethically Remember in 2016

11.10am – 12.00 noon:  Interactive Group Discussion

12noon – 12.45pm:  Questions and Answers. Facilitated Plenary Discussion

12.45pm – 1. 45pm:  Lunch

1.45pm – 2.15pm:  Dr. Johnston McMaster: ‘god and Nationalism: The Abuse of the Sacred in War and Violence

2.15pm – 3.00pm:  Interactive Group Discussion

3.00pm – 3.40pm:  Questions and Answers. Facilitated Plenary Discussion

3.40pm – 4.00pm:  A Way Forward for 2016?

4.00pm:  Closing Reflection

4th December

141130aStill feeling less than optimal, so again you’ll be spared anything too long.  I’m hoping to get to my last of Johnston McMaster’s Faith & Politics seminars tonight, though.  My last, but not the last – the final one is on next Thursday (11th December) but I’ll be travelling back from England that evening.  Tonight’s topic is a detour from the Clonmacnoise cross for a specially requested exploration of faith and politics in the Middle East.  Quite how we’ll get that polished off in two hours, with a tea break in the middle, I’m not sure, but if anyone can make sense of it, Johnston can. In semi-preparation, as well as reading the Iraq war book (see my post the day before yesterday), I’ve started After the Arab Spring, by John R. Bradley.  I’ll tell you about that later.

Last week’s seminar was especially inspiring, with the title Resurrection over the Sleeping Soldiers: God’s vindicating yes in the face of Empire. Johnston spoke of the Gospels as anti-imperial narratives, especially in their treatment of the Passion narratives: the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The question ‘Who killed Jesus?’ is an intensely political one; as the obvious answer, the Roman authorities, raises radical and revolutionary questions about the relation of the Church to the imperial State: initially the Roman Empire, later the structures of Christendom itself.  It was more comfortable for the Church to ascribe blame to the Jewish people, with the horrendous consequences of which we all know; or to postulate an angry God who killed his own son in punishment for the sins of humanity.  The further advantage of these theories, as well as providing a communal scapegoat and a convenient piece of mechanistic magic, is that, if Jesus was killed for what he was (the son of God) rather than for what he did or said, there is no need to look too closely at his teachings.  Johnston pointed out that the various Creeds by which the churches affirm their faith pass directly from Jesus’s birth to his suffering and death; as though his actual life, his “active embodiment and practice of compassion and love, all his active commitment to non-violence” is of little or no importance.

By contrast, an acknowledgement that Jesus was executed by the Roman imperial authorities in response to his commitment to non-violent resistence, radical equality and the needs of the poor, requires us also to make these our priorities.  There is no cosy place for collusion with or even indifference to injustice and oppression.  And the resurrection of Jesus, Johnston suggested, was an affirmation of the values for which he lived and died; a reassurance that although these are perpetually trodden down and suppressed by the Empire, they are the principles that will ultimately prevail.

For me, this perspective has important implications about the way that we ‘do politics’.  If the core values of the Green political vision: social justice, non-violence, environmental sustainability and democratical participation are, as I believe, also the values of Jesus’s Gospel teachings, then they are the basic underpinnings of how we are meant to live in society.  We can afford, then, to take the long view, to work for goals that seem out of reach, to aspire to the kind of justice and peace that might otherwise appear unattainable.  We can, as I said on Saturday about my election campaign, fling ourselves heart and soul into something that sounds impossible, in the knowledge that short-term success is not the only criterion.

And, after all, it is only with that kind of wildly hopeful hopelessness that anything at all can really be achieved.  Without a vision the people perish; and it was only through the audacious hope of a few visionaries that the Northern Ireland peace process came about. By contrast, when we have political leaders whose only ambition is to hang onto power, to denigrate their opponents and to carve out a little more for themselves and their tribes, it hardly matters whether they are successful at all.  In all the ways that matter, they have already failed.

The politics of resurrection is the politics of Keir Hardie, of Saint Francis, of Dorothy Day and of all the hard-working visionaries with their hearts in the clouds and their feet on the ground.  They didn’t expect success, but the movements they began brought about quiet and lasting revolutions for the common good.  I think we can do the same.


27th November

1127After a few days of damp and thick fog, we got proper autumnal weather today, which would have been ideal for a long walk in the woods.  Robbie, however, had other ideas, and this was as far as he was prepared to go.  Sunshine, it seems, is for sitting on the doorstep in, not for ambulatory motion.

Meanwhile, a couple of updates.  Ryan Smith from the Fermanagh Herald just contacted me to say that they’ve had a number of letters about the zebra crossing in Enniskillen, and how many pedestrians have had bad experiences crossing the road there.  They’ve opened a comment thread on their Facebook page about it, and I’ve added a link to our survey.

And Fermanagh councillors have agreed to introduce brown food waste wheelie bins early next year.  The bins are expected to be available from February or March, initially in the towns and later in rural areas.

And talking of recycling, my task for today is to sort out the stuff that’s accumulated in Rory’s old room in the past few years. I’ve already filled several boxes and sacks with bits and pieces for the Oxfam shop and recycling – now to work out how to transport them.  It’s one of the few times when I do slightly regret not having a car, though it’s still outweighed by the positives: getting enough exercise, not buying too much, meeting people as I walk and cycle around…

Tonight I’ll be walking to the library in Enniskillen for the third of Johnston McMaster’s brilliant Faith & Politics seminars – all are welcome, so please come along if you can.

Finally, if you read yesterday’s post last night or this morning, please look again at the final paragraph.  It is possible to become a member of Friends of Earth (I’d initially thought that it wasn’t) and like me you can do so here.




13th November

1113My library books were due back today.  I’ll be at Enniskillen library this evening, for the first of Johnston McMasters’ Faith & Politics seminars, so normally I’d have been able to drop them off then.  For the past two weeks, however, our library, like most across Northern Ireland, has been clobbered by ‘budget cuts’, and is closing at 5pm every day except on Tuesdays.  (Naturally, libraries in Northern Ireland never open on a Sunday.)  So when I get there this evening, the main part of the library will be long closed, and only the hired-out rooms upstairs will be open. That’s inconvenient for me, involving a bit of a trudge and another pair of wet feet, but for the many who rely on the library for internet access (job seeking etc.) a quiet table to do homework, research, education or just a warm place to read the newspapers where you don’t have to spend money you haven’t got, it’s yet another blow.  If you’re comfortably-off, with broadband, a full oil tank and a room of your own, you can do most of those things at home.  You can buy books on Amazon, throw them away when you’ve read them, and generally treat libraries like an anachronistic luxury.  But for those who can’t, they’re a lifeline.

Austerity is suddenly on the rampage across Northern Ireland.  Like everything else, it’s taken a while to reach us in its full Osbornian glory, but now it’s here with a vengeance.  It turns out that the profligate spending of the Executive parties over the past few years, spending designed to keep their respective electorates happy and ticking the right boxes, was to be paid for by selling chunks of public land at vastly inflated Celtic Tiger bubble prices.  Now, of course, the bubble has burst, the shabby tiger has slunk home, and no one wants to buy. So hundreds of millions of pounds have to be ‘saved’, and since it’s unthinkable that DETI could stop handing out its corporate largesse (its budget has been increased by over 5%) the axe falls most brutally on the Cinderella services, including Culture, Arts and Leisure.

The current DCAL minister is Sinn Fein’s Carál Ní Chuilín, who has been criticised, most notably by composer and former Arts Council director Philip Hammond, for a lack of awareness of, and commitment to the arts in Northern Ireland.  In particular, many are disappointed by her recent comments regarding the future of the Ulster Orchestra.  Earlier this year she told the Assembly that, in her three years in the post, she had not attended a single performance by the orchestra, or, indeed, any theatre performances.  It later turned out that she had seen the orchestra, but had forgotten it.

All this might be rather funny, in a darkly depressing sort of way, if it were simply a tale of political philistinism.  What is more disturbing is the other possibility; that she does take her job seriously, but that neither Northern Ireland’s only classical orchestra, nor the accessibility of its library services, are priorities.

One of the books I had to return today was Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.  I finished reading it at lunchtime today, and was struck by his analysis of the political relationship between civilization and culture. He writes that:

“The more pragmatic and materialistic civilization becomes, the more culture is summoned to fulfil the emotional and psychological needs that it cannot handle. The more, therefore, the two fall into mutual antagonism. What is meant to mediate universal values to particular times and places ends up turning aggressively against them. Culture is the repressed which returns with a vengeance.”

Here in Northern Ireland, as the Executive parties become closer and closer in their neo-liberal economic policies, in practice if not in theory, they need to find more ways to distinguish themselves.  Voters have to go on believing that there is an essential conflict between, especially, the DUP and Sinn Fein, that they are not simply the orange and green faces of the same coin. It is no coincidence that so many of the squabbles which they manufacture are on ‘cultural’ subjects; languages, parades, flags. As long as these are kept to the fore, the people of Northern Ireland are expected not to notice that they, Protestant and Catholic alike, are being screwed in exactly the same ways.

Eagleton goes on to point out:

“Just as in some traditionalist societies you can justify what you do on the grounds that it was what your ancestors did, so for some culturalists you can justify what you do because your culture does it. Cultures themselves are assumed here to be morally neutral or positive …[C]ulture has come in some quarters to mean that this is how one is because of who one is, a doctrine shared by biologically based forms of racism…. An appeal to culture thus becomes a way of absolving us to some extent from moral responsibility as well as from rational argument.”

How one is, because of who one is.  There could scarcely be a better summary of the deadening inevitability of tribal politics. As long as ‘culture’ is defined as, primarily, this badge of identity, it will be a weapon of division and oppression.

In contrast, what is represented by the Ulster Orchestra is the arts in quite a different role.  Great music, like the best of the other creative arts, speaks to what is universally human in each of us.  It breaks down barriers, dismantles inherited constructs of identity, and gives us the perspective to take a longer view.  Eagleton again;

“Works of art cannot save us. They can simply render us more sensitive to what needs to be repaired.”

But that would do.  Seeing clearly what needs to be repaired, working together to do so, we would have enough to transform Northern Ireland.  And one of the places that this transformation happens is in libraries.  They are one of the most basic shared spaces that we have.  In the early days of the Fermanagh Churches Forum, many of our events, including religious services, were held in the library, simply because it was a place where everyone felt comfortable, everyone belonged.  Tonight’s seminar will be the same; a safe place where difficult issues can be explored.

The next months and years are going to be difficult for us all; or at least for those of us who depend on the community and its shared services: hospitals, schools, safe surroundings; yes, and libraries. For the very rich, and their political jesters, it’ll just be a siphoning opportunity.  But it doesn’t have to be quite so bad.  Given that cuts are to be made, we could spend the remaining resources more wisely, concentrating, in culture as in education, on the things which unite, instead of those which divide.

As Clare Bailey pointed out, in her Deputy Leader’s acceptance speech, David Cameron didn’t know what he was talking about when he said “we’re all in it together”.  But we do.  Together, we could save our libraries and our orchestra, develop our integrated schools, keep out destructive industries such as fracking, develop positive business opportunities, and build shared communities across Northern Ireland.  That would be real civilization.





7th November

Photo by G Hufner via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons licence.

I’ve been zipping around Enniskillen today, delivering leaflets about the forthcoming FCF/ISE Faith and Politics course, which begins next Thursday evening in the library.  As you may have noticed, I’m a bit excited about this.  We’ve been running autumn seminars with the Irish School of Ecumenics for as long as I’ve been involved in the Forum, on issues like inter-faith understanding and ethical remembering of historical events,  but this one comes closest to the core for me.

If your idea of faith-inspired political action is trying to stop gay men from giving blood or attempting to get creationism into the Ulster Museum, you’re probably thinking that the less we have of it, the better.  We’ve seen far too much bigotry and stubborn literalism clogging up the corridors of Stormont; it’s not surprising that many of our most compassionate people want nothing to do with any of it.

But Johnston McMaster’s angle is rather different.  Take a look at some of the seminar titles, their themes based on the panels of the tenth century cross at Clonmacnoise: “The Politics of Peace”, “God’s vindicating yes in the face of Empire”, “Subverting all political domination systems”.

This isn’t religion as conservative social control; this is the real stuff, radical Gospel ideas of non-violence, transgression of boundaries, civil disobedience and a revolutionary option for the poor.  This is my faith: turning swords into ploughshares, considering the lilies and setting capitalism’s captives free.  It exists on the margins, tends to be trampled whenever churches become comfortable places, but bursts into life again at the most unexpected times.  I remember a song we learned at primary school back in the hopeful seventies:

“God bless the grass, that grows through the crack.  They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.  The concrete gets tired of what it has to do.  It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through. And God bless the grass.”

Green shoots of the authentic Gospel can grow harmoniously with those of Green politics, each informing and supporting the other. I would be hard pressed to distinguish between my faith and my politics. Both are rooted in the sense of wholeness: personal authenticity, the integrity of the earth and the common good.   And there should be nothing in this to exclude, or to claim any privileged understanding over those of other faiths or of none. If there is, we’re doing it wrong.


31st October

My interview with Rodney is online now, complete with a photo of me looking suitably scary for Halloween.

Meanwhile I’ve been busy catching up with things (seems to be a lot of that these days) including asking the Roads Agency for an update about the unauthorised tree removal along the Great Northern Way and designing a leaflet for the series of Faith & Politics seminars which the Fermanagh Churches Forum are hosting, beginning next month.  More on these to come, except to say that they’ll be led by the brilliant  Johnston McMaster and I’m determined not to miss a single one