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.”
The 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.
The 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)