Listening to OUR enemies

When we were planning the 4 Corners Festival some of our thinking was coloured by the theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity "Is Christ Divided?" and some by the fact that many in the room had also been involved with the Hope and History Campaign in the run up to the Haass talks. In that there was a reminder that the New Testament includes a call to love our neighbours, and even our enemies. This is in response to God’s reconciling, redemptive love for us, and a reflection of our role, as Christians to be ambassadors of that reconciling love, calling on people to be reconciled to God and to each other.
However, such high-minded ideals take a bit of work... Reconciliation with one another requires a process that includes the recognition that our enemies are human beings... and loving such enemies may not be an instant thing... especially when that enmity has cost us and ours dearly.
So when EBM offered to host an evening with Jo Berry and Patrick Magee we were keen to accept, and as we bounced around possible titles for the event we stumbled on "Listening to your Enemies." Listening may not be loving, but it is a first step on what may be a long journey.
I have to say that much of what I heard that night from Patrick Magee was not easy to listen to, and I will return to some elements of that… But I have never lost someone close to me in this conflict. Jo Berry has, however, and I was genuinely inspired by her desire to make meaning of her pain by preventing others experiencing the same through dialoguing with the person who had killed her father and others.
At the event Pat Magee said that meeting with Jo was very difficult for him having killed her father, but that that meeting was the first time that he ever felt that someone from "the other side" had actually listened to him... And that her willingness to listen "disarmed him” - an interesting choice of words given his defence of the legitimacy of the armed struggle, one of the things I will return to again… Was this true? Had no-one genuinely listened to Magee and his like before? I’m not sure – and I’d have to have a discussion with Pat Magee myself to explore that further, something that isn’t likely to happen in the near future (though I am open to it). But if it is true then why was it left to someone who had already suffered so deeply to forge the way for the rest of us?
For her part, Jo said that the process helped her to get beyond labels like "terrorist" and "soldier" to the point she could actually call him "friend." That was difficult to hear, and I am sure it must be more difficult for those who also suffered at Magee’s hands, but have not been able to follow the same path of engagement as Jo… including people like Norman Tebbit, who feel that she has betrayed her father.
But her comment immediately brought to mind Abraham Lincoln's rhetorical question when he was asked why he was pursuing a policy of reconciliation with his erstwhile southern enemies:
"Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?"

A member of the audience subsequently quoted the same question, and it also appeared in the chapter of Dave Tomlinson’s wee book “I shall not want” that I read later that night (strange timing). Tomlinson was writing about the line in the 23rd Psalm that speaks of God preparing a table “in the presence of my enemies.” I like many, and like the Psalmist probably intended it, always read that as God preparing a feast for us, while our enemies look on, starving… But a wider reading of scripture tells me that whilst the Psalmist may have intended it that way, God doesn’t. Tomlinson goes on to refer to Desmond Tutu, who argues that if we are to really understand that God loves all of us, we must recognise that he also loves our enemies. He quotes Tutu saying:
“God does not share our hatred, no matter what the offense we have endured. We try to claim God for ourselves and our cause, but God’s love is too great to be confined to one side of a conflict or to any one religion.”
But coming back to what I said yesterday, that also means that God doesn’t just love those “inside the room” but those outside, who didn't want to listen to anyone like Pat Magee and didn't want anyone else to listen to him either... and yet, as former Red Hand Commando Jim Wilson said from the platform in Skainos that night and the next morning on Radio Ulster, the irony is that they themselves do not feel listened to.
Listening must be a multi-directional process... It was important not only for Pat Magee to be listened to but also for him to listen to Jo Berry... as well as others in that room who had painful stories to tell... But we need to find a way for those outside the building to hear and be heard too... And know that they are heard... That is the conclusion that the director of Skainos, Glenn Jordan ultimately comes to in his typically thoughtful and measured blog post on the subject.
But let me make a final point, which is that I think we got the title wrong… We were too timid.
I still wouldn’t argue for us going the whole hog and advocating that we love our enemies… That’s where I hope we will get to, but that was not the purpose of the night. No, what I am arguing for is that we don’t talk about listening to “your” enemies… But listening to “our” enemies… Hence the title of this post is not the title of the event… Listening to, and ultimately loving enemies is not something for someone else to do. It is particularly not something that we should call on victims to do vicariously for us. It is our responsibility, whoever our enemies might be and whatever they might have done… Gladys Ganiel, in her perceptive reflections on the event on Slugger O'Toole, asks who are we listening to and suggests that we only tend to listen to those we already agree with. But as I commented to one friend who objected to the event taking place, if we don't listen to those with whom we disagree, then why should anyone ever listen to us?
When I next return to this theme, I'll be exploring whether we also got the time and place wrong for such a listening exercise...


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