Wrong Time, Wrong Place?

Last Thursday evening at the "Listening to Your Enemies" event in Skainos, Jo Berry emphasised that it is important to have a safe space for difficult discussions... sadly the environment around Skainos seemed anything but safe that night.
A couple of friends, colleagues and congregation members have already suggested to me, via email, facebook and face to face that the 4 Corners Festival and/or EBM /Skainos were naïve/arrogant/bloody stupid (delete as applicable) to field such an event in inner east Belfast, especially given recent interface tensions with the Short Strand residents, flag protests, the stand-off after the twelfth parade last year and other tensions concerning Skainos itself.
Those who believed that it was still a worthwhile event, just not at the right time or in the right place, have asked why we didn't swap the two Methodist events and have the 4 Church Leaders event in Skainos and the Berry/Magee one on my own patch, the Agape Centre on the much less contentious Lisburn Road in south Belfast? Personally, I would have had no objection to hosting the event, and suspect that it would have gone off without too much protest or comment... and even had there been a protest there would not have been the same level of threat that there is with people living on site as there is in Skainos...
It is the impact on people living and working in Skainos that I continue to be concerned about... threats to a building, even one as expensive as Skainos, never trouble me as much as threats to people, their homes and livelihoods. And I am genuinely sorry that the event has negatively impacted on innocent parties... People entering and leaving the event last Thursday were insulted, some were hit with stones and bottles, some people's cars were damaged... I'm sorry that happened but those attending the event did so voluntarily, most knowing that tensions were already high, given the anti-republican graffiti daubed on the café window the previous night... Those living and working in Skainos and the surrounding area, however, did not volunteer for the trouble that the event stirred up... Nor did the police who had to intervene to protect Skainos and those who were there, some being injured for their troubles...
The truth of the matter is that I don't think there was ever any suggestion that the event would take place elsewhere. I'm not sure whether the idea originated with EBM/Skainos but it was always a complete package, and even when things clearly got more difficult on the day, there was no suggestion of taking the event elsewhere... it was simply a question of whether or it should be cancelled or not. I had no part to play in that final decision but I am glad it went ahead, despite the fall-out... although, as Glenn Jordan points out, I and the other organisers and most of the audience are not overly affected by that...
But whilst I hear the concerns of local people and staff at Skainos, I must say that when people questioned the time and the place, my mind went to Martin Luther Ling Jnr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail. Church leaders in Birmingham, Alabama had criticised Dr. King for his involvement in non-violent street protests there, suggesting that they were untimely and fomented violence. Dr. King responded on a number of levels, including asking when the time would be right for real equality in that city?
The violence that Dr. King's protest elicited was primarily directed at him and his fellow protestors, so I do not claim equivalence when the brunt of the upset caused by our event was borne by local residents and staff, but I do wonder when will there be a time where a church in inner East Belfast is the right place for listening to our enemies openly?
Similar discussions HAVE taken place quietly behind closed doors in EBM and elsewhere in east Belfast in the past... and they have taken place publically in south, north and west Belfast... I was challenged on facebook by a former congregation member that one of the Shankill Butchers wouldn't be welcome on the Falls... and whilst I admitted that was probably true, another friend noted that they had been present when a leading loyalist told an audience in West Belfast that he had advocated going for a final push killing more Catholics before the 1995 ceasefire... I am sure that was every bit as difficult to listen to, if not more so, than listening to Patrick Magee talk about bombing an English hotel.
Why should east Belfast be a less conducive environment for difficult dialogue than anywhere else?
I am not perfect and perhaps I and the others behind this event were naïve/arrogant/bloody stupid and did get the timing wrong... But I'm still not convinced we got the venue wrong...
Part of the purpose of the 4 Corners Festival is to encourage people to go into areas of the city they wouldn't normally go to... That aim was successful last Thursday night, because there were people from all over the city and beyond, despite the protests outside (and perhaps in some cases, because of them... we Northern Irish are stubborn like that). If we had switched the event to South Belfast the same people would perhaps have come there (although I suspect some of the East Belfast people wouldn't have)... but it would have been a much more cosy/comfortable encounter... And I think the time is past when such encounters are enough...
Skainos wasn't a safe space that evening (and sadly is probably less safe as a result of the event... although hopefully that will only be temporary)... but there are times when we have to step out of the safe spaces and comfortable corners to say and hear and do difficult things for the sake of peace. Not peace and quiet... but Biblical, shalom peace...
Selah

Well that's enough for a day or two... but when I return to this ever lengthening thread, I will explore an old favourite topic of mine (and Jesus), namely, forgiveness and it's place in such discussions...

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Woman of no Distinction

Advent Candle Liturgy 5: Christmas

An Epistle To Our Elected Leaders