Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Once... he wrote a poem...

Sorry. It's been a while again, and I haven't forgotten my promise to return to look at the vexed question of forgiveness among other things flowing from the event at Skainos "Listening to your Enemies," however, I've been extra busy this week with a couple of training days and a wedding (making a pleasant change from the multiplicity of funerals I have been conducting recently).
One of the training days was in conjunction with the new inter-churches Suicide awareness programme "Flourish" established to help address the epidemic of suicides we are experiencing in Northern Ireland at present... an enemy which is in danger of claiming more lives than the troubles in half as many years.
In the light of that I thought I would share this short poem I came across a few days previously in John Julius Norwich's miscellany "Christmas Crackers" which, as he says, seems like "grim fare" to include in a such a book. But it was written by a 15 year old boy a full two years before he took his own life, and as John Julius Norwich comments it deserves to be better known...
Once. . . he wrote a poem.
And he called it ‘Chops’,
Because that was the name of his dog, and
that’s what it was all about.
And the teacher gave him an ‘A’
And a gold star.
And his mother hung it on the kitchen door,
and read it to all his aunts . . .

Once. . . he wrote another poem.
And he called it ‘Question Marked Innocence’,
Because that was the name of his grief, and
that’s what it was all about.
And the professor gave him an ‘A’
And a strange and steady look.
And his mother never hung it on the kitchen door
because he never let her see it . . .

Once, at 3 a.m. . . . he tried another poem...
And he called it absolutely nothing, because
that’s what it was all about.
And he gave himself an ‘A’
And a slash on each damp wrist,
And hung it on the bathroom door because he
couldn’t reach the kitchen.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

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...

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...

Friday, February 7, 2014

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...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Who's in the Room?

It's one week on from the events at East Belfast Mission's Skainos Centre, and the effects of it rumble on. The next day I published on Facebook a couple of links to excellent pieces by friends and fellow bloggers Dave Magee and Steve Stockman. Gary Mason the Superintendent minister of  East Belfast Mission, and Glenn Jordan, the director of the Skainos Project, have also offered their personal reflections on the events that have impacted on them personally, on the ministry of EBM/Skainos and the lives of those living and working in the area.
It has taken me, however, substantially more time to gather my thoughts sufficiently to offer the following fragmented reflections. I hope that my musings don’t re-ignite any tensions, but I do believe that the events of that night, the run up to it and fallout from it deserve further thought… I was going to post it as a single blog of short snapshots, but it grew beyond that and so I’ll be rolling out a few connected posts over the next few days…
First, (for those with appalling memories or who are not constantly glued to the news in this conflicted little statelet), let me just remind you about what happened. Under the 4 Corners Festival banner, people were invited to come from all corners of the city to the Skainos Centre in inner east Belfast, to an event entitled “Listening to Your Enemies”. The idea was to hear the stories of Patrick Magee, IRA activist convicted for the planting of a bomb which blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton when Margaret Thatcher and other members of the Tory party were staying there for their conference, and Jo Berry, whose father was killed in that blast. Outside Skainos loyalist protesters gathered, after someone had daubed anti-republican graffiti on the walls of the centre the previous evening. I entered the event just before it was due to start. Earlier violence had settled down to a stand-off between a group of about 150 protesters standing at the head of "Skainos Square" and across the Newtownards Road, and the black clad PSNI Tactical Support Group arranged in 2 lines further up the square, preventing the protestors from entering en mass. Neither protesters nor police tried to stop me getting in... I didn't hear any insults aimed at me, though, as I stood and talked with a colleague about what was happening, I saw a couple of brave men call a couple of older women "Scum" as they walked by... Equally the police didn't check my identity, so I don't know what was preventing the protestors coming in one by one... Anyway, I got in despite the difficulties, and was glad to be there although what was said was uncomfortable to listen to, and the whole evening has haunted my thinking for the past week...
The previous Monday night in South Belfast Methodist we had another, very successful and peaceful event as part of the 4 Corners Festival, where 4 church leaders from across the city told their stories against the background of the question "Is Christ Divided?" There were no protests outside that night, but in a previous era there would have been protests... maybe not as violent as last Thursday's, but not far off...
One of the reflections that night was that "the problem" was not with those "in the room" but those "out there" who were not prepared to listen to each other's stories or engage in difficult discussions. There is a consistent and at times valid criticism of much ecumenical engagement and community relations work being “nice people” talking to each other about “nice things” over tea and buns. But wherever people of different perspectives and backgrounds engage with each other, we have got to learn to deal with difficult issues… Recognising not only what we have got in common but where we differ and why. Otherwise we are fooling ourselves with the narrative that “sure, we’re all the same…” We’re not, and I thank God that we’re not…
However, there is a danger in always assuming that the problem is always somewhere else and someone else, be that those not so “enlightened” as us in terms of ecumenical or political engagement, those in positions of political leadership, those on “the other side”, or in certain flashpoints in the city, or those, as was the case last Thursday, literally outside the room.
In the past week there has been much recrimination, and questions about where Unionist politicians stand on this (and other issues such as the intimidation of a Sinn Fein teacher at the boys model, or Orange Grand Master  George Chittick telling protestants not to learn Irish)  with some (including friends and colleagues) suggesting that politicians need to be paying more attention to those inside the room on Thursday night than those outside. I, however, am just as uncomfortable with that variation on the game of "them and us" as I am with the more traditionally sectarian one...
If we are going to develop a city and wider society where everyone feels that they have a home then  not only do those inside the room need to have more honest and open conversations about difficult issues… we also need to find ways of getting those outside the room to come in rather than standing on the outside in the cold, or simply getting on with their lives pretending it has nothing to do with them.

When I next return to this I hope to reflect on the title of the event, and why “Listening to our Enemies” is important…