God Words and Godly Action

Yesterday over lunch I tuned in to BBC's Bargain Hunt which happened to be from Greyabbey in Co. Down, and after a lot of scrabbling around in the disproportionate number of antiques and collectable shops in that small village, one of the experts Charlie Hanson bought a late 17th century book entitled "The Protestant Reconciler" as his bonus buy. It cost a grand total of £12, all of his "leftover lolly" and despite some scepticism on the part of the auctioneer at Ross's in Belfast, it made a significant profit.
I thought that there was a certain level of irony in all of that given that, sadly, reconciliation has never been seen as a particularly profitable endeavour by the church here... Protestant or Catholic. It has been, far too often, an afterthought (like Hanson's bonus buy) or a fringe endeavour.
On Sunday night the 4 Corners Festival hosted an evening at Skainos in East Belfast exploring the role of the church in peace and reconciliation here in Northern Ireland, under the title of "Blessed are the Peace-Makers?" On the panel were 4 church leaders of varying theological/denominational flavours with whom I have had the pleasure of working over the years on various projects, and none of whom are averse to saying uncomfortable things at times. So there was a degree to which I was expecting some fireworks, but whilst there were a few provocative things said, frankly, I think that the church got off lightly.
I don't think that John Brewer was there... had he been I have no doubt he would have made his oft repeated critique of the mainstream church suggesting that all of the larger denominations effectively left it up to mavericks and para-church organisation to do the heavy lifting regarding peace-making, whilst, on the whole the church played the role of peace-keepers... trying to maintain peace and quiet... what Brewer et al in their seminal book refers to as "negative peace," ie. making statements about acts of violence and political initiatives from time to time, but little else. 
I also don't think that there were many (if any) from the loyalist community around the Newtownards Road who had protested outside a previous year's 4 Corners event at Skainos, but were out in large numbers at our first event this year, and who often would criticise the protestant churches for "turning their backs" on working class loyalism, robbing them of the ability to speak with any integrity into their context. 
Yesterday evening, in the discussion of "Those You Pass on the Street" at the Agape Centre, director of the play, Paula McFetridge, offered another potential critique of the churches, when the suggestion (which was made by Sunday night panellist Brian Lennon) was put to the panel that the churches should do something to facilitate the telling of stories by victims and survivors in the absence of action by government... Others on the panel were positive about such an input, but Paula pointed out that the church has not always been good at standing up for those on the margins (eg. with women's and LGBT rights) which might well erode any sense of trust in the church as an honest broker. Given Martin Luther King's reminder that real, Biblical peace is not just about the absence of conflict but the presence of justice this critique bears some reflection.
One strong thing that was said on Sunday night by 4 Corners co-founder Steve Stockman was that the idolatry of correct theology was one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the church engaging in reconciliation, (he blogs on it here) prompting a brief flurry of comments about "theology". I know what Steve is talking about and agree with him... I studied at the same theological college a few years and the assessment of the "soundness" of lecturers and fellow students by certain theological gatekeepers at that time was positively toxic... Those student gatekeepers are now senior clerics and I don't suppose their approach to theology has changed much.
However, that is not a problem with theology per se but the type of theology promulgated and the way that it is used... Thankfully Heather Morris, a former theological lecturer, pushed back a bit on this arguing not for less theology, but good theology.
And that is my position. Personally I think that some of this is driven not only by denominational boundary-keeping, but is fundamentally a function of systematic theology rather than the messier business of Biblical theology. Systematic theology tends to force ideas about God into boxes and what follows is that we then put people into boxes (sadly in some cases that is literally so when theology fuels or becomes an excuse for conflict). Those boxes and boundaries are subverted however when we encounter other people and dialogue with them. We may not agree on everything, but it is not enough that, as was suggested at last night's event, that we have to agree to disagree, we first have to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable... But as Christians we have to go further and, as former Methodist President, Heather Morris suggested we need to follow the words of John Wesley in his sermon "The Catholic Spirit" when he quoted the somewhat obscure 2 Kings 10:15 "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? ... If it be, give me thine hand." As Steve Stockman makes clear in his blog, at the end of the day theological differences don't matter a jot if we are brothers and sisters in Christ...
But whether we are lovers of systematic theology or Biblical theology, in my eyes, ALL theology should be practical theology. I don't mean the practical theology that I was taught in the esteemed establishment that I referred to earlier, from which I learned to 
a) put an x through my days off in advance in my diary and
b) use elastic bands on the legs of my glasses to stop them slipping off my ears when reading from a lectern
and nothing else. No, I mean that all theology should shape how we act. If theology means, as it does, "God-words" then those "God-words" should prompt Godly action... And if peacemaking and reconciliation is not Godly action then I don't know what is...
Now another theme that was raised on Sunday night was that of forgiveness, an old hobby horse of mine. It was raised by Alan McBride, who lost his first wife in the Shankill bomb in 1993 during my last year in theological college. Alan has gone on to work for Wave Trauma Centre with victims and survivors and their families, and will be participating in an event with Stephen Travers on of the survivors of the Miami Showband atrocity this coming Thursday... Alan is rightly wary of the demand to forgive that seems to be the message of churches to victims. (Alan touched on similar ground to his question in the interview on NVTV last week before the Festival began) This prompted one of our panel participants, Karen Sethuraman of the Down Community, to say 'On behalf of the churches, let me say sorry for the times we said to victims "you must forgive."' 
A demand to forgive that re-traumatises victims is appalling. It is a function of a bad theology. But the answer is not to run away from the issue of forgiveness. Any theology or practice that does not include forgiveness cannot be said to be authentically Christian, because forgiveness is not just my hobby horse; the gospels, including the challenging words of the the prayer that Jesus taught, suggest that it was a hobby horse for Jesus too. But maybe I will return to all of this in the wake of the event with Alan, or more likely after next Sunday's closing event "Forgiveness Remembers" with Robert Miller and Paul Farren, in Knock Methodist.
But one final gripe... I suppose the biggest problem for me with Sunday night, was that in the end it was just so inward looking. Actually most of what ended up being talked about was not peace-making in the wider world but simple old ecumenism... Which in the eyes of the theological gatekeepers I was talking about earlier, is a word that is even more toxic than reconciliation.
Which brings me back to Bargain Hunt and "The Protestant Reconciler". I was intrigued by the title and did a bit of digging on the internet, to find that it was largely an appeal for late 17th century dissenters to be reconciled with the Church of England... at a time when relations with Catholicism was about to bubble over into the Glorious Revolution and a fracas on the Boyne that has echoes on this island to the present day... 
A number of my colleagues who have served further afield frequently point out that denominational divisions are a massive stumbling block to mission... They are also, at times a massive stumbling block to our role in peace-building and reconciliation at home. First because how can we talk about peace and reconciliation to the wider world when we do not model it between ourselves, but also because getting denominational behemoths to do anything together is frustratingly slow. Which is why I prefer to work with "guerrilla groups" like 4 Corners, that are appointed by no one and accountable to no-one (except funders, God and in my case the congregation who allows me to spend precious time doing such things). We do not speak or act on behalf of the denominations from which we come. (So I cannot even attempt to say sorry on behalf of the churches to victims or to anyone else... nor would I try to).
Churches DO need to work together more, but we need to stop talking about it and just get on with it. 
God words are good... but we need a lot more godly action. Especially in the field of peace-making...

Shalom

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