Whether politics is an art or a science may intrigue the academics, but for many of us in Northern Ireland it is a deeply dispiriting and often quite ugly spectacle. Let me balance that by saying unequivocally that our leaders deserve a great deal of respect and support, for they are in the public eye and often have to make tough choices – sometimes between the bad and the very bad.
Yet respect and support need to be earned, as well as given, and can quickly evaporate. The very poor language so often used in our public discourse is a sad commentary on us all. From Stormont, local council chambers, public meetings or via the media, there comes a steady drip of language that demeans and denigrates both people and ideas. And, let it be said, it is not only voiced by politicians but by too many of us in wider society (including overtly Christian people.) Just look at the blogs on many news items or the responses of audiences on radio and television.
We have created a society where public debate is often characterised by aggression and a deep unwillingness to listen. I am particularly angst ridden about the ease within the Christian community with which we so often appear to value opinion above godly wisdom, and political preferences above Biblical norms and teaching. One has only to read passages such as Proverbs 15 or James 3 to be acutely aware of the power – and danger – of words. No-one can seriously believe the old rhyme: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me’. It is no wonder therefore, that on our streets, and in our communities, tension and bitterness are evidenced in hate crime, contested space and deteriorating relationships. We are mentoring each other very badly. To our shame, we are consciously normalising language and attitudes which are neither the marks of a healthy, contented, progressive and tolerant society, nor of the Biblical view of what the church of Jesus Christ should be like.
This reality is in stark contrast to the high aspirations of the OFMDFM community relations strategy published in 2103: ‘Together: Building a United Community’. Even the title captures the fact that real work is needed to build relationships and a more visionary future. So as a society, and as communities, groups and individuals, there is a simple hard choice to be made, for we cannot face in the opposite directions of promoting reconciliation and being aggressive at the same time. With an election coming up in a few weeks’ time, and another in May 2016, is it too much to hope that politics at every level will embrace the art of healing our fractured relationships rather than stoke the fires of more division? And that, both within our churches and emanating from them, there will be a constant stream of counter cultural grace into a society where the lack of shared values is ever more obvious and ever more damaging?
Norman Hamilton is a retired Presbyterian minister and is currently chair of the Public Affairs Council of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.