I come from the generation where the sound of helicopters whizzing, bombs exploding, and even bullets ripping, provided the soundtrack for our formative Christian years. I remember listening to the RUC band play the death march at a funeral in Dungannon, as the teacher valiantly tried to read aloud a French novel. Each Saturday night we gathered round the Bible in Scotch Street Presbyterian Church Halls, often while gangs rioted, or bombs exploded in adjacent streets. The ghosts of past atrocities, the trauma of witnesses, and the resultant community divisions still haunt many churches to this day. Our ability to reach out beyond our cultural hinterland is hindered by the memories of those grotesque years.
Ian McBride, Professor of Irish and British History in King’s College London, spoke recently at a meeting in Keady about “history’s tangled root”. Sectarian communities have produced sectarian memories. Each community has their cherished narrative, complete with victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains, traitors and collaborators. Separate memories, like two shoe laces, have become so entangled that they are difficult to separate. By pulling too rigorously at one place the knot can become even tighter. So there is a temptation to just move on and ignore the entangled past, or as journalist Brian Rowan puts it ,”It is too easy to judge, to apportion blame and, then, to walk away. A real peace has to be about something more.”
Walter Brueggemann warns “When we have completely forgotten our past, we will absolutize the present and we will be like contented cows in Bashan who want nothing more than the best of today”.
For a Christian every part of the past has to be viewed through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The memory of Jesus trumps every other historical memory.
Miroslav Volf, speaking out of his experience of a tangled history in Croatia puts it like this,
“Communities of sacred memory are, at their best schools of right remembering – remembering that is truthful and just, that heals individuals without injuring others, that allows the past to motivate a just struggle for justice and the grace filled work of reconciliation.”
At the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland “a vision for society” statement was agreed which included a confession of our failures to live as biblically faithful Christian peace builders and to promote the counter culture of Jesus in a society where cultures clash. It was also agreed to launch a research project addressing the question, “How did Presbyterians respond to the Troubles?”
It is hoped that as we listen to stories from victims and survivors but also pastors, youth workers, health and social care professionals, security forces, politicians, members of loyal Orders, politicians as well as those involved in paramilitary organizations that we might watch as the skillful fingers of the Holy Spirit untangles a few knots, and brings healing to the wider community.
Tony Davidson is Minister in First Armagh Presbyterian Church.
Thank you posting this article at this critical time
I could write something on ‘How did Presbyterians respond to the Troubles?’ But I am no longer a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, having joined the Non-Subscribing Church of Ireland some years ago. I had been appointed a ‘Peace Agent’ back then and was so frustrated at the lack of co-operation as such, that I moved on. Would you find out if my piece (not yet written, but could be!) would still be accepted for this research project?
Response to “Untangling the knots of history”
“History is the confused heap of facts.” (G. K. Chesterton)
“History is Philosophy teaching by examples.” (Thucydides)
“A nation which does not know what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do.” (Woodrow Wilson)
I quote above some of the myriads of opposing and conflicting views of what is history or what its value is. One common theme which runs through most of the quotations I have come across is that there is no such thing as history lying to be discovered. There are only masses of confused facts which need to be interpretated and made meaningful.And this very need gives rise to the problem of why each community or nation produces its “cherished narratives , complete with victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains, traitors and collaborators “
Academic professional historians are supposed to provide us with “truthful and just” remembering which can heal “individuials without injuring others” and allow “the past to motivate a just struggle for justice and the grace filled work of reconciliation.” Alas, most historians are finite fallen human beings with their own vested interest and motivation. This is exemplified in what has come to be known as “revisionist history”—the most notorious example of which is David Irwin, the Holocausr denier and more respectable example is Andrew Roberts who has tried to show that colonialism , especially the British variety, was not without merits and benefits to the people colonised.
Despite such intractable difficultie all peoples, cultures, and nations are “condemned” to try to understand their past. Otherwise, as Walter Bruggemann warns, “we will absolutize the present and we will be like contended cows in Bashan who will want nothing more than the best of today” or, even more dangerously, as the philosopher Santayana warns “Those who canot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Understanding one’s past is not going to be a “once for all” excerise. Rather, it is going to be continuous struggle in the light of changing times and circumstances and newly discovered “facts.” It is for this reason Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s “a vision for society” statement is greatly to be welcome. Every Christian should pray and hope, as Rev. Tony Davidson does, that”stories from victims and survivors,….pastors, youth workers ,…..security forces, …..members of loyal Orders, ….those involved in paramilitary organizatiions ..” will be listened to and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will understand our past better and thereby bring about some healing to the divided community.