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.