Bethlehem Diary 2: From suspicion to partnership for peace

Day 2: Suspicion sets in

Day 2 provided a pre-conference opportunity to listen to a lecture setting out a Palestinian perspective on history and experience. The welcome was warm and the lecture was delivered with clarity and good humour. The stories told invoked a certain understanding of the world which drew from me a feeling of suspicion. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen. The experience took me back to my attendances at the West Belfast Festival. There, as an Ulster Prod, I found myself sitting in a story which I did not share. But it was always, and it is still so, a story that elicited the sympathy of the world. In that sense the Festival has always had a seductive character to it. I contrast it to my experience among loyalists and unionists when the talk is often more desolate. The contrast is between optimism and despair, between a sense of people being on the same page or people being divided as to the way forward. So in Bethlehem I was glad of the difficult person in the audience who challenged the speaker and took him to task. That person was treated with the greatest respect but I still wondered if that came from a deep sense of the Palestinian perspective being the right perspective.
All of that said there are things happening here, and I write as a learning outsider, which are quite staggering in their capacity to diminish human beings – the loss of land and the building of walls inside the agreed line thus depriving Palestinians of land they were supposed to have, the checkpoints that treat people inhumanely at times, the number of people leaving Palestinian communities to go somewhere where there is greater opportunity, the delays in issuing permits which leave Palestinians uncertain about travel and so much more. I am reminded that unless people can look into each other’s human experience and see it for how it is experienced then there is little chance of embedded peace sustained into the future.
The history is bloody and filled with loss. Whether it be the 1948 catastrophe, the 1967 six-day war, the first or second Intifada, or the 2009 Gaza War or Massacre, there is little to be proud of, it seems to me. I am reminded again that there are no glories in violence. In Northern Ireland we sometimes speak of the rewards for violence and how abhorrent they are, even if they are made in order to achieve peace. But even with that there are no glories in violence. There may be moments that are used to craft a story of identity and success that communicates the lie that these glorious moments give glory to violence. Years on the continuing loss, injury, psychological suffering, community breakdown and dehumanising behaviour speak loudly in voices that tell us there are no glories in violence. Yet we can continue to believe the lie. Hence I have become suspicious of any history or any telling of history which is not significantly critical of violence as a means to achieve an end or of any telling of history that entices outsiders onto one side or the other. And that is not to deny the facts that go with those histories, they have to be respected along with the human stories.
Vera Baboun, the first woman to hold the office of Mayor of Bethlehem, spoke proudly and well about peace. Peace, peace, peace. All that we do has to be about peace. Tell the world Israel has a partner for making peace. Here she took the words of Rabin who, at the signing of the negotiations surrounding the Oslo Accords, said that there was no partner for making peace. Baboun speaks out to grasp the opportunity for making a new history. She invites a response to the call.
Baboun’s call is a reminder that none of us can make peace on our own. Peace is made with enemies and perhaps that is why I am uncomfortable with one history being told. Unless the enemy is present and willing to make peace, unless we are present as an enemy in other stories and willing to make peace there, then peace is not possible. Peace is always made when enemies are willing to partner one another and disrupt one another’s suspicions.

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Bethlehem Diary 1: Remembering the past isn’t enough to break down division

Day 1: Arrival in Tel Aviv

I was wondering what it would be like. It’s about 20 years since I was here. I remember the long drive from Tel Aviv airport all those years ago. Alongside the road there were relics of the Yom Kippur War – rusting tanks and the like. There to remind people of what war can do to people and to encourage a new peace, if I remember correctly, these relics stood out against the softer landscape of Israel. But not today. Today the drive from Tel Aviv, through Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem is contoured by walls. Crafted, architectured walls to keep the right people in the right place and the wrong people in the right place.
I found it staggering. I know walls, of course. You can’t live in Belfast and not know walls. But these walls cut through communities, cut through peoples lives, influence and dominate lives in a way that I haven’t seen before. It occurred to me, as I listened to the taxi driver, that when we attempt to ghettoize others we are ghettoising our own spirits too. Hemming people in, putting them where we know they will be, keeping them apart, puts them in a place from which we fear them. We fear the possibility of a day when they will burst from their ghettos and make us pay for what we have done. So the natural instinct has to be to further ghettoize them so they will not be a danger to us. Minds and spirits become cut off from each other and the human family is, both literally and emotionally, divided.
The rusting vehicles beside the road didn’t do their job. They were to serve as a reminder of what human beings can do each other. It was not enough. It is a stark warning. Unless something is done to remake relationships after violence then there will be return. Reminders of what is past are not enough to stem the bleed into inhumanity in the future. There has to be something else to resist the human tendency to protect self by dominating, oppressing or victimising others. The work is deep and slow but essential.
The Biblical teaching about Christ as the well-breaker screams into play. Here is a message about peace between peoples but also of peace for all people, whether they be believers of not. It is not enough for Christian people to stand with each other. Christian people, sharing the ministry of Jesus Christ, have everyone in view.

Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. Christ gave his own body 15 to destroy the Law of Moses with all its rules and commands. He even brought Jews and Gentiles together as though we were only one person, when he united us in peace. 16 On the cross Christ did away with our hatred for each other. He also made peace between us and God by uniting Jews and Gentiles in one body. 17 Christ came and preached peace to you Gentiles, who were far from God, and peace to us Jews, who were near God. 18 And because of Christ, all of us can come to the Father by the same Spirit. Ephesians 2 14-18

While Christians may and should view themselves as one in Christ we also face the calling to preach peace to all, and that means living peace with and for all. Walls separate and build up hatred. They destroy human community and undignify both the builder and the enclosed. The dynamics of human relationships have to be considered within the political arrangements we make, supposedly to sustain us. If they are not then the walls which divide become the walls by which we pressure cooker difference to the point of explosion.
I missed those rusty tanks by the road. They had so much to say about remembering how not to be with each other. The walls, beautifully architectured and all as they are, spoke of hopelessness and separation and the affront to human dignity on both sides. As I write there is trouble in the street outside the hotel – tear gas, soldiers in a stand off, young men throwing stones, loud music to raise the temperature. The walls aren’t doing the job. Human dignity, persisting in the quality of human relationships, needs to take centre stage.

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Disorientated and looking for direction: the impact of the news about OTR arrangements

In his work on the Psalms Walter Brueggemann writes of three kinds of Psalm: Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Psalm 22 is one of those expressing disorientation:

I have no more strength
 than a few drops of water.
All my bones are out of joint;
 my heart is like melted wax.
My strength has dried up
 like a broken clay pot,
 and my tongue sticks
 to the roof of my mouth.
 You, God, have left me
 to die in the dirt. Psalm 22 vv14-15

I imagine that this is how many feel with the ongoing news about the arrangements regarding ‘on the runs.’ The sad fact is that there has been a long history to this beginning maybe as early as 1995 and continuing onwards at least from 2000 when news reports appeared. Somehow the public debate missed it. The 2005 Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill brought the debate to light and perhaps the rejection of the Bill put it from our minds. No one asked what would happen with the OTRs when the Bill was rejected. No one followed up on the news reports. No one picked up on the paragraphs in the report of the Consultative Group on Dealing with the Past. There are many questions, human questions, leadership questions, legal questions and many more.
This doesn’t feel clean. Truth be told there have been a lot of things both coming up to and after the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that haven’t felt clean but for many of us the price for peace was worth paying. At this juncture, though, things feel less clean than they did before because we wonder what else was going on. Peter Hain has spoken about the deals that were done with the DUP which others didn’t like. He mentioned the appointment of a victims representative. I want to know – were there more and what were they? How many side deals were done, with whom were they done and why were they done?
There are victims and survivors who are reeling from the news and well they might be. Over the last months politicians, and others too, have spoken of their centrality in dealing with the past. They have been invited, time and again, to bring forward what they want to see done and they have risen to the challenge. No one thought to outline the limits to what is possible whether it be in regard to truth or justice. No one thought to say to them that they were listening as best they could but before even they started into responding there were restrictions because of what has already transpired in dealing with the past. No wonder they are reeling. No wonder they are angry and hurt, many of them immobilised by what has happened. As a society we at least owe them an expression of deep remorse for our sins of omission for we omitted to tell them that deals had already been done without their knowledge.
I wonder to myself what the politicians were doing. In particular I wonder what the Unionist politicians were doing. Many across middle Unionism believe that it is time to stop delving into the past. Given the OTR arrangements and the Weston Park discussions would it not have been wise to bag this and to ask for more? To ask for the lifting of the weight of potential prosecutions from police and soldiers too? To ask that Inquiries be restricted and that an equitable release from the past be given across the board? It would have been short of what many want but it might at least have been more fair and we might not be where we are today.
I wonder to myself what the OTRs are feeling and what their families are feeling. The act of mercy they received must feel in danger and families who were separated from their loved ones are probably in crisis too, reliving the agonies of the years apart. I know some of the OTRs. I have heard one speak out against dissident activity, calling for a stable peace. I have watched another work tirelessly for peace. That is something.
I wonder what of truth now. Where will it come from and where does it sit? Are there limits to truth that we need to speak of in the legal sense and are there limits we need to speak of in the human sense? I have wondered this a lot over the last few weeks since an event I attended when I heard a former IRA volunteer speak of his recognition of the loss of human life in a bombing in which he was involved. But he was clear that he believed in what he did while at the same time recognising the loss. If that is the truth we are going to get and all the truth we are going to get, do we really want it?
I wonder to myself about justice. These letters the OTRs received didn’t give them immunity but told them they were not being pursued due to lack of evidence. What chance is there of new evidence across the many open cases that remain? And if that is seriously limited then how do we say that, how do we tell it to those who are holding out for justice?
I wonder to myself about the heated debates regarding limited immunity. I wonder if there is a real recognition of the existing immunity arrangements that are already in place. I wonder if we realise that we have already accepted limited immunity.
I wonder if it is possible to sit down and honestly scope out the landscape of what has been done about the past, dirty and all as it might be, so that we can clean up our act for going forward. I don’t believe it is possible to clean up a dirty war with moral purity. But I do believe that we should aim to raise the bar with every action so that we reach a more healthy and honest and upright society in which relationships can be real and trusting. We won’t do that without recognising what we have allowed to pass in the process of making peace, things we wouldn’t normally allow to pass.
I can understand how this got missed. I have found myself in difficult times turning my head and saying – do what you have to do, just do it quickly. Perhaps that’s something of what happened. If it is then we need to say it because there are lives that are like broken clay pots. There is a stink to what has happened. It’s time for us to face our disgust at what’s been done, and perhaps disgust at ourselves too for being complicit. Lives can’t be rebuilt without it.
There is cross that moves around the local churches in my area. It is called the Cavehill Cross. It is made from the broken wood left after the bombing of the Cavehill shops on Bloody Friday, 21st June 1972. Twenty six bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes killing 11 people and injuring 130. At the Cavehill shops 14-year-old Stephen Parker was killed. His father, a local minister, wanted the cross made and moved around the churches to remember Stephen and to remember what we have done to each other. The cross represents the pain of so many from across the community, ordinary people, some with good intent and some intent on taking the lives of others. Their families are left bearing the cost of the troubles. Violence corrupts and drives us to dehumanise each other so that we are all brutalised. Violence takes on its own life and takes us over to the degree that we lose touch with the real humanity by which we live well together, in respect and with tolerance and hope. Violence has far reaching impacts and we should object to it:

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. Mahatma Gandhi

There are those who are suffering more than most tonight. They know that the evil violence does is permanent. They are suffering with the memory of a blast, a shot, an injury, a loss. We cannot make it right for them. We cannot give them back lost loved ones, lost limbs or lost hopes and dreams. We cannot even give them all that they are asking for. But we can do better. Making sure we attend to the way in which we do business so that we make relationships across the community to ensure that what happened in the past will never happen again is a starting point. We should address all our energy to that.
If only it were different. But it isn’t. In the brokenness of many lives this time is savage and disordered. In every disorientation there is the opportunity for reorientation, painful and difficult as that may be. At the very least this should be a time to look together for that reorientation of principle and substance that make the difference and cleans up the stink, raising the bar once and for all.

Do you want to live
 and enjoy a long life?

Then don’t say cruel things
 and don’t tell lies.

Do good instead of evil
 and try to live at peace. Psalm 34 vv12-14

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