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.


And the churches said…..?

I am frustrated with the public debate. I am looking for something that won’t go over and over the same issues in ever decreasing circles of blame. These days I’m an ordinary, two-bit Presbyterian minister. I don’t convene any committees and I don’t sit on any boards. I’ve done my time and I know the difficulties. As an ordinary Presbyterian I want to hear what the churches have to say about the Haass & O’Sullivan talks. Actually I wanted to hear from the churches before we got to draft 7. I want to hear about Twaddell, Welfare Reform, education, food banks, employment, the future of healthcare provision, racist attacks. 

When I try to recall the voice of the churches in the public domain the predominant memories are of rampaging earnestness when it comes to sexuality or ‘gay’ blood. I want to hear about so much more. I want to know that my denomination and other denominations are struggling with what makes Talkback or Nolan or UTV Live. I want to hear a voice into the public debate, not necessarily offering answers but at least setting out issues and the difficulties in resolving them.
Don’t get me wrong – I hear some very strong individual voices from church people, for example the Methodist President. I am grateful to them for they bubble a debate among a significant community of people who vote or don’t vote, who have opinions and who are looking for a way through the various impasses that confront our society. A big, ‘thank you!’
As for the challenges, each denomination contains a cross-section of society. So to speak with one view is difficult. All the voices need to be recognised. And is that any different from a political party? All political parties are driven by their electorate which will, at least from time to time, have a variety of opinions. But churches aren’t political parties. Each church has to take account of the pastoral needs of its members and to represent those voices as best they can. But churches are also called to be, as I read the Bible, makers of peace, places where people pray for friend and enemy alike. Churches are tasked with seeking the peace of every City. Does that not make for some difference? Does it not mean that churches can speak with a voice that is both pastoral and energetic with vision?
Or is it the case that these days churches are on their knees praying – Dear God, we have a problem? We do have a problem. It would be good to admit that at least. We have a problem with the diverse voices that make up our society and our denominations, voices that can’t harmonise for a way forward. We have a problem with diverse needs that cannot all be met. We have a problem with a public debate that prefers to take a pop at others and even sink into personal attack rather than unravel the issues. We have a problem in the lack of common will and purpose to address issues and find a way forward. We seem to have a problem with truth at more than one level, not just in relation to the past. Maybe, at best, we can truthfully say that we have a problem and we don’t quite know how to get through it.
Could common purpose be found in the willingness to find a way through, to build peace with humility, compassion and sorrow for what we cannot do? Is that the most honest position to take? And if it is, can churches, denominations, at least say so? More worryingly, would it be more truthful to say that we don’t want to find a way through? We just have to live with what we’ve got.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
James 3:17-18


The Post-Haass Glow?

The New Year has begun without the post-Haass glow. Haass, O’Sullivan and their team have returned home and publication of the proposals has provided the opportunity for blame to begin. Reading the proposals one can hear the voices of politicians, each voice disturbed by different aspects of the document. No glow, just blame.
For what it’s worth I don’t think anyone is to blame any more than anyone else. It was a joint enterprise. Everyone in the negotiations shared equal responsibility for finding agreement and when discordant notes were sounded it was the responsibility of others to understand what they meant. Each was responsible for the other and each was responsible for addressing the concerns expressed by the others. Who did that best or who continued with the old conflicts is of little consequence. The outstanding matters of the past remain outstanding and difficulties about parades and flags are built on those outstanding matters.
What if times for approaching difficulties were regularly built into the peace-building process?
What if there was regular, pre-agreed time set aside before any of the issues that would be part of the conversations were identified?
Would that assist in reaching agreement?
Would that help a post-conflict society to move to a better peace?
I suggest that pre-agreed times are essential in the processes required to make and embed peace across a society. If they are pre-agreed then discussions are not about impasses or conflicts but about the shared enterprise of making peace. I also suggest that these pre-agreed times would have a character about them different from normal party political engagement. The dynamics of those pauses for thought and discussion would be one of solving problems and not of surmounting obstacles. The commitment to the common purpose of making a better peace would be evident in the manner in which those discussions take place and the common goal would be to use the time well, for good and clear outcomes.
But we don’t have those times. We wait until we don’t know what to do any more and, when things get bad enough, we finally get to the issues.
Perhaps this isn’t all bad. It was clear that none of the parties had properly prepared their constituencies for the sacrifices needed for agreements to be reached. Nor was there enough public leadership on those compromise matters. No party leadership persuaded the public that they were reaching agreement for good reason but every party leadership has stepped onto the public stage to explain how well they have done for their own constituency. They now have an opportunity to considered public debate and give significant leadership. They will not be able to do that alone. A strong civic voice is called for, speaking into the controversy from a different place which is impacted by the lack of agreement. We also need a society willing to move towards reconciliation for the sake of a future in which the past does not recur. Peace-making is a common task with the common ambition of resisting a past in which society sunk into violence which made victims and survivors and embittered and betrayed many.
I like what the Tanaiste, Eamonn Gilmore, had to say:

This is not a step back but rather a step not yet taken. That step forward will have to be taken because it is right and necessary and because people across society are demanding it.

The problem is that nothing stands still. Stand still and you’re history. Hopefully the opportunity for making a better and more resilient peace has not been consigned to history.


Thoughts from the Forum for Cities in Transition Conference, Kaduna, Nigeria: are our ambitions for peace great enough?

One of the most striking things about my visit to Nigeria was the way in which Christians and Muslims are working together. Coming from Northern Ireland where Christians often find it hard to work together with any consistency it was quite stunning to hear not only of existing interfaith projects for peace but also the call for more. There was a critical awareness of the need for faith communities to be part of the civil society infrastructure. The Nigerian representatives on the Forum for Cities in Transition told us that it is not enough for Muslims and Christians to work separately. In the face of the devastating violence and ensuing loss, grief and destruction, there needs to be a much stronger message coming from the faith communities. That message must, they told us, be against segregation and difference. It must be about peaceful co-existence. I confess I found the ambition of peaceful co-existence difficult. Some time ago we set that aside as an ambition and have looked for something more – integration, sharing, united community. But then again, peaceful co-existence was an honourable ambition for us once too when things were bad. It was a privilege to listen to Imam and Pastor talk about their interfaith project, an important NGO for mediation and building a community in which people of difference can live together. As they listed their models of engagement I found them strangely familiar. They included: Interfaith education in peace, formal and informal Peer mediation for students in schools and colleges African affirmative dispute restitution models Faith based Psycho-social therapy Interfaith peace clubs Media dialogue Young ambassadors medal Mediation tents or town hall meetings Meetings and meeting spaces at flashpoint areas, peace gates etc. to provide a metaphor for peace Early response systems using modern technology Peace matches Policy advocacy Peace declarations and affirmations And I didn’t write them all down! As I listened I remembered Rwanda and some of the things I had heard there. Faith-based psycho-social therapy was popular there too, as were some of the other models. But I also wondered if we sell ourselves short. Would we ever systematize what we do in Northern Ireland into a list of models for peace building? Do we think of ourselves as critical in the peace-making process? Have we, in the churches, yet understood how critical it is for us to step into the civil society space to work for the ambitions of integration, sharing and united community? Or are we still constrained by our differences? Are we too consumed with the past to seek the justice of a future in which things will be radically different from the past? Maybe we are leaving all the value-based arguments to those who were ‘actors’ in the past rather than grasping a value-based position right now to work for a future which looks nothing like the divided, violent, sectarian past which we lived through. The Nigerian call is for values which stretch us to working with others for higher ambitions rather than living in our own disputed past.

The Imam and the Pastor -see them on youtube