Merriman Summer School–Protestantism and the Challenges of Reconciliation (Part I)

merriman1Last week the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare, explored the theme of ‘Ireland: North and South – Two Societies Growing Apart?’ The programme featured a range of academic, poetic and musical contributions, including my own on ‘The Challenges of Reconciliation.’

As part of a panel discussion with journalist Susan McKay, I was briefed to explore challenges of reconciliation from the perspective of my work as a sociologist of religion.  I am posting my talk in two parts, the first today on some themes within Protestantism that are challenges to reconciliation (including examples of how such challenges have been addressed) and the second on understanding sectarianism as an overarching socio-political system.

It is worth noting that the general consensus emerging from the summer school lectures and discussions is that North and South are indeed growing apart – if they haven’t grown apart already. There also seems to be very little political will to stem this or to think about how we might creatively develop relationships between East/West and North/South.

The Challenges of Reconciliation – Part I

One of the routes I travel to my office at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Belfast takes me from the Catholic suburb of Andersonstown, through a patchwork of segregated communities in West and North Belfast. These are marked out by peace walls, murals and increasingly this year –flags, especially in loyalist communities.

The geography of the city of Belfast – and much of Northern Ireland –screams that we are un-reconciled; indeed, that we don’t even want reconciliation.

It’s understandable that in the present climate solutions to the ‘flags’ and ‘parading’ issues are at the front of people’s minds, and a narrative is developing: ‘Loyalists are The Problem.’ But there’s a problem with the ‘Loyalists are The Problem’ narrative: It presents Them and Them Alone as obstacles to reconciliation.

The topic I’m speaking on is ‘The Challenges of Reconciliation,’ and I submit that one of the biggest challenges lies in seeing sectarianism as A Problem for All of Us on this island, north and south – not just for the loyalist wielding the ceremonial sword against a PSNI officer or the dissident republican seeking to continue the ‘armed struggle.’

As a sociologist of religion, much of my own research has been on the churches, conflict and reconciliation, focusing on evangelical Protestantism in Northern Ireland. In the time I have here today, I want to reflect on just two (among many) challenges to reconciliation:

  1. Understanding the particular ideological (or theological, if you will) themes within Protestantism that are challenges to reconciliation – and providing examples of how some Protestants are overcoming these challenges.
  2. Understanding that all of us are embedded in this island’s sectarian systems and that reconciliation is not just a task for the loyalists and republicans on opposite sides of the peace walls. Reconciliation requires full-scale transformation of this island’s relationships, systems and institutions – tasks that require greater attention from grassroots groups and political leaders, north and south.


Challenges to Reconciliation within Protestantism

I hope it is clear that choosing to focus on challenges to reconciliation within Protestantism does not put me in the ‘Loyalists are The Problem’ camp. My focus on Protestantism simply reflects my own research interests. There are equally daunting challenges within Catholicism, which other scholars have examined.

Also do not assume because I focus on theological ideas that I see religious doctrines as THE cause of conflict. All conflicts, including the ones on this island, are caused by complex webs of differences, inequalities, and abuses of power. Religious ideas are used by leaders of to rally troops and supporters, while religious institutions and clergy are co-opted as cheerleaders or chaplains to the tribe.

The Plantations of Ireland in the 1600s brought a potent mix of Reformed, Calvinist theological ideas to this island, whose influence helped to justify separation and prejudice and ultimately contributed to the establishment of sectarian social and political system, north and south. There isn’t the scope to examine the history in full, but suffice to say that Calvinism has deeply influenced the Presbyterian (and even Anglican) churches on this island and Presbyterianism remains the largest expression of Protestant Christianity in Northern Ireland.

Though today’s Ardoyne rioters pay little attention to the Bible verses and Old Testament scenes adorning Orange banners, it could be argued that key theological ideas continue to echo in their consciousness. There are three I think are especially important: The Chosen People, The Promised Land, and The Covenant.

The Chosen People

The idea of the chosen people is rooted in the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination: that God ordained, before the foundations of the world, who would be saved and who would be damned. Calvinist settlers in Ireland saw themselves as part of this chosen band. With such a belief, it is easy to assume that all those who are not part of your group – and especially those who resist and refuse conversion to your group – are bound for hell or put on this earth to do the devil’s work.

This perspective is reflected in the popularity of II Corinthians 6:17, a text often seen adorning church notice boards or handmade roadside signs:

Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.

The challenge to reconcile – or even just to establish a cold, tolerant relationship – with those who just will not ‘come out from among them’ is a vast one.

The Promised Land

For those of you who recall the stories of the Old Testament – many of which are depicted on Orange banners – one interpretation is that the Israelites are a conquering people, blessed and guided by God, who forcefully occupy the Promised Land, killing the Canaanite people who get in their way.

Many of the early settlers in Ulster saw themselves like the Israelites of old – they were a chosen people, blessed and guided by God, with a divine right to occupy the promised land of Ireland. The Gaelic Irish Catholic played the part of the pagan Canaanite.

The challenge to reconcile – or to share land with those who are cast as pagan, superstitious, or unworthy– is also a vast one.

The Covenant

The idea of the covenant deeply infused the thinking of the Calvinist Reformers of Scotland and Ireland. Once again drawing their inspiration from the Old Testament, these Calvinists thought of covenants on several levels, such as between the church (the chosen people) and God, and between the church (the chosen people) and the state.

The covenant with God worked like this. If his people upheld his laws, God would bless them. If they broke his laws, God would curse them. Related to this, if the state upheld God’s laws, God would bless the land. If it did not, God would curse the land. This meant that these Calvinists saw it as their duty to be a watchdog of the state, and to rebel against it if they judged that it was no longer upholding God’s laws. If breaking God’s laws invited his wrath on the land, the stakes were very high – so high that violent revolt could be justified.

The shorthand for covenantal thinking is the popular slogan, ‘For God and Ulster.’ You also can see this type of thinking reflected in the Scottish covenant with the crown in 1643, and in Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant against Home Rule in 1912. Consider this language from the Ulster Covenant:

We … humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.

The challenge to reconcile with those who see themselves as the correct interpreters of God’s laws, and the watchdogs of a state that is breaking God’s laws, is likewise a vast one.

But what do these ideas mean today?

I’m sure many in this room remember the rhetoric of the Rev Ian Paisley, who employed Calvinist interpretations of the covenant, chosen people and promised land in his rousing sermons and political speeches. While that’s not to say that those who were stirred to violence by listening to him were themselves ‘religious’ or churchgoers, words like his assured them that they were right, and justified in taking action, including violent action – even if the whole world seemed to be against them.

Indeed, if the whole world seemed to be against you, that confirmed that you were the small minority of chosen people resisting the evil agenda of the persecutors. It’s no coincidence that Paisley’s church is called Martyrs’ Memorial: like the martyrs of old, Ulster Protestants would resist persecution and be willing to die for what they thought was right.

In the mid-1980s, a group of evangelical Protestants, from a variety of denominations, took a long and critical look at the way Calvinism had influenced the theology of their churches down through the centuries. They saw this ‘Protestant ideology’ (a phrase used by the social scientist Frank Wright) reflected in the way Paisley mixed religion and politics. And they thought it was wrong.

They formed an organisation called Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), and in November 1985 published a statement in the Belfast Telegraph, ‘For God and His Glory Alone,’ ‘signed by twenty-four Presbyterian ministers holding evangelical beliefs’ (Mitchel 2003: 260-261). Notice how ‘For God and His Glory Alone’ inverts the ‘For God and Ulster’ slogan. It included paragraphs on Loyalty, Rights, Reconciliation and Choice. This is what ECONI had to say about reconciliation, summarised by Patrick Mitchel (2003: 261):

On ‘Reconciliation’, ‘the identification of the Kingdom of God with any one political ideology was described as an ‘Idolatry and affront to Almighty God. It is a perversion of the Gospel.’

ECONI’s approach was rooted in critique of Northern Ireland’s Calvinist and evangelical traditions. ECONI saw these traditions as complicit in an idolatrous ideology in which the religious concepts of the chosen people, promised land and covenant had become destructive political ideas. Further, ECONI implied that people must repent, turn away from this idolatry, in order for there to be reconciliation.

ECONI also would draw on ideas from the Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions about the relationship between church and state, non-violent resistance, and how to accommodate those whose religious and political beliefs differ from your own. They articulated a vision in which all Christian traditions were seen as gifts from God, able to enrich society and the body politic in some way. For them, the appropriate place for the church is with those on the margins of society – for example, with out-of-work loyalists in deprived areas – speaking out for them and offering practical assistance.

I want to emphasise three aspects of ECONI’s work that are important when it comes to thinking about how to overcome challenges to reconciliation:

  1. Self-critique. Blanket condemnations from ‘outsiders’ are just not that helpful. But self-critique must be tempered by the ability to articulate alternative visions of the future.
  2. Repentance. Paisley was found of preaching that there could be no forgiveness without repentance. Recall his speech in 2004 when he said that the IRA’s decommissioning should be accompanied by repentance, in ‘sackcloth and ashes.’ But ECONI was not looking for repentance from the Other Side; they called people to look at themselves, and repent for their own sins.
  3. Commitment to engaging with people on the margins. ECONI were one of the first groups to raise the issue of the Protestant churches’ abandonment of the working classes. They argued that peace would not be possible unless people on the margins were treated respectfully and felt that they had a stake in that future.

ECONI flourished for 15-20 years before fading, albeit not entirely, from the scene, where it continues as the Centre for Contemporary Christianity. Their work did not overcome all of the challenges of reconciliation – not that it could have been expected to. One of today’s challenges is reflected in the fact that I have chosen to talk with you about an organisation that is active today only on a limited scale. This indicates just how disengaged most churches and faith-based civil society groups are from the tasks of overcoming sectarianism and promoting reconciliation.

You can read Part II on ‘Sectarianism is a Problem for All of Us’ here.

(Image, left to right: Susan McKay, Doireann Ní Bhriain (Merriman Committee and chair of session) and Gladys Ganiel)

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