Norman Hamilton, Martin Magill and Me Tomorrow on Beyond Belief – The Churches since the Good Friday Agreement (and thoughts on forgiveness)

Tomorrow’s Beyond Belief programme on BBC Radio 4 will feature a discussion among Rev Norman Hamilton, Fr Martin Magill and me about the role of the churches in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement. The programme airs at 4.30 pm, or you can catch the podcast later in the day.

Hamilton is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, and served many years in Ballysillan in North Belfast.  Magill is parish priest at St John’s on the Falls Road, Belfast.

The programme also features a recorded interview about forgiveness with Alan McBride. McBride’s wife Sharon was killed in the Shankill Road bomb.

Hamilton was on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence this morning, along with Fr Gary Donegan, a Passionist priest formerly based in North Belfast. They discussed forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s well worth a listen if you want to turn your mind to these topics as we reflect this coming week on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Hamilton and Donegan fielded some tough questions, such as ‘Can reconciliation only happen with forgiveness?’, and ‘Is it okay not to forgive?’

I think that Hamilton and Donegan’s conversation illustrates the complexity of forgiveness. There cannot be a one-size fits all model of forgiveness that is imposed on people from on high – least of all by the churches.

While I think the topic of forgiveness is one on which churches could contribute much to public debate, what they must not do is demand that people forgive – whether that is forgiving an entire community that they may have previously seen as their enemies, or forgiving individual perpetrators.

Neither Hamilton nor Donegan demanded that people forgive. But they pointed out that on an individual level, forgiveness is often most beneficial for the person who has been wronged because forgiveness can give them freedom.

In contrast to that, churches often are seen to be demanding that people forgive – due in part to the line in the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father: ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Further, among some Protestant churches, there is a theology that says that the perpetrator must repent before there can be forgiveness. The Rev Ian Paisley once famously expressed this by saying that the IRA must ‘repent in sackcloth and ashes’ before he would sit in Government with Sinn Féin. Of course, the IRA did not repent in that way, and in 2007 Paisley sat in Government with Sinn Féin anyway. If people are waiting for the IRA to repent, I think they are going to be waiting for a very long time.

An organisation that was active during the Troubles, Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), had a constructive way of thinking about forgiveness. ECONI argued that we should not be preoccupied by waiting for the other to repent, but that we should self-critically examine our own actions and repent for what we have done wrong – and then ask forgiveness of the Other. That’s a tall order – not impossible, but difficult.

I think what the churches should do is start communicating about how complex and complicated forgiveness is. Conversations like the one this morning between Hamilton and Donegan are a start.

I know from my own research that Christians in all churches struggle with forgiveness and have different ideas about it. I’ve heard people say that when the Lord’s Prayer is recited in their church, they skip the line about forgiveness because they just can’t forgive the people who killed their loved ones. And I don’t condemn them for that. It makes me think of other parts of the Scripture, such as the Psalms or the Book of Lamentations, where people really vent about their anger, bitterness and pain. The churches also might remind us that lamentation may be a healthy response to victimization and that we should give people time to go through that process.

On a sombre note, Hamilton said that hope for political reconciliation was now slim, as relationships among our politicians are damaged and political discourse is marked by aggression and confrontation. Donegan said that we have political leaders – but what we need is ‘statespeople’: people who we could look back at 20 years from now, and see the gestures they made that pointed our society towards reconciliation.

To add to Donegan’s comments about statespeople, I would steal a line from a recent interview with Rev Steve Stockman, minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast. Stockman told the Methodist Newsletter:

One of the ways that we can help our politicians, because it is not all their fault, is to give them strong support to make brave decisions that might not be popular in their constituencies. They need to be confident that there are enough people at the bottom of the hill, shouting them on to make the bold moves.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, have churches been bold and encouraged our leaders to be bold? Tune in tomorrow for more …

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