Seamus Farrell on Ethical and Shared Remembering – Resources Available for Christian and Secular Groups Grappling with How We Deal with the Past

page-pic1The legacies of violent conflict on this island continue to cast a shadow over our present – and our future — together. The recent Haass-O’Sullivan Talks put forward a number of constructive proposals about how we might ‘deal with the past.’ But in the absence of agreement at those talks, and a commitment from our political parties to lead the way forward, the difficult business of how we remember remains very much unfinished.

But that’s not to say that a lot of work isn’t happening at the grassroots, pointing people towards constructive ways of grappling with the past and through that, building a better future together. The Junction in Derry is seeking to do that through a three-year educational programme, ‘Ethical and Shared Remembering,’ funded by the Columbanus Trust.

Two of the key researchers and educators on the programme are Rev Dr Johnston McMaster and Dr Cathy Higgins, who previously worked together for 15 years on the Irish School of Ecumenics’ Education for Reconciliation programme. McMaster and Higgins have produced a series of six study booklets on key themes, focused around the ongoing ‘decade of commemorations,’ which could be fruitfully used by community and church groups wishing to explore the past frankly, yet in safe and supportive environments.

McMaster and Higgins also have written a longer, more detailed publication, ‘Signing the Covenant: But Which One?’, which I previously reviewed on this blog. McMaster’s recent book, Overcoming Violence, which I reviewed on the Slugger O’Toole blog, delves even more deeply into the legacy of religious violence on this island.

Earlier this month, Seamus Farrell and Maureen Hetherington from the Junction visited the 174 Trust in North Belfast, where they briefed local church leaders on the Ethical and Shared Remembering project. While I was not able to attend the event, Laura Coulter from the Irish Churches Peace Project kindly recorded Farrell’s remarks for me. You can listen to them here.

Farrell also helpfully provided me with the text of his remarks, which are reproduced below.

For more information about the Project, or to purchase the study booklets, contact the Junction on 02871 361942 or Email

Seamus Farrell on The Ethical and Shared Remembering Project

Our Project – The Ethical and Shared Remembering Project – has to do with our being a hundred years on from events that in effect shaped the subsequent century on this island.

Its partition into

  • A part that is now an independent republic with its current economic and social woes.
  • And a part that is struggling to move on –with not much success of late – from the convulsion known as the Troubles.

The convulsion at the end of the 20th century that I’ve just mentioned is inextricably linked to the violent events at the beginning of it.

  •  The resistance to the threat of Home Rule which found expression in the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the gun-running of 1914.
  •  And the “if Unionists can get away with militarised politics then so can we Republicans” that found expression in the Easter Rising of 1916.
  •  And both these in the context of the war to end all wars – that didn’t of course – and the Somme which saw 5000 men from the UVF become 36th Ulster Division die on the first morning alone.   And saw 49,647 soldiers from this island in total perish in the first World War
  •  Followed by the Anglo/Irish War
  •  And the Civil War.
  •  Violence following violence – from 1912- 1922

My wrinkles indicate that I’m of an age that can remember how, 50 years on from the 1916 Rising it was commemorated in 1966 by some in ways that could have been construed as a call to arms. I have also experienced how from 1969 onwards the various commemorations – of Covenant and Rising and Somme and Boyne, have been used to preserve and maintain and deepen the sectarian narrative that remains our fundamental problem.

So it’s about a decade of violence at the beginning of the century with inextricable links to three decades and more of violence at the end of it, and a legacy from that violence that has not even begun to be dealt with.

The Project has to do with a concern that, if the past is not properly dealt with, the future is at risk of being a repeat of it. We in the Project consider that an important aspect of dealing with the recent past is that of dealing with the origins of it, not least the origins of a hundred years ago. And the way in which the events of 1912-1922 have been commemorated since have themselves played a huge part in shaping the entire century.   Of course it hasn’t been just the commemoration of what actually happened as the different versions and interpretations of what happened back then – each designed to suit a particular political agenda – that have contributed hugely to maintaining the sectarian mind-set. It is the Projects view that the centenaries that are coming down the track present a critical opportunity to develop ways to remember and commemorate past events that are honest and ethical, and that serve the purpose of moving towards a non-violent and shared future.

Now with regard to religion and the churches, a first point I’d like to make is that the seed-bed for the sectarian divisions that were already in place on this island a hundred years ago was the fracturing of Christianity in Western Europe 400 years earlier (and we are coming up to five-hundred years since 1517). Now admittedly what began as theological controversy has been continually hijacked for political purposes ever since – politicised – and utilised as justification for war and bloodshed. Admittedly too we in our time cannot be held responsible for the failure of Christian leadership throughout the centuries to prevent the Christian faith being used in this way – or indeed for the complicity of church leaders down through the centuries in this regard. But all of us who claim Christian faith today cannot deny that religion is seriously and critically implicated in the sectarianism that bedevils our society today. We are not responsible for past but we are responsible for seeking to rescue faith in Jesus – a faith that is about unity and community and non-violence, from its having become almost a metaphor for exactly the opposite.

Our Project considers it absolutely critical that the Churches engage – together of course – in the challenge and the opportunity provided by the forthcoming centenaries.

Let’s bring our religious lenses to focus on the context of a hundred years ago. It was a decade dominated by the First World War. Great Britain’s King George, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia (all 1st cousins) all invoked the support of the same God for their imperial causes and called on their people to fight and if need be to die in the name of and in the service of that same God. The rallying call “For God and Empire” in the English language had its German and Russian language equivalents. God must have been greatly confused.

What was common to all was the equating of God and guns, the religious validation of violence in the pursuit of a political objective, the assertion that God gave his unqualified support to militarised politics, the assertion in some quarters that war was a good thing, a cleansing thing, a holy thing, a sacrificial event with redemptive outcomes for the nation – like an extension of Calvary.

With hindsight I think we can accurately trace the tragic confusing of the Kingdom of God with earthly kingdoms to the third century alliance between the Church and the Roman Empire. Church became part of establishment, no longer in a position to critique and challenge earthly dominions but instead having the role of giving them religious legitimacy.

But let’s not go back that far today. In the specific context of the island of Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, whether one’s politics was about remaining part of empire or getting out of it – there was really no daylight between either of those political aspirations and the religious affiliation of those who adhered to those conflicting political positions. God had been recruited/conscripted into the service of competing political perspectives.  So, in Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant (The concept of Covenant of course coming straight from Hebrew Scriptures and from precedents in the Scottish Reformation) God is clearly understood to be fully behind “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 so defend that position.

And from there to the even more explicit association of God with dying and killing for a political objective, the Easter Proclamation of the Republic in 1916.  “We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, whose blessing we invoke upon our arms”. 

The followers of Jesus today are the inheriters of theologies, the atonement theology of John Calvin the redemptive blood sacrifice theology adopted by Pauric Pearse, which, with due respect to them as people of their time, are now in critical need of revisiting – towards reclaiming the Gospel message of a loving, non-violent God – towards reclaiming the truth about Jesus as a victim not of a Divine Father seeking his pound of flesh but as victim of Roman empire politics and of a Jewish religious and political establishment that colluded with empire politics to get rid of him. It is perfectly understandable in retrospect to see how a church that had settled into partnership with empire would seek to downplay the role of that same empire in the imperial execution of its now supreme mascot. Blame the Jews. Put it about that Divine Justice required nothing less than a divine sacrifice. And seek to justify the crusades and colonisation by European empires of Africa and Latin America etc on the grounds of it being about saving people from damnation. Martin Luther was absolutely right to take issue with God’s grace being offered for sale through indulgences (what today might be perceived as a combination of heavenly air-miles and a fire insurance policy). God does not charge for his love. But isn’t it a pity that he and other Reformers saw the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire as a high point in Christian history. It was only the radical reformers – the Anabaptists who argued for having nothing to do with political power – but Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches combined to make life rough for them. Now in our time we are beginning to recognise the fundamental disconnect between Christendom (explain) and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I think that being a hundred years on from events that reveal seriously flawed perceptions of God underpinning all those events, makes this decade a time of potentially powerful opportunity for the recovery of Christian faith – at precisely the time when the credibility of the Churches and the perceived relevance of the Gospel message are at a particularly low ebb. It’s an opportunity not to be missed. It’s an opportunity that crucially requires believers in Jesus to seize it together.

Religions – all of them – are about God’s interest in the well-being of humanity and of all of creation and yet between them they have the most God-awful track-record – in the past and right up to the present – of being implicated in human bloodshed. Theologies may provide arguments for conflict among religions and between denominations Protestant/Catholic, Sunni and Shia etc. But can there be any moral or ethical justification for religions being anything other than witnesses to a God who seeks peace and well-being for his creation by being in harmony and collaboration with one another. Here in Northern Ireland can there be any moral or ethical reason for Christians doing anything separately that could be done together and thus giving witness to the unity and community that the Christian Faith is about.

Which is why it is such a privilege to have this engagement with Christians together today in the 174 Trust.  Thank you.  SF


One thought on “Seamus Farrell on Ethical and Shared Remembering – Resources Available for Christian and Secular Groups Grappling with How We Deal with the Past”

  1. Religions – all of them – are about God’s interest in the wellbeing of humanity and of all ofcreation ” Rhyming with your statement,SF:
    Religion has no other use that to direct us to a Compassionate God,
    Brian D’Arcy
    “The highest duty of the loving religion…. is Always to crete heaven on earth” Adam Elenbaas, Fishers of Men
    ” Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that our largest community issues.. stem from an absence of what we can call safely Greater Visions of Harmony” Idem

    our largest community issues .. stem from what we can call Greater Visions of Harmony” Idem

    Brian D’Arcy.

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