New ‘Peace Wall’ to be Erected in St Matthew’s Churchyard – Can we Re-Imagine a Better ‘Solution’?

stmattsFor a blog like mine, titled ‘Building a Church Without Walls,’ the news that a new ‘peace wall’ is to be erected in the grounds of St Matthew’s Catholic Church in the Short Strand in Belfast is especially disheartening.

A BBC article about the new barrier includes quotes about people from ‘both sides’ wanting the wall, and assertions that the wall will increase people’s security and well-being.

It’s not for me, someone who does not live in the area, to determine if the new barrier will make people feel safer – or if indeed it will actually make people safer. As the UUP’s Michael Copeland says, ‘high ground moralising … should not take precedence’ over the fears, needs, hopes and aspirations of residents.

Such aspirations and fears were featured recently in the BBC ‘True North’ documentary, ‘The Wall,’ which painted an often dismal (though occasionally hopeful) picture of living in the interface around Short Strand.

At the same time, I think it’s important to note the ‘occasion,’ and reflect on it. In the BBC story, parish worker Willie Ward says:

“I think it will go a long way towards helping solve the problem.”

For me, that’s the single most depressing sentence in the story. I don’t fault Ward for this comment; after all, he’s one of the brave and often lonely few working to make the area a better place.

But his comment reflects an underlying assumption that more walls are somehow a solution to our problems – perhaps the only possible solution.

Yes, physical barriers may alleviate an immediate physical problem in the short-term. But the long-term effect is to reinforce the normality of division and hostility – thus perpetuating our ‘problems’ forward ad infinitum.

This year, Jon Hatch completed a PhD at my School which explored Belfast’s ‘separation barriers’ in light of Liberation Theology and Theologies of Reconciliation. He also interviewed local clergy on their views about the separation barriers, and facilitated workshops where groups of laity were encouraged to ‘re-imagine’ the future.

Hatch found that even people who were socially-engaged and involved in cross-community work were reluctant to comment on the walls or to see it as part of their role or responsibility to think or talk about their removal.

However, he writes that couching the exercise in terms of re-imagining seemed to remove some of the threat associated with thinking about the barriers (chapter 6):

‘ … with regard to a reflection on the separation barriers, making a clear distinction between the reflective process and action is beneficial. … in the clergy interviews and the reports from the group sessions, attitudes to discussion of the barriers are often dependent on proximity; locals often interpret any discussion of the barriers as a veiled, surreptitious impetus for the barriers’ removal, whereas those not living near a barrier- or in a social or economic strata perceived as removed from those at an interface- often interpreted reflection on the barriers as meddling in an issue with which they had no right to comment.

… the terminology of re-imagining reasserts the basic premise that reflection precedes action and that a purpose of the group session was a deeper exploration of a social reality without impatiently jumping forward to practical response to that social reality. In the introduction to the group session, this point was explicitly made:

One thing I’d like to make clear before we start: this session is not necessarily about working out what to do about the barriers; it is not about laying all the blame for interface problems on the barriers; it is not about saying that interfaces would be better places without them; and it is not arguing to take them down. Our reality is: the barriers are there and they will probably be there for some time. In this session, first and foremost, we simply want to reflect on that reality in light of our faith.

Without prescribing solutions, what Hatch is urging people to do is to consider if barriers really do go a long way towards helping solve the problem?

Theoretically and abstractly, the answer to that question is of course ‘No.’

But the people of St Matthew’s do not live in a world of theory and abstraction. They live in a world where a ‘peace wall’ will now cut through their churchyard.

And if that doesn’t make Christians all over this island stop and reflect on our too slow stumbling towards reconciliation, I don’t know what will.

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