Belfast. It might instill in a person the same reaction as Bosnia or South Africa. I know this because I spent the last two years as a Mission Associate in Belfast, Northern Ireland and when I told people this, they would sometimes wince and say, “Ooh, Belfast. Be careful.” Upon returning to the States, I even had one acquaintance say, “It’s not safe. It’s good you’re back in the United States.” This person has never been to Belfast, has never seen the ironic deep hospitality of the people there, the amazing tool of sarcasm and humor as a coping mechanism for the trials of life—including civil war, the joyful market bustling brightly with people despite the persistent grey weather and the churches desperate to be meaningful in their communities. Belfast is a beautiful place. And Belfast is a divided place. It’s funny how difficult we find it to embrace those two realities simultaneously, even though we are rife with complexity and contradiction ourselves, full of the potential for great hatred and the potential for world-changing good.
Conflict in Belfast is now “part of the furniture”…like that ugly fuzzy puce-green armchair passed down by relatives that sits in the corner of the living room and is ignored into nonexistence. And yet somehow in ignoring it, rather than cease to exist, conflict gains momentum. It is deep and pervasive in Belfast. There is the special screening skill passed down from generation to generation where one can ascertain whether someone is Protestant or Catholic within the first five minutes of meeting. There is the old joke (that proves true) of one Northern Irish man speaking to another. One man asks “Are you Protestant or Catholic?” and the other responds, “I’m an atheist.” The first man says, “Yes, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist?” Only in Belfast can you be an atheist and a Protestant or Catholic. There are also schools where only Protestants or Catholics go. There are communities struggling with such profound systemic poverty that their only possession is sectarianism and hatred of the other. And there are the counterparts to these communities, the middle class who sometimes make the ignoring of that conflict (like Grandpa’s old green chair) into an art form, where denial comes with that paycheck that buys you out of a legacy of conflict and division.
There are people in all of these communities forming their own alternative community where they share a hatred for conflict and a passion that the dog days of division in Belfast are over. And then, there’s the church. The church sometimes tends to complicate things. The word “Christian” is used freely—but only by Protestants. You see, it’s been co-opted to mean only “born again,” and therefore Christ is neatly used to condemn the other as heathen, Mary-worshippers who “don’t know Jesus.” A good Catholic friend once told me, “In the same way the Bible was never meant to be used as a weapon, I feel the word “Christian” was never meant to be worn as a badge. To be a Christian is to live out the love of Jesus Christ in our daily lives, quietly and unassumingly, without fanfare and fanaticism.”
So this is a partial picture of Belfast, a place where people sometimes prefer to be friends with people who think like they do. Where people can be labeled as “us” or “them” (and one of those labels is “Republican”) and the other side is demonized as bad for the country. Where sometimes they even wave flags around trying to argue over who is most patriotic. And where they take all of this political division and bring it right on into the church, placing God’s stamp on their conflict. We don’t know what that’s like at all do we?
Friends, the United States is a divided land. How often do we find ourselves (like that old handed-down Belfast screening trick) trying to determine whether we’re talking to a Republican or a Democrat? How often do we let our politics trump our relationships, our need to be right overcome our call to serve those in need, and our desire for homogeneity creates worship communities where “the other” is politely, inherently excluded? After spending some time in Belfast and also in South Africa, I am convinced that conflicts are fueled not by overt hatred, rash actions and radicalism, but by the indifference of the majority of the population. Apartheid’s systemic racism did not last for nearly 50 years in South Africa because most people with the power to change it were fighting for it. It lasted because most people in power were indifferent about it.
Do you know when the early church in Acts was first called “Christians?” It wasn’t when they prayed the same way, had the same political views or became a mega church. The label of Christian was first used when outsiders recognized that this group of Greeks and Jews from different backgrounds was
an entirely new, counter-cultural gathering. They were called Christians when they embraced a diversity of culture and practice and stumbled after this untamed Jesus together.
We as American followers of Jesus are called to be as incarnational as Christ was. We are called to fight the indifference of our political, cultural and religious division with radical engagement with the other. We are called to cast aside our polite indifference to conflict and instead embrace the messy work of reconciliation to which Christ calls us. Let’s throw out that old hand-me-down armchair of conflict, and allow the Spirit to redecorate our lives and our church in colors of peace, justice and forgiveness.
Rev. Whitney Wilkinson is a P.C. (U.S.A.) Minister recently returned from a 2-year post as a Mission Associate in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is currently seeking a call to further ministry in the States.