Martin McGuinness: Some Thoughts on the Passing of a Terrorist Turned Peacemaker

McGuinness meets HM Queen Elizabeth

Long before the language of ‘the war on terror’ became popular in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the USA, terms such as terror, terrorism, and terrorist were already commonly used in everyday language and conversation by anyone, like me, who had grown up in Northern Ireland during the years of the modern day ‘Troubles’ of my homeland. They were words commonly heard on television and news reports, as well as often being overheard in the conversations that adults were having around children and young people. These words were used so much because terror and terrorism were a part of daily life in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998.

One of the names synonymous with the term ‘terrorist’ was that of Martin McGuinness. He was infamous as a key player in the Republican cause, and widely known to have been a senior commander within the IRA. For someone like me, who grew up in the protestant/unionist side of the fence in Northern Ireland, when Martin McGuinness’s name was mentioned on TV, or in conversation with others, the emotional response within was not a happy or pleasant one. No, the very thought of this man, for a young ‘prod’ in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s and 1990’s, was enough to make the blood boil because we all knew, without any doubt, that Martin McGuinness was a man who most definitely had much blood on his hands.

But then Northern Ireland began to change. Paramilitary organizations announced ceasefires. Peace was now, apparently, a possibility in our troubled country. Politicians were sat around the table with a determined hope to create a new Northern Ireland with a brighter future.

And Martin McGuinness was right in the middle of it.

The terrorist was now becoming the peacemaker. And ultimately, the terrorist did become a peacemaker.

Martin McGuinness died today, aged just 66.

Understandably, news of his death has brought about a wide spectrum of responses from politicians, members of bereaved families who lost loved ones during the troubles, and other political commentators. I suppose I want to throw in my own ‘2 cents’ worth too.

As I awoke to the news this morning I could not help but be gripped by the story. Like I said above, there have been years in my life when Martin McGuinness’s passing would not have caused me to have a second thought but this is not the case today. Today I have been gripped by the talk radio programs that are giving a lot of airtime and attention to McGuinness’s passing, and I am paying close attention to the words and tributes of my friends on social media too. Today, I can’t help but feel that Northern Ireland has lost one of its political giants who, despite his evil past, has ended up being central to the creation of a new Northern Ireland; a Northern Ireland which is unrecognizable when set beside the Northern Ireland in which I grew up.

I lament and abhor Northern Ireland’s past and the suffering that took place in those years. I spent three wonderful years in ministry to the Shankill Road community, a Belfast community ravaged by the Troubles. In my congregation I had many people who had lost close relatives and loved ones at the hands of Martin McGuinness’s IRA, including two ladies who had lost their husbands to intentional violent, terrorist attacks on the Shankill Road community. I spent time with and listened to the stories of the people of that community, and I find myself very much in sympathy with them. Their personal loss and pain is one which still deeply scars their lives, and the life of the wider community around them. In love for, and in sensitivity to, my friends there, and the wider community of the Shankill, I do not wish to glorify Martin McGuinness’s life of violence, or play down the pain which was caused by his organization in those most horrible of days. However, whilst McGuinness’s life and actions were almost certainly responsible for much of the pain suffered in those days, it would not be fair to label him only as a terrorist, because, whether folks can bring themselves to accept this or not, Martin McGuinness ultimately laid down the weapons of warfare and terror, and took on the role of peacemaker in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is a complex little country in which the divisions of the past have completely defined how a couple of generations worth of people have formed relationships. Protestant children went to state schools. Roman Catholic children went to Roman Catholic schools. Protestant young men dated and, by and large, ultimately married Protestant young women. Roman Catholic young men dated and ultimately married Roman Catholic young women. The areas in which we lived would be clearly defined by the colours of the various flags and emblems on display: red, white and blue for the unionists, and green white and orange for nationalists. One would always know the ‘identity’ of the community one was in by the presence of those colours. We grew up knowing who was who by where we lived, or by what school uniform we wore, or even by how we spelt our names (unionists tended to use purely anglo names and spellings, whereas nationalists might have been more likely to use more Irish names, and even use Irish spelling of such names). In a culture like this it was all to easy to comfortably live in a society that embodied a “them and us” mindset. In this kind of culture and society relationships could not easily be forged across the lines of division which existed in every aspect of life. But when the peace process gathered pace things began to change. Paramilitary organizations that were once shooting at and blowing each other up were laying down their weapons. Political parties that would never have spoken to one another were now in dialogue. The governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland were now, seemingly, committed to finding a way forward for Northern Ireland.

Martin McGuinness was a major player in this process. That is a fact that cannot be denied.

Inasmuch as Martin McGuinness bears considerable responsibility for the violent past of Northern Ireland, he also must be credited and applauded for his role in shaping a new Northern Ireland – a Northern Ireland with bright hope for the future; a Northern Ireland that has no desire to return to its dark past; a Northern Ireland in which those lines of division are no longer as clear as they once were (although they do still very much exist!)

Martin McGuinness has played a role in shaping a Northern Ireland in which the work of reconciliation and building relationships across the lines of division is possible. This reality was exemplified in McGuinness’s personal and professional relationship with Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley when together they held the office First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. In those days the two of them became affectionately known in the popular media as “The Chuckle Brothers” such was their relationship and public persona. They were diametrically opposed politically and even religiously, but they were able to put their significant differences aside in order to lead the way in the new Northern Ireland that was evolving, and in order to leave a legacy which would be in contrast both their pasts. Together they were able to model something that many people worried was impossible in Northern Ireland: a hopeful relationship which crossed the traditional lines and broke down the barriers of division.

In the new Northern Ireland many things have progressed and wider society is in a much better place than it was 30 years ago. However, for all the good work that has taken place in that time there is still one thing that holds us back: dealing with the past. Martin McGuinness, for all his achievements in peacemaking, was still a man who had blood on his hands and had not been brought to justice. The bereaved families of Northern Ireland’s troubles are still grieving and still have questions as to how and why the things that happened were allowed to happen during those dark days. And this is why the passing of Martin McGuinness today is such a hard event to comment on. In my opinion, the only way the people of Northern Ireland can ultimately move on from the troubles of the past is to work out what forgiveness means for us.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the troubles of the past.
Forgiveness does not dishonour the memory of the loved ones we have lost.
Forgiveness does not mean the end of the ongoing pain of loss and bereavement.

But forgiveness does invite us to become reconciled with our lives as they are and with all that has happened in them.
Forgiveness does invite us to live well into our futures – even with the atrocities of our past.
Forgiveness does invite us to break the ties that bind us and stop us from moving forward both as individuals and as a society.

In the various reactions to Martin McGuinness’s passing I have heard today I have been struck by two in particular. First, I heard the Rev. David Latimer, a Presbyterian clergyman from Derry/Londonderry (McGuinness’s home town), being interviewed by William Crawley on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback program. In that short interview Rev. Latimer made reference to his friendship with Martin McGuinness, a friendship developed over the last ten years, which had become something that Rev. Latimer expressed deep gratitude for as he spoke. He told of how he had been able to visit with McGuinness in recent days and express gratitude for the friendship, and even to pray with him. As I listened to Rev. Latimer I found myself deeply moved by the example of reconciliation and, ultimately, forgiveness that he was sharing. I felt myself wanting to be a person who builds deep relationships across lines of division. I felt myself wanting to embody the same hope in my relationships that Rev. Latimer was testifying to as he shared of his friendship with Martin McGuinness. You can listen to the interview here (8:05 minutes into the show).

Second, I heard the former Conservative Party politician, Lord Norman Tebbit, offer his comment on McGuinness’s passing. Lord Tebbit was staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when the IRA bombed it in an attempt to murder Margaret Thatcher. As a result of the attack Lord Tebbit’s wife was permanently paralyzed and 5 of his friends and colleagues lost their lives. His response,  understandably, was not as gracious or as praise-filled for Martin McGuinness’s life as that of Rev. Latimer. Tebbit stated that the “world is a sweeter and cleaner place” now that Martin McGuinness is no longer in it. You can read the details of that interview and hear it here

In Rev. Latimer’s response I hear the voice of a Northern Irish Protestant who has lived through the Troubles and all the division of our past, but has become willing to work at forgiveness and reconciliation that is so important for the future of Northern Ireland. I hear a man who has been able to face the realities of ‘the other’s’ violent past and make a decision that it will not be that which defines his relationships or the long term future of our country. I hear a man who is willing to listen to and be in relationship with one of the perpetrators of the atrocities of the Troubles, and model a new hope for a new way forward.

Sadly, I do not hear a similar voice in that of Lord Tebbit. In his voice I hear the voice of a man who may be trapped in personal pain for whom moving forward in reconciliation is profoundly difficult. 

Please understand, I am aware that it is ultimately very easy for me to say all this as one who has not experienced direct loss as a result of the IRA’s terror campaign. Nevertheless, I still believe, wholeheartedly, that the work of forgiveness and reconciliation is the work that Northern Ireland will ultimately have to go through in order to make the distance from its ugly past even greater than it is now.

Today, I mourn the loss of Martin McGuinness. I lament the events of his life which first brought his name in to my recognition – events which permanently stained my home country and scarred the lives of the bereaved and injured. But I also celebrate his life as one which was turned around and transformed. Martin McGuinness was a terrorist, but that is not the whole story of his life. Ultimately, when all was said and done in his life, Martin McGuinness had become a peacemaker of such significance that his work shaped a brighter future for all the people of Northern Ireland. And so inasmuch as I lament his violent past I also celebrate the transformation which took place in his life, and I celebrate the legacy of peace building and reconciliation he now leaves behind.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

“I, the one speaking to you – I am he!” (4:1-26)

Woman at well

I grew up in God’s own country…Northern Ireland. It is a country which is stunning in it’s natural beauty, and uniquely rich in the character of its people. It is also a country which was and is profoundly divided along political, territorial, and even religious lines with Roman Catholic and Protestant people famously not being able to see eye to eye. I (and anyone else who grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s) was blessed with the ability to be able to work out within a matter of minutes whether a new person was a Roman Catholic or Protestant. To any reader who is not from Northern Ireland that might seem ridiculous, but it was certainly the case back in the day. I would be able to tell by asking a person’s name, or where they were from (the area in which they lived), or what school they went to or had gone to in their childhood. In a deeply segregated society such as Northern Ireland was at the time, the answers to these simple questions would have given most people’s religious identities away. In such a society and in the volatile and divided times as they were in the 1980’s, when a Protestant met a Roman Catholic (or vice versa) there might often have been an air of suspicion. You see there were lines that were drawn all across our society which traditionally would not have been crossed without some sense of fear and trembling on the part of the one who was crossing them. 18 years after the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed, Northern Ireland is a completely different place from the place I grew up in, and all that division and segregation that i grew up with is a bit of an embarrassment, but it does not take away from the fact that back then it was real. There were lines that were not very often crossed by people on opposing sides of the divide.

As a result of growing up in a segregated, divided society, this passage from John 4 has always had a special place in my heart because in this passage Jesus crosses many of the cultural barriers that were in place for him, as a Jewish male rabbi, at the time. We have already seen in the previous three chapters of John’s work that little details are often of significant importance in the overall message and this story is no different.

Jesus, a Jew, is passing through Samaria – home of the Samaritan people who the Jewish community regarded as the very worst sort of people.

Jesus, a Jewish male rabbi, is talking with a woman. This would have been a no-no for rabbis in the time that this story was being written. Rabbis would have feared gossip, false accusations, temptation in such a situation. It was simply not the done thing for a Jewish male Rabbi to ever even be alone with a woman, never mind having a conversation with one.

Jesus, a Jewish male rabbi, is talking with a woman who has a questionable reputation. It is midday – the hottest time of the day. The only reason that a woman is approaching the well at this time of day is that she has been rejected by the other women who would gather together earlier in the day in cooler temperatures.

In other words, as N.T. Wright states, everything is wrong with the picture being drawn in John 4. There are several lines which Jesus crosses in communicating with this woman, which he should simply not cross.

But he does cross them.

Why?

Because the chosen one of God has come to world with good news for all people.

Even Samaritans.

Because the light of the world has come to shine brightly in every dark corner.

Even the dark corners of hearts of the sinful, the lost, the rejected, and the broken.

In telling this story, John is continuing to show Jesus as the Chosen One of God who has come to do a new thing in the world. No longer is the God of Israel only interested in these chosen people, the the ones who can manage to keep the law and observe the rituals of the old religions. This is a new way, a way open to all people: men and women; Jews and Samaritans; saints and sinners; a way which will cross all the lines of division and segregation which have been put in place.

The Samaritan woman is slow to get what Jesus is saying. When he speaks of the living water he is offering she does not get it. She continues to think that he is speaking of actual water which will quench her physical thirst but this is not the case. The living water that Jesus is talking about is the water of grace; the water of transformation, which can take any life and dramatically turn it around and set it on a new path. As Wright states:

“What Jesus says about this living water makes it clear that he’s talking about something quite different, something for which all the water on earth is just a signpost, a pointer. Not only with the water he’s offering quench your thirst so that you’ll never be thirsty again. It will become a spring bubbling up inside you, refreshing you withy the new life which is coming to the world with Jesus and which is the life of the whole new world God is making.”

Jesus tells her that a time is coming when all the lines of division and separation which exist now will no longer be in place. Geographical location, social status, gender, and religious background will no longer be the determining factors of who is within the family of God and who is without. True worshippers, according to Jesus, will be the ones who worship the Father in spirit and in truth because that is the kind of worshippers the Father is looking for.

When Jesus explains this to the Samaritan, she is left hungry. She wants this living water. She wants this good news. She wants it for herself.

The great news is that she can have it.

That’s why Jesus, the male Jewish Rabbi had this conversation with this Samaritan woman of ill repute – because the good news of living water was good news for all – even her.

And it is good news for you and me too.

This passage is a passage which promises the reconciling, transformative power; the amazingly, exceedingly good news of God’s living water for all people. What are the lines that you have drawn in your life; the lines which you think God’s grace and transformative power cannot cross? What are the reasons for you – social or spiritual – that make you think Jesus might not want to share living water with you?

Whatever they are, my prayer for you is simply this: that you would read this passage and allow the boundary breaking, line crossing Chosen one of God meet you in your place of isolation and separation, have a conversation with you, and offer you the transforming, living water of grace.

Go on. I dare you.

On the third day… (2:1-12)

waterintowineJohn has taken the first chapter to prologue his story; telling us much of what we need to know about who Jesus was (Son of God/true Light/God’s Chosen One) and what he came to do in the world (baptize with the Holy Spirit/make transformation possible for human life.) The remainder of John’s Gospel is the fleshing out of Jesus’ story and all along the way John drip feeds his readers with little signs and hints of where Jesus’ story ultimately going.

There are so many minute details in these 12 verses that it would be very easy to get bogged down in them. Jesus has a strange conversation with his mother in which she points out the lack of wine, he asks her what it has to do with him, saying that his “hour has not yet come.” She seemingly ignores what he has said, looks to the servants and tells them to do whatever Jesus tells them. What is a reader to do with this strange conversation? Then there is the fact that this is a covert miracle. It appears that no-one knows what is happening until the servants take the liquid to the master of the banquet who is astounded at the quality of the wine he is sampling. What is a reader to do with such a hush-hush miracle? What are we to make of it? Like I said, the details are many in this story and if we allow them to, they will bog us down as we look for some kind of symbolic meaning in every one of them. To get trapped in the details here will be to miss the hints and signs that John is placing for us. This is just the beginning of the story and John has much more unfolding to do. As Beverly Gaventa states:

Instead of looking at the story as a puzzle to be “solved,” we might regard the elusive, vexatious, enigmatic character of the story as one of its primary functions. As “the first of his signs” (v. 11), the Cana miracle points ahead toward the mysterious story that is unfolding.

This story is a starting point. It is a sign post pointing to the things that are to come as John tells the story of Jesus. John has already stated in the prologue that this Jesus is the very Word of God; the Word who has become flesh and is making his dwelling among us. As these stories get told throughout this gospel we must know that John is making the point that in Jesus all the life of heaven has come down to earth and as a result a wonderful new opportunity is presented to humanity.

This story is about transformation. Jesus literally transforms water into wine and in doing so presents a hint of how different things can be when Jesus is present and, as N.T. Wright points out, when people do whatever Jesus tells them (as Mary had instructed the servants). In telling this story of substantial transformation John is pointing to the fact that this very same substantial transformation can take place in the lives of human beings. The same power of God which transformed the ceremonial washing water into the very best of fine wines is the very same power that can transform your life and my life too.

Stop there for a second and consider the need for transformation; your need for transformation. If Jesus can transform dozens of gallons of water into wine at a party is it possible that Jesus can transform your life too? The Cana miracle is only the first sign in this story to say that he absolutely can. I believe that is great news and I am excited to read on and see more signs along the way; signs which point to the fullness of who Jesus was and what he came to do.

Why I am Not Praying For Brussels…

Brussels HeartI awoke this morning to the all too familiar tone of BBC’s Radio 5’s Adrain Chiles.  He has a familiar manner and accent on the radio and is easy to spot, but today as I awoke, there was that other tone in his voice.  It is a tone of lament and shock that is heard only when a radio news host is sharing something tragic over the airwaves.  Today, Chiles was describing the events that have taken place in Brussels, where two explosions have happened at an airport and on a train.  So far the death count stands at “at least 31.”  Who knows where it will end.

Awaking to such news and atrocity still bears a shock factor.  Even though I grew up in a country where people seemed happy to plant bombs and cause mayhem and chaos every day; where daily the radio and TV news seemed to tell the story of another explosion/shooting/loss of life, there is still a shock factor when news filters through that something has happened in the world.  I suppose that even though it keeps happening, there is still a disbelief, within me, that in this day and age people still think that this is an effective way to get your message across.  I know that evil exists, and that maniacs still do their thing…but in some way I still relentlessly hope that lessons might have been learned after the last time, and that such atrocious and horrendous violence might become no more…

So what do I do with it all?  What do we do with it all?

What are others doing?  In the Facebook age, the immediate response, which brings out the low level activist in us all, is to post a #PrayerforBrussels with an appropriate image like the one above. I have done this same thing on many occasions in the past, and I applaud it, but today I am hesitant to respond in that way.

Before you judge me and accuse me of godless heresy, hear me out.  The title of this post might lead you to think that I am simply not praying for the people of Brussels, but this is not the case. It is not that I am not praying for the peace and comfort of the people of Brussels who are experiencing the onset of the deepest pain and darkness that they will experience ever. I completely am in prayer for those people who have lost loved ones, or who are now having to consider what life will be like in the aftermath of an event like this.  I am praying that they will know the presence of the God of all comfort, and that through the dark clouds of grief, they will see and experience light and hope enough to bring them through.

When I say that I am not praying for Brussels, I am trying to say that “praying for Brussels” is not actually the answer.  For me, simply “praying for Brussels” (or Ankara, or Paris, or New York, or anywhere else that has been visited with the atrocity of terrorism) is to pray that the city and the community will merely recover and find its way back to the place that it was in immediately before explosions exploded and shots were fired.

But that is not my prayer for any of these places.

You see, I don’t think that merely praying for a restoration of things as they were is the answer.

My deep, honest to God prayer is that complete and utter transformation will take place in the hearts and minds of terrorists throughout the world, so that they will no longer see an enemy as one to be blown up or shot at, but rather as one who must be lived alongside in the world.  My prayer is that the people who have experienced the greatest of losses to acts of terror will also experience a complete transformation of heart and mind; a transformation that will heal them of the pain of their loss, lead them on a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation.  My prayer is that in the midst of the darkest times in the life of a city that God’s kingdom will come and that complete transformation will take place.  My prayer is that swords will be turned into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks.  

 

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is not more destruction.

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is not revenge.

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is not the mere restoration of things as they were.

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is not more of the same.

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is the way of Christ and the kingdom of God.  It is the way of love for enemies.  It is the way of turning the other cheek in the name of peace; in the name of saying to aggressors and terrorists that there is nothing that they can do, which can remove any of that which God has done; there is not act of violent tyranny or oppression of a people that can remove the hope and light of divine love.

So I am not praying for Brussels.  Rather, I am praying earnestly, and maybe even ferociously, that the Kingdom of God will be the present reality in Brussels, Ankara, Paris, New York, London, Belfast, Dublin, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino… in this world, and that the hearts of those who are hurting, and even those who brought about the hurting, would be completely turned over to the way of Divine love, where healing and restoration can flourish, and all fear can be diminished.

Shalom.