Ten days ago, I was standing in front of the most bombed hotel in the world. It’s the Hotel Europa in Belfast, center of “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland that, from 1968-1998, killed or injured more than 50,000 people.
As we drove around the city, our tour guide showed us 200-year-old buildings still scarred with shrapnel damage. She spoke about her three most formative decades, living in fear. All of that changed with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. “Now,” she said, “we have real nightlife here in town center. Bit late for my generation o’ course, but I do love leadin’ tours now. We used to have terrorists; now we have tourists.”
What changed? Significantly, not much. We saw neighborhoods where most houses were flying the Irish flag, and others all flying the Union Jack. So then how was peace made after 30 years of strife? To me, the more our tour guide spoke, the more it sounded like all the Christian parties involved had simply started applying the teachings of Christ: forgiveness, togetherness, acceptance. It is a lesson that we in America would do well to heed.
You’ve heard the U2 song. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” invokes the memory of a peaceful protest march shattered when British soldiers spontaneously opened fire on unarmed Irish civilians, killing 14. It’s a stirring anthem. I have heard it used to score a call-to-action video, juxtaposing images of the massacre against the evocative words. There’s just one problem with that. Far from glorifying the events or calling for continued violent resistance, the song’s only point is to deplore the violence on all sides. “How long?” the lyrics ask, “How long must we sing this song?”
In early live performances, the natural emotional responses were so strong, the tendency to misunderstand was so prevalent, that the band had to fall all over themselves to underline its passivist message. “This is not a rebel song,” was an oft-repeated introduction. They soon began planting a white flag at center stage while performing. Why was it so difficult for people to understand it as a song, not of reliving our grievances, but of laying down our grievances? Because the teachings of Jesus that inspired the song are not natural. They are supernatural. “You have heard it said: love your friends and hate your enemies. But I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… No greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” Christ proved that in his willingness to lay down his own life, invoked in the song’s final lyrics: “Claim the victory Jesus won…on [a] Sunday, bloody Sunday.”
What happened in Northern Ireland was not that there were suddenly no more wrongs to avenge. It was not that perfect agreement was achieved. It was not that one side “won”. People simply decided that 30 years of blowing each other up hadn’t solved anything; that maybe it would be worth trying to coexist and work together for a change. They decided, in effect, that Jesus’ advice might be right.
The one substantive change in Northern Irish society described as we drove though those flag-flying neighborhoods was this: strong laws have been put in place to prevent discrimination and foster integration in public life. In the past, discrimination was a primary engine of conflict. Now, schools mix Catholic and Protestant children in classrooms. Workplaces must report detailed demographics to show they are practicing equal opportunity. The result? Former enemies are getting to know each other.
The lamb shall lie down with the lion, says scripture. Togetherness has enormous power; the great humanitarian travesties of our time are all rooted in artificial divisions & separations that give animosity its power. There was always an awful lot of bad-mouthing “the others” before any real violence broke out.
Absent real firsthand knowledge of “the other”, any manner of falsehoods about them can take root and flourish. This can happen so long as we won’t trouble to know them, even if they live right next door. God’s example to us is exactly the opposite; even the very name of Jesus— Emmanuel— means “God with us.” Matthew 18 teaches that the only path to healing division is, sit down face to face and talk to each other. Christ’s final recorded prayer was for unity, his deepest grief as he overlooked Jerusalem was that he could not gather them all to himself, and the portrait of heaven in Revelations consists of great host from every nation, all together as one and praising God.
Bringing it to America
In America today, we are being taught to hate one another. Messages in all of our political media, left and right, reinforce the teachings that “they are not like us,” that they want to destroy the things we value, that there can be no common ground between us and them. Many of us believe those messages, but our country’s last, best hope may be this: that deep down inside, some part of us still knows otherwise. Deep down inside, we cannot wholly reject the fact that we work every day alongside people who are aren’t like us, and we do so in peace and mutual respect, despite what the popular narratives say. Even in states of deepest red and blue, a landslide majority is only 70/30. We have “the other” all around us, and every day we are partnering with them to serve tables and erect skyscrapers and type computer code.
The truth is, what unites us is stronger than what divides us. For proof that this truth is still true, we have only to shut off the television, shut off the radio, shut off the computer, and open our eyes to look around. Far from trying to destroy what we hold dear, “the others” are mostly just doing what we are doing: raising kids, paying bills, pursuing happiness. If you’ve heard different, I challenge you this: do what Jesus did. Find one. Go near. Sit down. Take a little time and get to know. Find a common goal and work towards it together. Go running or fishing, make quilts, play chess.
If we would all do that, in the end, it wouldn’t take long before we all would realize that “the other” isn’t nearly so bad, or so easy to hate, as we thought.