Who are you?

I don’t suppose it was much of a surprise that the talks facilitated by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan failed to establish an agreement among Northern Ireland politicians on the contentious issues which have recently highlighted the deep divisions still festering in the Province. Is it too cynical to suggest that an agreement would have been more surprising than the current impasse? Certainly few of us needed to be told that there are still some things that have not changed in the years since the Good Friday Agreement.

Parades, flags and the past: three stumbling blocks that still have the potential to cause much conflict. A trip past the Loyalist protest camp in North Belfast, just across the roundabout from the Nationalists, any night of the week (that there isn’t a good football match on TV), will soon show the kind of problem that has to be addressed. And it isn’t simply a matter of sorting out the extremists of all political colours whose views might be dismissed as exceptional and not worth serious attention. What do we do about the past in Northern Ireland? Thousands of people bear the scars, physical and mental, of the violence that exploded into the national consciousness in 1968 and blazed on until 1998, and indeed has not entirely gone away even yet. Many have lost loved ones in hideous atrocities; others have suffered themselves as the result of profoundly evil actions. They carry burdens that they will never lay down as long as they live. Numerous others carry the guilt of involvement in inflicting suffering which no amount of denial can remove.

Establishing one’s identity and addressing the burdens of the past lie at the heart of much of the present deadlock. Is there anything that Christians can say that could contribute to a solution? At the political level there are some Christians involved in the discussion process, but they don’t necessarily agree with each other, and that’s before we take into account those who regard Christianity as part of the problem rather than the solution. Maybe a meaningful Christian contribution would offer perspectives that politics knows little about?

What is the most important element in our identity? Is it what political party we support (if any), what school we attended, which language we prefer, where our forefathers came from? None of those things is unimportant, but they all pale into insignificance in comparison to the question as to where we stand in relation to the God who created us. Are we in fellowship with him through faith in Christ or are we still steeped in the rebellion in which we were born? That’s fundamental to our identity. We were created for fellowship with God: until we have that relationship, by his grace, we are never going to understand who we are and what we are in this world for. If we do have that fellowship, we are God’s dearly loved children, and we can see that the things of this world that provide others with their sense of identity are not quite as significant as perhaps we once thought.

To be a member of God’s family through the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ also means that for us the past has been dealt with. God has forgiven our sin because of what Christ has done in taking our sin and its penalty upon himself at the cross. We are set free from guilt, we are reconciled to God and by the enabling of the Holy Spirit we can begin to forgive others. There is ultimately no other way to deal satisfactorily with the past. No political mechanism or piece of social engineering can change the human heart: only the grace of God can. Indeed had it not been the case that many who suffered terribly in the Troubles had experienced that life-changing grace themselves, the cycle of violent retaliation would probably have been much worse over the years. We might quibble over the theology of ‘forgiving’ those who have not repented, but the spirit of forgiveness that many showed points the way, God’s way, to dealing with the past.

In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul writes, ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ There is where we find the only identity that is of eternal significance and there too we find the answer to the past, in regard both to what we have done and to what has been done to us. It also offers a hope for the future that transforms daily living into loving service for the God who has saved us. Perhaps a motive to preach rather than parade?