The Church, Conflict and Sectarianism.


gary mason

By Rev Gary Mason

East Belfast Methodist Mission



holy week

This week in the world of Christian faith is called “Holy Week.” I imagine this week should allow those of us in the world of the church to do a little bit of self reflection and that self reflection in the Wesleyan tradition should also include what we in the Methodist tradition call social holiness.  In simple terms this means as a people of faith are we making a difference in society, are we really loving our neighbour, especially in a society riddled with toxic sectarianism, but it sure ain’t easy.

sing a song

A couple of years I spoke at one of the holy grails of Irish Republicanism at the Rotunda in Dublin where in 1905 SF was formed, it was a “Uniting Ireland” conference. I began my address by attempting to teach SF a song my grandfather had taught me as a child, the words are laced with sectarianism and I promise my reading audience I do not sing them as a middle aged man, but the words are still there, subconsciously in my memory-


“Sprinkle, splatter, holy brown water,

We will scatter those papishes everyone,

If that does not do, we will cut them in two,

And give them a touch of the orange and blue”

What impact they had on me as a five or six year old child I do not know, but I asked that large group of Republicans could they teach me some of their sectarian songs, they smiled. A senior Republican after my address came up to me and commented, “Thanks, Gary for being so bl**dy honest!” We both smiled.


In the early 1990′s I spent two years on the Working Party on Sectarianism co-chaired by John Lampin and Mary McAleese. It was an enlightening two years as we traced the role of religion in creating sectarianism on this island and believe me religion played a major part.


After the Haass talks there have been many voices speaking into the public arena about doing or not doing a deal. There have not been many voices repenting about the past. In this short essay I want simply to suggest to the wider church before we ask folk in what we call “civic society” to change their minds and hearts (which is basically what repentance means) and do a deal, that we set the template for dealing with the past. In theological terms we call it repentance.


The church here in the 1950′s and the 1960′s to my mind were not courageous in dealing with the underlying religious sectarianism that fuelled the conflict. Yes, I know commentators have said it was not a religious war, but may I suggest that while it was not distinctly a religious war that religion on many occasions set the fertile soil of religious sectarianism that allowed the conflict to happen. Words from various churches that classed people as heretics, theology that demonised others fed into the volatile nature of this society in the 1960′s. I do not need to remind this readership of the churches history in dealing with heretics, and to many  people who were impressionable the toxic theology of the church sub consciously shaped how they saw the other side. The Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel comments that “dehumanisation precedes genocide” and we most certainly at times knew how to dehumanise one another.



I want to create a comparison process for a moment and in doing so, can I underline that I am no way equating our conflict with the Second World War or the holocaust, I want to look at the role of religion in fertilising the soil for conflict. So with that rejoinder let me move from Ireland to Nazi Germany and let me suggest that the Nazi party according to many scholars led an ideological movement with the characteristics of a religious-cultic sect. Hitler waged a war against the Jews, on behalf of the Christian values of western civilisation.


At the end of the second chapter of Mein Kampf Hitler comments, “Today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator by defending myself against the Jews.” Interestingly Saul Friedlander proposes that we revise our thinking about anti-Semitism to include a category he calls “redemptive anti-Semitism”. Redemptive anti-Semitism fuses both racial anti-Semitism and religious anti-Semitism as they must be fused if we are to take better account of Nazi hostility towards the Jews.


That fusing also I believe takes place in N. Ireland were sectarian religious overtones combined with a fervent question of identity and land created the sectarian cockpit of N. Ireland.

The scholar Thomas Idinopulos  comments -

“It is impossible for me to reflect on the event of the Holocaust without remembering centuries of Christian theological antagonism toward Judaism –that “teaching of contempt” of which the French historian Jules Isaac spoke so perceptively.


Irish history is filled with centuries of “the teaching of religious contempt” towards the other side, the others are heretics, apostates, the religious hate word list is endless.

The religious sectarianism of the 1960′s shaped the mindset of many in the conflict. Two stories I highlight and I have heard many more illustrate that assumption. An ex combatant on hearing a fundamentalist preacher at the start of the conflict spewing religious hatred told me, “Gary, it lit a fire within me,” it was most certainly not the fire of the Holy Spirit. He subsequently went on to murder. A leading ex combatant told me, “When you were taught that Catholics were sh*t in Sunday school it was much easier to kill them.”


As Raul Hilberg has written,

“The German Nazis, then, did not discard the past; they built upon it. They did not begin a development; they completed it.”


The late Billy Mitchell had a wonderful saying that went along these lines, “In the late 1960′s someone did not fly over Northern Ireland and spray us all with crazy gas and we all started killing each other.” What Billy was saying firmly was there was a context to allow us to descend into the madness we suffered for thirty years. Can I suggest that maybe, just maybe, that many who took up the gun did not discard the sectarian religious past, they built upon it. They did not begin a development, they completed it.


I want to ask has the church the courage to repent this week, this holy week and put its hands up for the awful legacy we passed to the generation of the troubles. I hope so.

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3 Responses to The Church, Conflict and Sectarianism.

  1. Glenn Bradley says:

    Well stated Gary.

    It’s probably a coincidence (being the bad practicing Methodist that I am) that I have been dwelling this week on the statements of that great Jew: Jesus of Nazareth. This morning I awoke and thought on “The Truth will set you free” and it is literally true.

    However when truth comes it is often like a demolition ball swinging, crashing people to ‘ground truth earth’ with a large bump rather than some holy laser of (self righteous) light.

    Again, well stated: thank you for sharing this excellent thought-work.

  2. Jude Collins says:

    That’s funny. Our version: “Today it is St Patrick’s Day/We’ll kick all the Protestants out of our way/And if that won’t do/We’ll tear them in two/And send them to hell with their red-white-and-blue”. This, of course, was in the halcyon pre-Troubles days when everybody got along, Catholics loved the Twelfth as much as Protestants, and wee had a great wee country just brimming with good will.

  3. Liam Harron says:

    Again, thanks for sharing this Gary

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