By Peter McDowell
Good Relations Officer
There is no doubt that religion has played an ambiguous role in the Northern Ireland conflict. As David Stevens has noted, ‘Churches tend to reflect people’s fears, reflect community divisions, reflect a community expedience of violence and threat, rather than act as agents of change or transformers of conflict’(Community Relations Council, 2006 p 9).
Churches are part of the problem, but can they be part of a solution? Is the existence of different churches (and now other faith communities), largely representing different cultural traditions and espousing different truth claims, necessarily detrimental to a shared society?
The tendency of churches to reflect people’s fears is hardly surprising when one begins to think about what churches actually are. Churches can be seen as institutions, with their own separate existence. Yet they are, at heart, faith communities made up of individual people who are also embedded in the society in which they live. As such, they are as influenced by their history and experience as every other member of society.
As faith communities churches see it as a key part of their purpose to provide support and comfort to their people in difficult times. Church communities have felt the pain of those who have lost loved ones, who have been injured, or who have suffered in other ways through the Troubles. They have, naturally and rightly, seen this as their responsibility to each other. But the constant danger is that in doing so church communities do simply reflect, and even reinforce, people’s fears and anger.
On the other hand, churches are communities who are committed to a particular understanding of the world, and how individuals and communities should live within it. It is this worldview, with its various nuances in different traditions, that provides churches with resources for the building of a shared society.
It is this worldview that has moved church communities beyond merely comforting their own members. To quote Steven’s again, ‘without the churches the situation would have been a lot worse; the preaching and living out of non-retaliation, forbearance and forgiveness have had real social consequences’ (Community Relations Council, 2006 p 9).
It is this worldview that has led many to critically reflect on the how their community has acted and responded to the Northern Ireland context. The recent post on this blog by Rev Brian Kennaway, Learning to Live Together: Resolving the Parading Conflict. While on Parade is an example of this in operation.
This worldview also underlies the ongoing provision of so many activities that the churches provide for the wider community: from toddler’s groups, through youth work, to clubs for older people.
Churches and other faith communities exist within the wider society. They are made up of people who inherit the same history and share the same experiences as those around them. Yet their religious views provide them with both a challenge to consider their responses, and with resources to build a shared society.
I have described religious faith as a worldview. Our society is not monochrome, but made up of communities with various worldviews. If it were not so we would not need to talk of a shared society. Religious communities are not the only ones with resources to contribute to a shared society, but, along with others, they do have a role to play.
Community Relations Council, 2006. Beyond Sectarianism? The Churches and Ten Years of the Peace Process – Learning From Peace II. Belfast: Community Relations Council.