Religion can cause great harm, but religion can also heal. This is the tension that people of faith must hold. My time in Northern Ireland put this reality on full display. As we toured the city of Belfast and listened to stories of The Troubles, we bore witness to the pain that religious sectarianism caused as people on either side of a thin divide chose to see the other as their enemy. Groups of people claiming to worship the same God turned on one another and took up arms against their neighbors.
There were 30 years of extreme violence in the name of religion, and we got to see the impacts that linger to this day. But we also got to see how religion has played a part in the healing.
This is Clonard Monastery in Belfast. It sits just behind the Peace Wall that separates the Catholic Falls Road from the Protestant Shankill. This area of town was at the center of some of the most extreme violence during The Troubles. But this sacred space has been a place of courageous reconciliation before, during, and after those tragic years.
One piece of that long legacy is that in 1986, Father Alec Reid invited leaders from two opposing political parties to come together in the monastery to begin peace talks. It was so unthinkable for these two leaders to be seen in the same place together that the talks had to be kept secret and the leaders had to enter the building through different doors. But the conversations that started in Parlour 4 at Clonard Monastery paved the way for peace talks to begin in the Parliament Building, eventually leading to the Good Friday Agreement, the official end of The Troubles.
We ate lunch in the garden area right outside of Parlour 4, and it felt significant to sit so close to a piece of the restoration story. It gave me hope for the church and reminded me of the power of the gospel, the good news that we are all invited into a new kingdom, a new humanity, a new way of life. When we stop focusing on who is in and who is out and instead create spaces where everyone can belong and where everyone’s dignity is upheld, the church can be a powerful force for healing. I know it doesn’t come easy. There’s a lot of groundwork that has to be done in order to create spaces that are truly safe for all. But if we desire to be part of a legacy in which the church is healing the divides rather than causing them, we have to be willing to put in the work.
Religion…is like fire. It warms but it also burns, and we are the guardians of the flame.
– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
To learn more about the history of the Troubles and the role of religion in both the harm and the healing, check out the documentary, Guardians of the Flame.