On the Far Side of Revenge: Social Division and the Hope of Ecumenics in Northern Ireland and the United States

By Geraldine Smyth, OP, and Aaron Hollander

Geraldine Smyth, OP, is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. Originally from Belfast, with her PhD in Theology from Trinity College Dublin, she has spent decades involved in research and action relating to conflict transformation and ecumenical/interreligious reconciliation. She has been on the staff of ISE for over 25 years, twice serving as its Director and coordinating the M.Phil. in Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies. She serves on the Editorial Board of One in Christ and the Board of Directors of Healing Through Remembering, Northern Ireland. She has acted as a theological consultant to the World Council of Churches (projects on the Conciliar Process of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation; and Theology of Life) and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (Ecumenical Formation). She is a member of the Dominican Order, living in a Dublin community, and was Prioress of her international congregation from 1998-2004.

Dr. Aaron Hollander is Associate Director of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute and Associate Editor of Ecumenical Trends. He is an interpretive theologian whose current research concerns the dynamics of interreligious conflict and coexistence, the aesthetic textures and political functions of holiness, and the contemporary crisis of sectarianism.

Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: It’s such a pleasure, Geraldine, to reconnect with you after many years, and it’s a privilege for Ecumenical Trends to have the benefit of your veteran perspective on some thorny aspects of our present ecumenical landscape. Specifically, as we approach the 2020 US presidential election, and in light of developments in public discourse over the last several years, now is an important time to scrutinize the increasing polarization in global and local civil society. I’m speaking not just about the intensification of political differences, but about something potentially more insidious: a rising mistrust and fear of otherness, increasingly dehumanizing language between identity groups, as well as the symptoms of what might be best described as sectarianism: a collusion between political ideology and religious commitment in promoting divisive attitudes and even outright violence. These dynamics are familiar to me as an alum of the Irish School of Ecumenics, where you instructed me in the ethical, social, and theological dimensions of the long crisis of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. I think we in the USA have a great deal to learn from the Northern Irish situation: not only from the ways that polarized and sectarian conditions developed there, but also from the inspiring ecumenical leadership that helped to build a delicate but lasting intercommunal peace.

You are an eminent Irish ecumenist and scholar of peace and reconciliation processes, but your involvement in peacebuilding and ecumenical affairs is just as personal as it is professional, isn’t it? Would you speak a bit about what it was like to grow up in Belfast and live through the onset of the Troubles in Northern Ireland?

Geraldine Smyth, OP: Growing up, I admit, I was not really aware of sectarianism. I left Belfast in 1965, and the violent conflict per se (often described as “The Troubles”) didn’t break out until several years later – the benchmark is usually taken to be 1969. This was the latest of the recurring cycles of historical conflict in the history of relations between Britain and Ireland. Since the division of Ireland in 1922, with six of its northern counties integrated into the United Kingdom as “Northern Ireland,” there had been increasing segregation between the Protestant-Unionist population and the Catholic-Nationalist population, and this became a fault-line of institutionalized discrimination against Catholics, for example in employment, education, political access, and housing Because of the state’s segregational policy in housing allocation, along political lines in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, and elsewhere, this physical, geographical separation compounded the long-standing religio-cultural divisions. The stage was set for ever deeper sectarianism rooted in oppositional identity and mutually-assured antagonism.

I lived in a predominantly Roman Catholic area, yet there were some Protestants there also, and Protestant churches on my road. I went to Catholic primary school and high school, and both places were in fact pretty apolitical zones, although the Irish language and culture were valued. It was “live and let live,” for the most part. My own perspective was shaped in no small part by the fact that my mother’s father was Anglican. While both my parents were Roman Catholic, my grandfather’s family were all Protestant. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t allow or encourage much contact, right down to not being allowed to attend Protestant funerals or weddings. There was widespread opposition among the majority of churches to “mixed marriage” – we’d now call it an interchurch marriage – which I’m sure caused pain and no shortage of difficulty for my grandparents. Nonetheless, our own family links with Protestants created a different ethos for us, an ethos of respect and openness – there was no sense of animosity toward Protestant traditions or the Protestant faith in my home.

In my teen years, however, as I began to spend more time away from family, I was increasingly exposed to the ambient fear and prejudice in Irish culture. In some contexts, like the Gaelic Athletic Association, where I played sports – I also did Irish dancing, spoke the Irish language, and so forth – very often there was a strong, politicized element in addition to the cultural expressions. For instance, we’d have a social gathering, maybe an excursion to the seaside, and there were songs sung on the bus that I had never heard at home – “rebel songs” – not anti-Protestant as such but expressing a definite anti-Britishness and resentment at Unionism’s domination of Nationalists.

It was only later, as I witnessed the civil rights struggle – the way civil rights protests were viciously put down by police and then later by the army – that I became more fully aware of the realities of political discrimination and of the intercultural displays of suspicion, fear, and grievance. My own brothers both emigrated, one to Canada and one to the United States, because they were encountering prejudice in the workforce, even bigotry at times. And in 1972 – the most violent year of the thirty years of violence – my cousin’s husband became one more victim of sectarian murder. He worked in a religiously-mixed company; he was bringing a payroll from one hotel to another, and the route took him through a predominantly Loyalist paramilitary-controlled area. He was waylaid, robbed, and three bullets were fired into his head. Until a few years prior, I had not directly experienced anything like this, as I had moved away at eighteen from Belfast to England, and then to the south of Ireland. But by the time I returned to the North to go to college in 1970-1973, all hell was breaking loose.

AH: I would imagine that, as the bigotry and the isolated incidents (or general ambience) of prejudice turned more systematically to violence, the kind of live-and-let-live attitudes you were used to would be put under strain. Would you talk a little bit more about your own situation and how your understanding developed when you returned to live in Belfast in the early 1980s?

GS: Well, even before I went back to Belfast (in 1983), as a religious Sister I worked as a high school teacher at Dominican College Portstewart on the North Coast, in County Derry. And during my college years I had been in Coleraine, another predominantly Unionist town. People from different backgrounds interacted, in spite of any low-grade suspicions they had of one another, but they had to back away from social contact at flashpoint times. For example, I was in university at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 unarmed civilians were killed by a British Army regiment. And the next day, we heard that the students and staff members who had participated in that civil rights demonstrations, one of them a professor of philosophy and Catholic priest, were among the many arrested and thrown in jail without due process. Here, I saw up-close how even a university community operating on a completely peaceful daily pattern could be provoked and polarized overnight.

In the predominantly Unionist contexts where I lived during this time, maybe because Catholics were such a small minority and wouldn’t pose any threat, or because my convent employed all kinds of people of different backgrounds and we wouldn’t have been perceived as being hostile in any case, I had an ease of interaction with Protestants and my conviction grew that ecumenical friendship and reconciliation approaches were more and more necessary. Encounters with religious others, political others, are inevitably pre-loaded with all kinds of expectations and preconceptions, but when you actually meet them, you don’t meet an ideology. You meet another person and together you find a way to relate on a human level. We had also seen Vatican II by this point, which gave us Catholics open encouragement to learn about other traditions, and to relate with one another at the level of spiritual ecumenism, getting to know other Christians on their own terms. There had been Roman Catholic models of ecumenism before, and certainly some experience with Protestants thinking ecumenically toward Catholics, but on the Catholic side until Vatican II it was primarily ecumenism by return. You know, “if they get to know us, they’ll realize we’re the one true church!” By the time I became interested in theology, the norm was all about engaging with the modern world. In my studies I was encouraged to learn about, to be in dialogue with, to be open to encounter with people of other cultures and other traditions. And my intellectual life was increasingly focused on the crossroads of theology and culture, faith and politics, and at a practical level, on the cross-fertilizing interactions of faith, politics, and education for an inclusive and just society.

One thing that is not always appreciated by people who are trying to understand sectarianism is that it is not always or even usually a matter of hatred between communities or identity groups: people thought the Irish situation was “Catholic versus Protestant” and “Protestant versus Catholic.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the worst ire and vilification was directed by sectarian firebrand churchmen like Ian Paisley (who, it must be said, underwent some kind of conversion much later in his life) towards Protestant churches and people whose ecumenical activity was denounced as an unpardonable betrayal of their Reformation faith. And when it came to religious bigotry, though I use the word with some tentativeness, I think that those Protestants in particular who were open minded and wanted to create alternative spaces for dialogue and mutual understanding had to endure enormous criticism, death threats, and a chilling atmosphere within their own traditions. Not that Catholics were spared. I myself, as I became more involved in interchurch services, sometimes as a guest preacher or speaker, had to run a gauntlet of protests, experience being spat at, or see placards waving in our faces and denouncing us as the anti-Christ. Such experiences made two things clearer to me. First, the more I crossed boundaries and experienced sectarian hostility, the more I understood that not only divided societies, but also divided churches, prevent change – and cost lives. Second, I understood that all Christians are “called out” to stake our life not on our own cultural identities or institutional belonging, but on Christ himself who taught and showed us that God has no favorites. We belong together – in Christ.

AH: So, the ecumenical attitude itself becomes a threat to those with a stake in division. This dynamic is familiar in the United States too. Among those who really see nothing redeemable in the other side, whether “Democrat” or “Republican,” it can look like treason to see one’s own allies expressing a desire to find common ground or make room for bridge-building. So we get concepts like the “RINO” – the “Republican In Name Only” – where the rhetorical logic is that no true “Republican” would consider compromising or engaging in good faith with “Democratic” positions (and we can see similar patterns in the purity politics of the American left). It sounds like you’re describing a similar dynamic.

I’d like to come back briefly to another element of the sectarian situation in Northern Ireland that I’ve always found fascinating and disturbing, and which you alluded to in your mention of the Gaelic Athletic Association. I’m referring to the way that “Catholic” and “Protestant” are never just ecclesial positions. They mutate into terms that represent totalizing cultural matrices. All kinds of other signifiers – whether colors, sports teams, clothing styles, types of cars, you name it – become tangled up with religious and political identification. Would you say a little bit more about how you interpret this role played by symbolism (and especially by symbols and signs that are apparently irreligious) in sectarian conflict?

GS: I tend not to use the word “symbol” for the populist labels and identity stereotypes that function in sectarian cultures: flags and banners, or colors and clothing and the like. To me, these are not so much symbols as mere emblems of identity, and they actually are reductive of full identity. They shut out more than they let in, narrowing down the scope of belonging, and the more they are clung to, the more they fuel a state of distrust and hostility. Freud’s term is so apt – “the narcissism of small differences.” Thus, partisan groups exaggerate the minutiae of differences as badges of exclusive identity and antagonism. The symbol, by contrast, opens up horizons – as Paul Ricoeur puts it, “the symbol gives rise to thought.” It expands self-understanding, nurtures the imagination, can hold contraries together. The symbol rooted in imagination opens up the potential for living relationally with otherness, in the tension of paradox. Of course, in culture and religious tradition, symbols can also become corrupt, falsified, even fossilized.

AH: They can become idolized, replacing allegiance to what they represent with an allegiance to the symbol itself and to the identity group that encircles it and tries to possess it. The Cross itself is the great example of how this can happen.

GS: Indeed, and we who inhabit our church traditions need to own up in repentance and admit where this has happened, but also recognize where it’s happening now. Not just in the other, but in ourselves. It’s important, when we talk about sectarianism as a volatile mixture of politics and religion, that we understand the substance and dynamics of sectarianism as something that feeds off corrupt, self-serving symbol structures; it is a reality far more complex in its social construction than personal prejudice or bigotry. Sectarianism is systemic, as it holds in place institutional interests and dispositions of power. In Ireland, we saw it – and see it – embodied in personal attitudes, beliefs, belonging, and behavior, but also in social structures, institutional policies and practices, and, as you say, in all manner of mundane cultural signifiers. Sectarianism must therefore be analysed through many different lenses – theological, ecclesiological, sociological, and psychological, for example.

I studied psychology and literature before coming to theology, and I later trained as a therapist. I’ve worked periodically in various therapeutic contexts in Northern Ireland going back to 1983, and it became clear to me that most people thought other people were sectarian, but that they and their tradition were not. What a psychological approach to these attitudes suggests, in brief, is that people in situations of political trauma are struggling to maintain their self-understanding and to be healed in some part of their psyche or their soul, whatever we want to call it. If we just scorn or vilify the people who cling to identity-group divisions and their material signifiers of separation as vitally important, we fail both ecumenically and empathetically. But we also need to help one another overcome states of denial and projection.

So my approach – and I share this with John Paul Lederach, Joe Liechty, Cecelia Clegg, who were all engaged in the serious study of sectarianism at the Irish School of Ecumenics in the 1990s – is to grapple with sectarian culture as arising out of a distortion of human needs and values that we need to live and survive, especially in times of atrocious suffering. But such needs and aspirations – for meaning and self-understanding, for belonging and hope, for social being, agency, and social justice – are sold short and thwarted if they are fed on the fantasies of tribal superiority. They corrode us when they harden around the drive to scapegoat, demonize, and do violence to the others whom we have cast as our permanent antagonists, refusing the gift and potential they may hold for us.

This psychological dimension is significant, but the structural and institutional embedding of sectarianism (in the case of Northern Ireland, in the workplace, housing, education; and in churches, chapels, and meeting houses) needs no less to be thought about and confronted. Some have described this as “benign apartheid,” but “apartheid” of any kind – even in the absence of systematic abuse – facilitates manipulation and exploitation by those who benefit from the logic of divide-and-rule, securing dominance via the sectarian scheme of things that entraps and corrupts understanding on all sides. Our cultural expectations around sectarianism were continually reinforced by the comprehensive socio-politico-religious divisions and the ways that these constructed and maintained people’s identities in opposition to one another. So, much of the work of the Irish School of Ecumenics during this time, in collaboration with other ecumenical bodies like the Irish Council of Churches and its partner-institution, the Irish Interchurch Meeting, attempted to challenge us to face up to the fact that we’re all “recovering sectarians.” But that work still isn’t complete – breaking down the walls of division is a long-term project.

Seemingly innocuous behaviors, like that belittling joke in the workplace, feed on and fuel progressively more hostile attitudes, behaviors, cultural norms, and ultimately political and religious structures. It is similar with racism – as we are witnessing with devastating clarity in the USA, the UK, across Europe, and indeed globally. Mocking smooths the way to marginalizing, ostracizing, demonizing, and scapegoating, which grease the path to punishing and killing, whether in the form of lynching or at the hands of state forces, and not infrequently invoking the name of God as justification for violence. In all of these contexts, egregious acts of violence – the sectarian shooting, the bombed church or mosque, the suffocation or lynching – have been able to build on the tacit collusion, the silent approval, of people who might eschew murderous action themselves. But the lower-intensity stances (even just turning a blind eye) make way for hate-speech, offer legitimacy and cover to those ready to kill, and thus secure or enforce the structures of sectarianism (including racism) by whatever agency across society, state, and church is willing to advance them.

AH: This gradual escalation that you’re describing, this changing barometer of what is normal, what is acceptable, and what is increasingly possible that might not once have been possible… what resources might have been available in the Irish context to reverse this course before physical violence became normalized?

GS: Education was key. A few examples: the national ecumenical body drew on Protestant and Catholic educators to develop the schools’ Peace Education program, which ran for many years. Similar state-sponsored education initiatives, tackling prejudice reduction or promoting education for cultural diversity and mutual understanding, were eventually adopted by schools with support from ecumenical bodies like the Corrymeela Community and the Irish School of Ecumenics. We might also mention the Clonard-Fitzroy inter-congregational friendship initiatives, which amplified the witness of ecumenically-minded communities along “the Peaceline” – local religious communities could have played this crucial role earlier in working to open up doors and finding detours around the dividing walls.

Of course, there were many missed opportunities. It will remain impossible to overcome sectarianism while blaming others. Everybody has to take responsibility for the lethal consequences of divisive mindsets and behavior, whether they appear in the structures of church division, in culture wars, or in forms of discrimination based on ethnic or religious background. So too with the racism that is so apparent today in both our contexts, and globally: education is a key path to unveiling how socially- or religiously-constructed systems have a destructive impact on everyone, on the political process, on faith, on society as a whole. Sectarianism is the enemy of hope and of life, and once it is intense enough to be seen clearly, it is everywhere at once, both overt and covert. It divides everything in terms of those total cultural matrices we were discussing, and it poisons everyone who has to swim in it – that is, everybody.

Now, since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there has been major structural reform in Northern Ireland in an attempt to eliminate discrimination in access to employment, in allocation of housing, and so on. But it is a continuing dialectic: improvements in human rights and equitable legislation have to be coupled with relationship-building. An equitable society must be rooted in mutual trust and concern for the other’s flourishing. That’s why the word reconciliation is at the heart of it for me; and it’s at the heart of ecumenism. Christ’s reconciliation in our ecumenical mind, heart, and hands is our hope. I need to know the other, and to appreciate what’s good, gracious, liberating in their ecclesial tradition. I need to discover their take on things, including how they see my group or “side” of things, and I need to understand the extent to which my church can appreciate the other’s faith and order, worship, and so forth. Without this, our ecumenical witness will be neither credible nor fruitful. Jesus warned about a house divided against itself – let us remember that the diabolos is the one who divides. This is, in my view and the view of my mentors (people like Alan Falconer, Michael Hurley, John D’Arcy May, Robin Boyd, and I could name others), the great hope of ecumenics as an educational discipline: to harness theological, social, and political learning and practice in order to reconcile divisions and heal memories. Ecumenics connects interchurch reconciliation and interreligious hospitality with the profound ecological and social-political challenges facing our world. It all has to be addressed together and each dimension in light of the others. And we also need to be vigilant to ensure that the new “others” in our midst, those of different faiths and cultural traditions who have come from other places, as refugees, asylum seekers, or economic migrants, are welcomed as a gift rather than as a threat to “our jobs” or “way of life.”

AH: As we are talking about transforming intractable conflicts, and the role of ecumenics as a discipline, what about religious communities on the ground? What can the churches (and the synagogues and temples and mosques) offer that scholars and peace activists may struggle to achieve on their own? Might you offer a word of hope for religious leaders who are distressed by seeing the public mistrust, cruelty, and divisiveness that is intensifying all around us? Or a word of caution for religious community members who aren’t concerned, or who embrace sectarian habits (particularly when they’re in the “right,” morally)?

GS: In the late 1960s, Robin Boyd and Stanley Worrall coined a telling phrase in their book, Christians in Ulster: they spoke of churches and pastors operating as “chaplains to their tribes.” I have often pondered that term and suggested, in my teaching and writing, that religious leaders would do better to be “midwives to the peace.” Yet they often failed at this, or even did more harm than good. Granted, we should be sympathetic to what pastors and priests actually have to cope with in the middle of a collective and repeating trauma: they were desperate to see to the needs of those in their congregations for truth and meaning, belonging and identity, and for social being and care of others, which again are good and legitimate needs but which easily become distorted or curved inwards, pulling us away from Christ-centered lives of understanding, compassion, and justice. If your neighborhood is being torn apart, or if your child has been abducted, or your husband has sustained life-changing injuries in a bomb blast, it’s very hard to trust the other.

Taking the longer view afforded by the perspective of age and by a lot of dialogue and opportunities to work and pray for reconciliation, I recognize my own failing to be sufficiently empathetic toward the personal suffering borne by pastors and priests alongside their own congregations. They were immersed in relentless trauma inside their own communities and sometimes beyond them, called out to administer the last rites to someone shot on their doorstep, conducting funeral after funeral in times of intense danger and intimidation, supporting violently bereaved families, going around to calm collective anger after one more atrocity, and all this with little support or respite. The word “burnout” was not spoken much, but many individual pastors (as with other first responders) suffered in silence while keeping going, and there was little in clerical training in any denomination that addressed the question, “Who cares for the carers?” or that provided pastoral preparation equal to the traumatic onslaught that so many would have to face in their ministry.

AH: I fear that religious communities and their leaders will face much the same bereavement and burnout in the US context, if the anger now boiling over continues to do so without redress.

Along these lins, I’d like to invite you to think with me a little bit more about what these insights you’ve articulated with regard to sectarianism in Northern Ireland might offer to the increasingly polarized and violent American political context. Of course, we can’t assert equivalence between the two environments, and yet I think it’s not too difficult to see that we are becoming ever more like a divided society in the Irish sense. I’m thinking here of Lederach’s scale for describing the step-by-step drift into “sectarian danger”: from conviction that the other side is wrong, to denial that the other is acting with legitimate aims or in good faith, to the attribution of evil to the other’s acts and beliefs, to the formulation of concrete means of punishing or eliminating the other. We’re well on our way in this trajectory, although the dynamics are going to be very different, and any solutions are going to be very different, than in the Irish context.

Ours is a less overtly religious division than in Northern Ireland, but it is certainly an ethical division, in the sense of sharply conflicting apprehensions of common and individual good. The identity polarity of “Democrat” and “Republican” has come to signify not only political priorities but also, in the way that we tend to use the names, moral incompatibilities. We have clusters of increasingly conspicuous associations between identity group affiliation and quotidian aspects of people’s lives, such as the use of colors (blue and red, though now also black and blue), speech patterns (perceived as “politically correct” or deliberately “politically incorrect”), types of cars (hybrids and SUVs), particular sports or sports teams (Basketball and NASCAR, the Saints and the Patriots), even consumer brands that are perceived as aligned with one or another ideology (Nike and New Balance – mind you, a decade ago I could never have been persuaded that Nike would one day be associated with progressive politics, branding gimmick though it may be). Now, even adopting or rejecting basic medical recommendations for combatting the pandemic have become identitarian signifiers. And the identity-names themselves provoke anger or mistrust or even disgust – slang terms like “Demoncrats” and “Repugnicans” have become commonplace – even aside from any concrete political or moral issue being at stake. The fact of belonging, and the pressure to belong, to these increasingly incompatible or zero-sum cultural landscapes is imaginatively very powerful. And here especially, the continuities with what happened in Northern Ireland should give us serious pause.

GS: Well, in terms of the possible resonances and reciprocal learning between these two contexts, the Irish and the American: I think that with the dynamics of racism, the dynamics of sexism, the dynamics of clericalism, the dynamics of ageism, the dynamics of any of those “isms” that contribute (psychologically, culturally, and ethically) to polarization, the patterns and dynamics actually operate in much the same way. Any of these, in either setting, is accompanied by and depends on a blindness to the reality of other people as particular and irreducible human beings. We learn to mistrust, reject, and denigrate others because of what they believe, the place they live, the color of their skin, or their flag. Sectarianism feeds off stereotypes, and depends on slogans, soundbites, and emblems, to maintain cultures of separation and enmity. All these things compound one another, and they create increasingly closed, increasingly separate universes of meaning and living.

AH: You’re highlighting a crucial factor. In the USA – and it sounds like you have experience with this in the Irish context as well – political/ethical polarization is increasingly becoming an epistemological polarization as well. We seem no longer to be in a position of trusting that the “other America” perceives correctly. And because “they” don’t perceive reality correctly – whether that’s due to misinformation and radicalizing media, which are very serious problems, or whether our assumption is that they’re living in a bubble of ignorance or are morally corrupt and willfully deceiving themselves, or whatever – we trust less and less that the other side is able to speak truthfully about reality, about the reality that we know to be the case. That’s tribal epistemology in a nutshell: we disagree not only on interpretations and courses of action but also on the facts in need of interpretation and response. So, we know that reconciliation requires truthful accounting, but if truth ceases to be a category that can be shared between antagonists, what then?

GS: The whole phenomenon of manipulative fake news, distorting the truth in order to demonize or incriminate, is one of the most destructive realities in public life today. Anything can be claimed or attributed, shared or retweeted; rumor is given the same credence as evidence, and bombastic opinion is given more weight than careful argument and responsible debate. Biased media thrive by instilling narrow conditions for informational validity, closing minds around monocultural worldviews. This poses critical challenges for anyone concerned with truth, meaning, and value – it tears apart the very fabric of trust in the public sphere and in the possibility of morality in intercultural or international affairs. It’s ironic too that, while many of us consider the Internet an astonishing boon – with its digital platforms, research engines, communications portals, and so on – at the same time, it may be causing many to feel more intense isolation, and it may be short-circuiting real discourse and debate. The pace and anonymity, the normalization of exclusion and vitriol, and the self-serving confirmation bias of internet exchange can nullify the subtleties of texts and traditions. Soundbites on the internet, then, aren’t sufficient to gain an empathetic understanding of why other people feel that they cannot trust the agendas that we ourselves consider ethical and necessary. That’s one reason it’s so easy to fall into an us-them certainty – “we’re right and they’re wrong.” I may see myself as a critical thinker who welcomes different points of view, but this often holds only so long as “they” agree with my value system!

AH: And of course, there are enormous social and cultural pressures not to put oneself in the other’s shoes, not to allow that there might be humane reasons for holding attitudes we may see as repellant, not to admit any of that toxicity that we see into ourselves, even to the extent of trying to understand it. All this is disincentivized in so many ways. Moreover, it’s pleasurable to feel oneself to be right, and to nurture outrage or resentment or contempt of the other side. The ascetic tradition would have a lot to say about this, about how even our gravitation to good ideals and virtuous acts can become spiritually corrosive – Evagrius Ponticus famously described anger, even righteous anger, as “dragon’s wine”! It’s intoxicating to get worked up about the ways that “they” are ruining the country or the world. Entirely aside from the question of whether or not we are right about something, feeling right presents a powerful temptation to dehumanize the other.

GS: Exactly. Now, in the context of the current “culture wars” and protests against racial discrimination and injustice in the USA, a capacity for intercultural respect and empathy is especially, urgently needed. I heard David Hempton speak of this at ISE – he’s the Dean of Harvard Divinity School, a Methodist from Northern Ireland and a historian of evangelism. His insights into the voting base that brought President Trump to victory were based on objective analysis of research data on their expressed grievances and the contested values (whatever you might happen to think about these) that shaped the election outcome. Hempton probed the dismissive interpretations which assumed that a vote for Donald Trump signaled moral myopia or unreserved ideological approval. His research presented a more differentiated reading, for example, of Trump’s atypical ethnic and evangelical followers, many of whom declared themselves reluctant supporters, tired of unfulfilled promises, their social and economic plight downplayed by the very people who vaunted liberal respect for difference. Those who had voted for Donald Trump were regularly being denounced as mindless, racist, and favoring the interests of wealth, but their accusers were blind to the reality of their social and economic exclusion, feeling shut out of the American dream, patiently “waiting in line” for promised jobs and social or educational access while again and again others were put in front of them.

So I think we’re all challenged to consider: who is my “other,” and in what ways do we relegate them to the status of “other”? Who is my other in the social-political sphere, or in the religious sphere? One of my mentors at ISE, the wise, deeply imaginative Augustinian theologian Gabriel Daly, suggested that we need to be on our guard for a cozy ecumenism that is ready to pitch camp with those in another denomination or group whom we find simpatico to our selective doctrinal or complacent ethical affirmations, while avoiding or writing off those in our own community who do not echo or mirror these commitments. Intolerance and psychological distancing based on such smug and un-self-critical complacency have no place in the ecumenical mind and heart, whether exercised ad intra or ad extra. I can never put myself beyond question.

But ecumenics (whether in the academy, in the church, or in the wider society) has helped open our language and communication with one another to finer nuance and resonance. It has helped us to recognize and articulate the fresh wisdom that can emerge in the very tensions and apparent incompatibilities, and in the unexpected possibilities, of our most challenging relationships. In dialogue, we hope for a growth in wholeness, in holiness, and in the gospel orientation of each community through the Holy Spirit at work within and between us.

AH: Part of what you’re suggesting, it seems to me, is that we need spiritual exercise: we need to deepen our own being through a process of ongoing conversion. Maybe we don’t give up our fundamental points of reference, but we have to recognize that we often clothe them in self-serving habits, or we mistake an ideal for a nonnegotiable course of action in the world –

GS: Yes, but even sometimes our prized moral or theological points of reference – I think sometimes we do have to give them up, or at least suspend them temporarily. Sometimes we need to acknowledge – all right, I hold my beliefs and values, but I don’t operate out of all of them all the time, and often I live them poorly. So for now, for the sake of the other’s conscience and their created dignity and the possibility of breaking free of legacies of antagonism, can I just take a step back humbly and dare to view the other’s faith and call as legitimate, offering some new insight? John Paul’s description of dialogue as “the exchange of gifts” is a good starting point. But commitment to ecumenism also involves a willingness to be changed, inviting us to the more radical “dialogue of conversion.”

AH: This sounds very wise but very challenging. If you’re suggesting that this kind of agonizing spiritual process is what’s needed for de-escalating sectarianism and polarization, then we are thrown up against the reality that ecumenism has struggled with from the very beginning, and that we see with particular clarity in these severely polarized political contexts: you can’t push people into good-faith dialogues that they don’t want. That is, reconciliation is not sought by everybody.

GS: Yes, this has pained me no end. In our contemporary contexts of political division, systemic injustice, and violent histories of antagonism, the alternative to reconciliation is the endless cycle of revenge. Of course, any sense of reconciliation as a “soft” option needs to be critiqued if it is being used to cover over or collude in injustice. But that is not Paul’s teaching and I am not giving up on it: any suspicion and critique of the rhetoric of reconciliation is in keeping with my reaffirmation of “costly” reconciliation. Christ’s reconciliation is a given grace that is grounded in a theological truth – that, as Paul discerns, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Now, such a reconciliation is costly because it challenges me to relinquish my own disappointments, and it insists that I hold on to hope when I meet those who seem not to want to be reconciled. There will always be conflict within and between our churches, but if reconciliation is the work of God then it’s not my version of reconciliation that matters.

And you know, what sometimes upsets conservative evangelicals, in my experience, is that too many ecumenists do want to press their dialogue-partners where they think they ought to go, while failing to trust their partners’ integrity vis-à-vis their sense of truth, and failing to question the basis for their own doctrinal (and non-doctrinal) forms of attachment. The mote and the beam again?

AH: But it seems like this leaves us in a catch-22, doesn’t it? If our trying to be persuasive about the need for reconciliation and the need for more open and empathetic intercultural or inter-identity relationships is itself part of the problem, and yet if the people with whom we’re trying to imagine reconciliation don’t want to reconcile with us, then how do we get to a place of shared desire for reconciliation, shared desire for the common good – as opposed to what seems to be the case now, where our shared desire is, in essence, “I just wish all of those people would go away and stop ruining everything”!

GS: I don’t know. At one level it’s about language – how we choose words and deploy the hermeneutical methods at our disposal when we engage in conversation across difference. We also need to create more open public spaces, to go where we don’t usually go but without feeling insecure or threatened and where dialogue is valued; the coffee house was an embodiment of that in 17th– and 18th-century London – a place where strangers could gather and converse without fear or favor.

There was an interesting campaign in Northern Ireland called One Small Step, which has challenged each community to start intentionally making small steps out of their own zone, into the world of the other, whether it be by reading a different newspaper, or crossing geographical boundaries to shop or eat in new neighborhoods… whatever that first small step, it can be soul-sized. And there is the “Four Corners Festival” in Belfast, organized by Christians from across the city, orchestrating interaction through the arts, faith, politics, and civic exchange in promoting a vision of reconciliation. The Festival follows immediately on the heels of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and it has drawn in real diversity and younger participants, ready to cross boundaries and explore opportunities with people of varied backgrounds for “fresh expressions” of faith and culture in a still divided but increasingly multi-cultural society. There’s still evidence of segregation in the city’s geography, especially but not only in the materially neglected interface areas, where there still persists a fear of bringing down the “Peaceline” walls that run for miles, separating Unionist and Nationalist neighborhoods. The demise of the walls – physical and metaphorical – by which people have defined their identity-in-opposition needs to be preceded by a painstaking building of relationships of trust with those on the other side. There have been some solid ecumenical initiatives in this direction, in Northern Ireland anyway, but it remains for the churches institutionally to cooperate in shepherding their people in a spirit of unity and pastoral concern, in order to alleviate this sense of insecurity among those who feel left behind, having benefitted little from the peace.

My experience has been that, once people get over their initial hesitation and fear, they are able to relate as human beings and find common ground, even if they have to avoid contested topics initially. There has been genuine peace-building within and between communities, and this kind of exchange has played an important part in the reconciliation process. Reconciliation will take place at different paces in different zones of life, and every bridge that is built must be renewed and protected in every generation. Peace comes dropping slow, as Yeats put it.

AH: When you talk about “identity-in-opposition,” it strikes me that this dynamic is more important than we are typically inclined to believe. It’s so easy and self-affirming to think, “I don’t like them because they’re doing something wrong.” But identity-in-opposition is a way of naming the sense that, whether consciously or not, our belonging is predicated on there being others who do not belong; we feel more ourselves insofar as we are not like them. Whether people understand themselves to be divided from their neighbors in terms of religious incompatibilities (“Catholic” and “Protestant,” or “believer” and “atheist”), or political ideologies or subcultures (“Unionist” and “Nationalist,” or “Republican” and “Democrat”), or ethnic or racial differences (“black” and “white,” or “native-born” and “immigrant”), or an amalgam of these, the specific terms and tonalities of these differences have deeper foundations in our disposition to distinguish, reject, and resist – and so doing, to find ourselves. Even when it’s obvious that a functioning, peaceful, shared society is in everyone’s best interest, as human beings we may instinctually feel that giving up our antagonism toward the other would be abandoning something at the very root of ourselves.

Therefore, we need more than a pragmatic, ad hoc alliance for common interests, more than a satisfaction of prosaic needs (important though these are). You’ve taught me this – how the poetic plays a vital role in nurturing reconciliation that will take root in a society. In a way, reconciliation requires not only that we have access to truth – a truthful accounting of the many perspectives that collide in a divided society, and a truthful recognition of our own and others’ hurtful actions – but also that we have access to fiction. Because poetry isn’t just ornamental; it can interrupt our habits of life and thought, open new possibilities for perceiving the world around us, and sound new wavelengths of self-understanding or the understanding of otherness.

GS: It can! And I think we’re blessed in Ireland, where there’s no shortage of poets and painters and visionaries. We have to think of the poetic not just in terms of the verbal, but also in terms of the poetic imagination or the symbolic imagination. This creative, imaginative, generative dynamic widens the space of our tent as our communities tell and hear each other’s narratives, but it also evokes visions of peace rooted in acceptance of our own and others’ vulnerability, and it nurtures trust and hope for healing and wholeness. How might church communities be part of such a creative story-ing of peace that can be lived and shared? An open question.

I first really recognized how powerful story can be when I was in Albuquerque, at a Society of Christian Ethics conference in the mid-1990s. I’d noticed on the front page of a local newspaper a feature on a down-and-out neighborhood, overridden by crime, drugs, and unemployment. This community had real and reasonable grievances with their lot in society; they were economically paralysed. And they, along with the help of a local artist and community facilitators, had created a stunning, multicolored mural – with trees and roots and branches, and flowers and fruits on the trees – which offered an alternative vision of the community’s self-understanding. It did not cover up the signs of poverty and inequality, but it portrayed a collective resistance to letting their lives be defined in these terms. Instead, their vision of a different future blossomed out, mapped in the roots, trunks, and branches of trees, in imaginative shapes, symbols, and a riot of colors. And I just said to myself: this is an icon of this community’s vision, each of its members made imago Dei, transcending the false images and fatalistic scripts dealt to them. Nobody had ever bothered to ask about their vision – but now, this mural allowed them to tap into their capacity to believe in themselves, and to reveal themselves as “God’s work of art” (Paul’s amazing image in Ephesians 2:10), manifesting an alternative vision of abundant life inside their marginalized community.

I witnessed something analogous back home in the decades since the Peace Agreement. The effects of prolonged trauma became visible in people’s lives. One form of personal and community healing by which people recovered some sense of agency and tapped into resources for hope was sharing their stories in oral, written, or artistic forms. It was an exercise in community listening and in the healing of memory. How did people understand what they had lived through? How could they piece together the fragments of their lives? And such story-exchange empowered people, for it was not just reminiscence but a channeling of meaning and a re-membering of shattered lives and loved ones lost. It brought positive and cherished values, which had survived underground like a hidden stream, back into the light. Such values as care, endurance, and practical creativity surfaced again in the public sphere, like a wellspring of transformation and social regeneration, giving this renewal shape and sustaining it materially, aesthetically, and psychologically.

Returning to your point about poetry, I find in many of our contemporary poets a kind of “ecumenical imagination” – their capacity to empathize with otherness, the way they interpret history “against the grain,” refusing clichés and stereotypes that immure identities in anger or victimhood, and offering instead the strangeness of metaphor and deep symbols that command our fragmented attention. I think of a Dublin-born poet like Eavan Boland, wrestling with her own colonial heritage and the burdens of its legacy. Her volume Lost Lands is an unflinching confrontation with her past, raw as a cauterization. It was published in 1998, the same year as the Good Friday Agreement that ushered in a vision of a shared future and a different ground for “a future and a hope.” Boland died this April during the pandemic – one of her poems, coincidentally entitled “Quarantine,” portrays a scene of disease and death during Ireland’s Great Famine:

In the worst hour of the worst season
Of the worst year of a whole people…

Boland gives us an elegy, a love story that must not be cheapened or mythologized. Its grim telling is reserved, truthful. The poem’s subjects are “poor,” a husband and wife, turned away from the workhouse because she was stricken with famine fever. They take the road north, and we are told in almost matter of fact tone:

In the morning they were both found dead
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.

After that devastating phrase, the poet reveals a tender detail of the way they were found together. The respect she accords them is devoid of sentiment, in the necessity of curbing her own emotion as having no place in their drama:

There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Boland, the poet born into the culture of the colonizer, allows herself no other right or place but to do these brutalized figures the justice of truth-telling against the grain of the colonizers’ version of events. She does not claim to occupy their place. But she bears witness not just to their death, nor only to their tragic suffering, but also to the final self-giving gesture that “proved” their love. For me, this poem is the most extraordinary “sacrament” of poetry as atonement and reconciling of history.

AH: It’s a heartbreaking, attention-commanding glimpse of the victims of history, who are so often and easily ignored or explained away.

You spoke earlier about the unexpected, and about holding ourselves open to the unexpected possibilities of what can be thought and communicated even within a sectarian situation that feels ossified and hopeless. To put it in personal terms: I’m alarmed and often pessimistic about what we’re facing in the US, the sharpening polarization and the fortification of tribal epistemologies. But I keep coming back to another of your favorite passages of poetry, from Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy”:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.

Heaney’s saying, I think, that although history gives us little reason to hope that things will get better rather than worse, and although we might not be able to logic our way to the other side of an abyss of division, we still have to believe, in spite of whatever evidence to the contrary and without knowing exactly what will be needed, that we can get there in the end.

GS: That’s Heaney’s vision, and it’s desperately needed. This is the point of the murals too. Imagination allows us to think alternatives, and that’s why we need speculative visions, even utopian visions. Hope is more than fantasy. So, last night in my community we were reading through the Letter to the Hebrews, and the commentary we were using talked about hope as an anchor. I think that’s a wonderful paradox, because we think of hope as carrying us way beyond ourselves, extending us toward a future better than the past or the present, and yet it’s also something deep-seated, deep-rooted, which aligns us not with petty desires but holds fast to the unexpected possibility of enlargement, a possibility not yet revealed, never completely fulfilled on this side of the grave. Maintaining hope in situations of hopelessness is, in the end, a grace. We can’t summon it up for ourselves, even when we need it most. But then, when we least expect it, it comes at us sideways and turns us around. There’s another lovely line from Heaney, in his poem about going out for a drive on the western shore of Ireland: he has this image of the car being buffeted by the wind…

AH: In “Postscript”! That image of “big soft buffetings [that] come at the car sideways and catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

GS: That’s it. That’s hope.

AH: What does it mean, then, for “hope and history” to “rhyme”? What does that say to you?

GS: Well, the partisan accounts prefer to tell of “our chosen glories” or of “our chosen traumas” (in Vamik Volkan’s apt terms), talking up historic grievances or triumphs in the engraved patterns of antagonism, resentment, and blame. The challenge of reconciling histories is to widen the canvas, to open the heart to other stories, to make a place for silenced voices and absent faces. Walter Benjamin’s axiom about the need to “brush history against the grain,” so as to resist a past that would keep us captive – I think that’s what it means for hope and history to rhyme, for our history to become deeper, broader, more inflected, to allow silenced voices to speak, to upend biases of race, faith, and culture, to understand “herstory” as well as “history,” to make a place at the table for the outsider. That’s why we need these oral history projects, narrative accounts that illuminate what people have lived through without making totalizing claims about what it ultimately will mean, or how it was caused by this or that event, or how it is related to this atrocity or that breakthrough. Those are judgments, and they are needed as well, but I think that each community’s own stories have to be there in the process of peacebuilding, so that the full range of experience can be more truly grasped than the selections of official historians, or political protagonists serving the prevailing interests, would permit.

AH: Thank you for these wonderful insights, Geraldine, and for being a guiding voice in our troubled time. It’s a fitting place to conclude, with this possibility that we can cherish even if it’s hard to see, this hope that we’ll see the far side of revenge in both our societies.

This interview originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.