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When Two Groups Can’t Get Along

The only way toward unity when we are fragmented is love. When we love one another grace breaks out in fresh and exciting ways. I’m from the USA and for the whole of my publicly-conscious life I’ve never been able to comprehend why the Irish can’t get along. For a refresher, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales), and the Republic of Ireland is an independent country and not part of England. I listened in on Bobby Sands and I watched news stories about pipe bombs and I listened to the heated rhetoric of Ian Paisley.  I could not wrap my mind around how intelligent Christians could spend centuries setting death traps for one another. Northern Ireland is Protestant and the Republic of Ireland is Catholic. Some in Northern Ireland want to be part of England (loyalists) and some want to be part of the Republic, and some in the Republic want to re-acquire Northern Ireland for the Republic (nationalists).

A few years back Kris and I were in the Republic and our friend, Patrick Mitchel, took us to their equivalent of a Civil War site. We visited a national museum dedicated to the Battle of the Boyne (1690). William of Orange won, the Protestants therefore had a genuine foothold in the north, the Catholics took the south, and for more than three hundred years that battle remains a festering wound. I do my best to comprehend it. During a film we were watching in the museum at the Battle’s site I noticed Patrick wiping tears from his eyes. Patrick grew up in Northern Ireland (Ulster), in Belfast, but now teaches theology at Irish Bible Institute in the Republic, in the heart of Dublin. What Patrick knows is that the gospel wants to bring God’s People into one Body. What Patrick knows is that the pain of the Battle of Boyne can be felt some three centuries later.

Enter Paul’s idea that love is the only way forward.

Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds, a Protestant pastor and a Catholic priest, are both from Northern Ireland.[i] “Gerry is as unembarrassed about being an Irish Nationalist as Ken is about being an Ulster Unionist.”  Both know that love is central to making any progress in Ireland, and both know that love is central if Christians are going to map a path toward reconciliation, and both know that grace breaks out when love is central. Once Ken, while teaching the Bible as a missionary professor, met Noel Carroll, a Catholic from Dundalk. Ken tells of their progress in these words:

 Slowly… I began to discover that in Christ we were not opponents, enemies, opposites, but rather brothers of the same master, children of the same heavenly father.

These next words, don’t take lightly:

In that discovery, for both Noel and myself, thirty years of conditioning to suspicion, distrust, keeping-your-distance, were removed…. the basis of our friendship was Jesus.

A theme for creating unity, for making the invisible Irish visible, is that “we cannot be right with God if we are wrong with our neighbours.” So they began to plot ways for grace to take root, and one way to hold unifying worship services. For one such service, Ken wrote a charge for the liturgy:

We are people one by the love of Christ our Saviour and Lord.

We have been changed as people by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is the pride that desires to dominate; gone is the anger that wants to undermine.

By his Holy Spirit we want to listen to each other’s hurts and fears and build together a community fit for us all to live in, furnished with the generosity, justice and compassion of Jesus Christ.

Once when attending a charismatic ecumenical meeting in Belfast, Ken saw an artistic tapestry of two people – one in green (Republic) and one in orange (Northern Ireland) – embracing. The embrace didn’t blend green into orange, or orange into green, or some ugly mixture. It was, Ken saw, a sign of what could happen. So he asked the 700 people there to find someone from the “other community” and embrace them. That public event of Catholics and Protestants embracing, green and orange in one another’s arms, led to the single-most effective initiative for unity in Ireland – the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, two churches, two pastors (Ken and Gerry), one Catholic and one Protestant, gathering for prayer, for worship, for listening to God’s Word and for fellowship.

In about 1986 a Margaret Thatcher-led discussion led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but the loyalists of Northern Ireland, often called Ulster, protested too much compromise. Signs were everywhere: “Ulster Says No!” Gerry was teaching a class at St. Gall’s monastery school when he asked his eleven-year-olds what they would like him to say to the Protestants. “When all the others had their say,” he reports, “one boy spoke up with great insight: ‘Ask them to say yes to us’.” Gerry’s mission in life was “to encourage people of both traditions to say ‘yes’ to each other.” Saying Yes to one’s neighbor makes them visible and unlocks the dam for grace flow.

How can this happen? Perhaps the wisest approach I’ve seen can be found in words of Ken: “How do you destroy an iceberg [between the two groups]? If you ram it, as in a ship, it will sink you. But if you gently nudge it towards warmer waters, it will eventually melt.” What is that warmer water? Love. Gerry says it: “Our guiding principle in these simple [unity pilgrim] visits has been the command of Jesus, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’.”



[i] Ronald A Wells, Friendship Toward Peace: The Journey of Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds (Dublin: Blackrock, 2005), 25, 26-27, 113, 128, 141.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ken White

    Thanks, Scot, for this insightful and heartfelt post.

  • John Orr

    Sorry, had to comment – the United Kingdom is not England. Scotland and Wales are in there too, and also definitely not part of ‘England’. Please do not equate England with the UK.
    (And maybe this comment is a small insight into why there are ongoing issues.)

  • KentonS
  • scotmcknight

    Thanks for that, and I ought to get that right since my grandpa came to the USA from Fife in Scotland! I suspect our geographical ignorance has nothing to do with “ongoing issues.”

  • John Orr

    lol.
    It did come across as a bit abrupt perhaps.
    Nevertheless, part of the underlying issue is identity, and when one’s identity (even in part) is (inadvertently) dismissed, it can grate.
    I have no particular issue with being identified as a UK citizen, but do object to my Scottish identity being replaced by an English one (or even Welsh or N.Irish).
    I’m sure there are US equivalents, but I’m not familiar enough with them to offer a parallel.

  • John Orr

    Scot (oh the irony ;) ),
    I’ll let you off then.
    No, it was a flippant comment in parentheses, but, as I mentioned to KentonS, there is, in part, an issue of identity underlying much of what has gone on in the past, and to a degree still occurs. National identity is still a matter of pride for many, as well as their identification with a tradition, a community, a faith, a job, etc.
    (Re)Discovering a greater identity in Jesus (and His love) is most certainly a good way forward.

  • Rick

    “National identity is still a matter of pride for many, as well as their identification with a tradition, a community, a faith, a job, etc. (Re)Discovering a greater identity in Jesus (and His love) is most certainly a good way forward.”
    Can we have both?

  • Adam

    I think the inability to understand how people can hate each other is part of the problem precisely because it’s an inability to understand. People who hate are people who hurt. When we say “I don’t understand your hate” we say “I don’t understand your hurt.”

    The solution to me then is to understand the hate and therefore understand the hurt and then demonstrate there’s an alternative.

  • John Orr

    I would say we could.

  • John Orr

    I hope you’ll permit a (slightly) tangential story (but, I’d argue, still relevant) from my own experience.
    First a little bit of background.
    The marches commemorating the Battle of the Boyne are not localised in N. Ireland. They are to be found in many parts of Scotland too. I was brought up in one such area and later lived in another. The marchers predominantly come from the various Orange Orders found throughout Scotland. Many pass off uneventfully; others trigger violence and ill-feeling.
    I used to run our church youth club (early to mid-teen age group; Protestant, Presbyterian church) and for a while we were attracting many unchurched young people. We generally had a ‘God slot’ at some time in the evening where we discussed issues of faith. Not all the young people participated and so we often had two groups during that time. I was with the ‘uninterested’ group one evening and one of the girls asked of another, “Are you a Christian?”
    The reply was an affirmative and she proceeded to ask around the group, receiving a variety of yes and no answers. I asked if she would have considered herself to be a Christian and received a very vehement, “No way! I’d never be a Christian!”
    Wondering at the passion in the reply, I asked her why not.
    She replied that she could never be a Christian, because her dad would kill her (exaggerated speech – but he’d be very angry, at the least).
    Again, I followed up, wondering why her dad would be so against it.
    “Because,” she said, “he’s in the Orange Lodge! We’re Protestants!”
    Apparently, for this girl (and her father), Christian = Roman Catholic.
    We had some fascinating discussions over the next few weeks though.
    I offer this as an example of the underlying ignorance surrounding much of the Catholic/Protestant division experienced over here.
    But also as an example of how misplaced identity can have such a huge impact on how we relate to others.
    And finally, of an example of how properly knowing one another can make a huge difference. And yes, that means approaching one another with a pre-disposition to love and not to hate.

  • Rick

    Good example and thoughts.

    “that means approaching one another with a pre-disposition to love and not to hate.”
    In the context you describe, those appear to be the more common options. However, in more peaceful contexts, I wonder if the options don’t become: love, hate, or decide later (once one gets more information). Even in those peaceful contexts, a pre-disposition to love should override the “decide later”.

  • RJS4DQ

    Both, but not on equal footing. Don’t you think identity in Christ has to take precedence over everything else?

  • http://www.wheretoreach.us/ T Freeman

    Maybe the closest US parallel (and there may not be any that are really suitable) is within the Hispanic community. People from Cuba don’t want to be wrongly identified as mexican or puerto rican or guatemalan, etc., and vice-versa.

    One of our closest friends a few years back was a family from the D.R. They had an inside joke as a family they would say whenever they got the sense that someone non-Hispanic was uncomfortable with them because of their skin color or because they spoke Spanish to each other: They would say to each other in feigned frustration: “Those Mexicans!” (referring to themselves).

  • Patrick Mitchel

    Hi Scot. Coming a bit late to this … good memories of your visit!

    The Ken Newell & Gerry Reynolds story gains different receptions with different groups. Raises great questions around what is the basis of Christian unity.

    I think it’s fair to say that conservative evangelicals tend to focus on truth as a basis for unity. If it is judged that there is enough agreement on core issues then unity can follow. Where there isn’t, unity is unlikely to develop. In this framework, unity primarily has a propositional basis. The reality is that, for some, there is not enough ‘common core’ to rejoice at Newell and Reynolds celebrating that they are “brothers of the same master, children of the same heavenly father”.

    Often difference is seen as a threat or obstacle to unity. But another way of looking at it is as in Ephesians 4. Believers ARE united in Christ through the Spirit, yet it is assumed that they ARE different. And so they have to ‘make every effort to KEEP the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ 4:3. In other words, unity in Christ and the Spirit precedes agreement on the details – which is why believers are to be patient and bear with one another in love.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I’ll be blunt. But I’ll give some background first.

    I was born in South Africa, into the Afrikaner community. In that community there are perpetual debates around what is and what isn’t an Afrikaner, and then some split it into Afrikaner and Boers and who knows what. Debates got very heated. Families wouldn’t speak to each other. As a matter of fact, you could start a major argument in my grandparents house by saying ’1914′. That was the year of the rebellion, when, due to Britain’s entrance into World War 1 and the Union government’s decision to follow suit and invade German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), the Afrikaner nation split – there were the government side (my grandfather’s side -my great-grandfather entered military service against the German colonial troops), and the rebel side, who saw an opportunity to throw of the English “yoke” and re-establish the Boer Republics, which had been annexed in 1902. My great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side was a rebel.

    People bind themselves by history to forge a save identity – and the more threatened they feel (economic / political / religious) the more fervent their establishment of this identity as a rallying point for defense, and soon hatred. That is why racism, for instance, is very often more severe among the poorer classes than the wealthier. Because the poor feel threatened (economically).

    But given a hundred years of Afrikaner-identity wars, I am quite honest in saying that identities built around hate are doomed to fall, and drag the holders down with them. Whether that identity is purely ethnic, or political, or ethno-religious, or some other combination.

  • BradK

    Absolutely, RSJ. Not just precedence, but one must ultimately choose one or the other, at least at the points of conflict. Scot’s statement that he “could not wrap [his] mind around how intelligent Christians could spend centuries setting death traps for one another” is because Christians cannot spend centuries setting death traps for one another. Identity with Christ precludes murder, no? Those who choose an identity of hate “live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” But for those whose identity is in Christ, their “citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

  • http://wildbohemia.tumblr.com/ Tim H

    Interesting post, Scott.

    I’m from Northern Ireland myself, from a Protestant background, but I am in the rather unusual position of being one of the few being raised in a Prod (and evangelical) background who leans towards a united Ireland. (Not that the question is one of prime importance to me.)

    I would just like to point out that the Northern Irish conflict isn’t so much a conflict based on religion, as a conflict based on political and religious identity (as Klasie Kraalogies has already said). In Northern Ireland, “Catholic” and “Protestant” are labels that define a political position more than religious affiliation. Which is not to say that people in both “communities” are serious about their religion. Apart from Ian Paisley and a handful of other leaders (if their sincerity is to be believed), a lot of the most active republicans and loyalists don’t care much about religion. Even more so when it comes down to the paramilitaries. So appeals to religion and to love aren’t likely to move the majority of the population, unfortunately.

    I wrote my Masters thesis on the role of religion in peacemaking in Northern Ireland. Although there was a number of religious individuals on both sides who actively worked for peace (often within a charismatic setting), there were, unfortunately, a minority. It is arguable that the punk movement (in the mid 70s to the early 80s) was far more successful at uniting (young) people from both sides than religious efforts, for a short period of time at least.

    What I’m getting at is that although it is important to talk about the religious aspect of the conflict, the role of religion either as a cause of the conflict or as a catalyst for change should not be over-stressed.


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