It’s not going to come as much surprise to anyone that the passing of Martin McGuinness has divided opinion. One of the highest ranking members of the IRA during the height of the troubles but equally as instrumental as anyone of bringing it to an end.
Had you asked anyone at that time, whether Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would be sitting beside each other, laughing and working together just a few decades later you would be considered insane at best.
Sworn enemies, completely at odds with the values of the other. Yet here was one of the greatest examples of Grace and reconciliation in the Western world, written into our history books.
These days following the passing of Marin McGuinness will be a difficult time for many. For some his death will bring no joy but perhaps a type of closure. For others it will be considered great news.
Grace is a word that everyone struggles with. It makes us feel uncomfortable and angry. Confused and frustrated. It is completely illogical. And there in lies it’s strength. That’s why it works.
The fear of Grace is that people will get away with whatever they want and in that tension most of us err on the side of caution and refuse to offer it. (Or for that matter, accept it). Many will have been skeptical that Martin McGuinness ever truly changed and are convinced he turned to political means when it became clear that violence wasn’t going to work. It’s little wonder that we cling to this cautious approach when we view the person we hate as someone still deserving of hate.
What do we do with our enemy who has turned around and changed their ways especially when we are still struggling to forgive?
There are no easy answers to this and we can not wrap this up in a way that everyone can feel comfortable with. I’m fortunate to have grown up during the end of the troubles and beginning of the peace process in Northern Ireland and I am even more fortunate to have grown up without losing someone close to me through the actions of any of the terrorist organizations that existed.
But if I had, could I still believe so deeply in the power of Grace? I’m not confident I would.
When the first images emerged of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sitting together at two tables in Stormont, strategically placed so not to look like either were too comfortable with the other; it was a moment of great significance. I remember watching the news that day and being excited and amazed that something was about to happen. As the years passed and the two grew from cautious colleagues to good friends who genuinely got on well with each other it was a great example of the power of Grace.
A shared anger turned into a shared joke.
It gave us hope that no situation is too far gone to be saved.
Grace takes a leap of faith. Both men took that leap in those days. Having seen the other as an enemy it must have taken great courage fully knowing the backlash they would inevitable experience from their prospective communities.
The leap is even greater for those who have suffered at the hands of violence. It’s an abyss too wide for many.
Healing takes time and maybe it will never come and as much as I believe in the power of Grace, many will not be able to give their enemy the benefit of the doubt. They should never be judged for that but rather given examples of Grace that in time could provide enough light for them to step forward.
Grace doesn’t wait until everyone is ready. It doesn’t wait for an apology or for justice. The time for Grace is now not tomorrow. You can’t justify Grace. You can’t make it fit your agenda. It doesn’t work because you feel good about the situation, it just works. It’s the only things that truly changes you.
The alternative then is to grow weary and for hate to become the undercurrent under which everything else shakily stands. It may feel comforting for a while but it never leads to healing, just bitterness. This is why Grace is not just for the one receiving forgiveness but for she who delivers it.
For millions the Lord’s prayer has become a familiar liturgy, the power of its words having been somewhat lost over time. “Forgive us, as we forgive those who trespass against us” is not simply a nice rhetoric to monotonously recite during school assemblies or Sunday morning church services, but a challenging call to live differently. It’s a reminder that there is no “us” and “them” but just “we”. Lord, offer my enemy, the one who has murdered and stolen from me, as much Grace as you are willing to offer me.
Nothing less will do.
That takes courage and a prophetic vision into what is possible when everything inside you or everyone around you tells you to run. Only a few will ever fully experience Grace but those that do will change the world. I believe that is the cornerstone of which the work of Martin McGuinness will be remembered.
A couple of years ago Martin McGuinness appeared on a stage as hundreds of young people prayed for him. Thousands of teenagers, many who were not old enough to remember the worst of the troubles praying for a man who was responsible for much of it.
What a young, fiery and angry Martin McGuinness would have made of this idea is one that only a few people are privy too. But I will take a guess that he could never have even begun to imagine such a scene.
This is a stark image and one that I believe we must return to over and over and over. It’s a vision for what can happen when we take a risk. When we invite into our home, the one who broke up our home. When we offer security and Love to those who seek to bring us harm. When we decide that our anger and hatred is not allowing us to experience life and Love and Hope then it is time to allow Grace to do it’s work.
Grace has nothing to do with what is fair. It is bigger than any of us and can’t be easily argued against or understood. But it can most definitely be felt. That is the only way we will know it is real. Not when we try and understand it.
So may Martin McGuinness’s legacy be one of what can happen when we take risks and let Grace do it’s work.
Because tonight Big Ian and Marty will be hoping we follow their example.
It’s up to us now, to not let them down.