When I read my friend Gemma’s tweet asking her followers how they felt about Northern Ireland, I was hard pressed to think of anything positive to say.
Her tweet, coming off the back of remarks by a Pastor in Belfast that were derogatory to Muslims and Islam, left me wondering if there was anything good I could say about my home country.
When a Pastor can say things that are unloving, ungracious and nothing like anything that would come out of the mouth of the Jesus I know; when a countries leader can come out in support of such words; when a highly regarded and hard working politician who has done more than most to change the landscape of NI, is considering walking away because she feels intimidated because of racism, is there much to celebrate?
If anything we should not have been surprised by the past couple of weeks events. Northern Ireland has a tradition (we love our traditions) of not trusting those who are different to us. “Themuns” are the ones causing the trouble. Themuns want to get rid of my rights. Themuns are trampling on my Britishness/Irishness. Themuns are evil.
These are the voices and attitudes that have been loudest in Northern Ireland for decades. Even now, in a post troubles Northern Ireland we still feel mistrust for the others.
Mistrust comes from many sources but none more than ignorance and ignorance is bred from a fear of difference. Of different colors, or religion, or flags, or sexuality. We’re frightened by what we don’t know and so it is easier to lump everyone into the same category rather than learning who you are as an individual.
Around six years ago I visited Cedar Point in Ohio. A roller coaster mecca for thrill seekers. I am terrified of the teacups ride never mind an extremely high roller coaster. That was until I visited Cedar Point at the age of 24 and rode on my first rollercoaster. Until that point I had been terrified of them but not really knowing why. So I avoided them. I cried when I went on the Ghost Train as a 4 year old. But you know what? When I had my first rolllercoaster experience I couldn’t get enough. I spent the following six or seven hours queuing just to get on something I had been trying to avoid my whole life.
The change happened when I went on my first ride. I didn’t die. I didn’t cry. I loved it. I was ignorant of what the experience would be like. An ignorance based on nothing more than my own imagination.
This is something similar to what we experience when we avoid or even worse, attack those who are different to us.
I think of Loyalism and I think of those throwing rocks at police or attacking themuns over the wall. So when I meet a Loyalist I am instantly weary because they must fit into the category I have defined myself. All Loyalists are thugs.
Or you look at a Christian and you immediately think of all the Christians who abuse others, or flat out reject someone because they hold a different view or are intolerant to gay people and you immediately plump all Christians, and more disconcerting, Jesus, into this judgmental, pious group.
Instead of looking at an individual and seeing the value they have inherently, we look at their skin color, race or religion and lump them into a group accordingly.
It’s easier that way and allows us to feel correct or justified in our ignorance and hate.
But not all Muslims support the more brutal and inhumane aspects of Sharia law. Not all Christians hate gays. Not all Loyalists support violence and not all Protestants even care about the Union Flag.
Sometimes, we need to break down the assumptions we may have about our own group before we can even begin to break down the assumptions of those different than us. If we believe that everyone in our tradition/faith/denomination etc. thinks the same way we do; finding out that they don’t should help us reflect on the assumptions we believe about others.
If this might not be true about me, what have I got wrong about you?
Yes there are aspects of all beliefs that must be challenged. We shouldn’t be tolerant of hate or violence no matter who or what causes it. But nor should we make the crucial mistake of assuming that “they”, whoever “they” are for us, are all the same.
The first step in breaking down those assumptions and ignorant views is to get to know each other. It’s incredibly difficult to still hate gay people when you’re best friend or son comes out. It’s incredibly difficult to throw rocks at another community when someone from the other community moves in next door or becomes a colleague.
First and foremost it means acting like Jesus did.
But what does this mean? Who was Jesus talking about when he told us to love our neighbour?
A good place to start is to hear again the story He told about the Good Samaritan who was the only one out of a Priest and Levite to help a passerby who was lying beaten and at death’s door. To understand the power and shockingness of this story it’s important to remember that the Samaritan people were considered enemies of the Jewish people. They were portrayed as evil and untrustworthy. They were considered a threat to the Jewish Law and way of life.
Does this sound familiar?
This message was extremely controversial. Here Jesus was saying that there was more Godly and loving behavior evident from someone who was considered unGodly, compared to God’s chosen people.
Hypothetically speaking of course, if there was for us today, a group that some Christians painted in a similar light in much the same way that the Jewish people painted Samaritans, we could quite correctly assume that Jesus could be trying to tell us something significant about how we should treat those considered to be our enemies today.
And furthermore, what if, still hypothetically speaking, this same group forgave the Christians for something hurtful and dangerous they said, in a way that demonstrated more Grace and Peace akin to the love Jesus calls us to exhibit, than the Christians themselves?
Of course this is completely hypothetical and could never happen today.
What would this do to the lines we have drawn between faiths and races? Would it blur them or solidify them? Would it open us up to all the wonderful ways that Jesus love can be shown and received in all kinds and colors and races of different people?
Would it bring peace and reconciliation?
Would it beckon Heaven to Earth?
Maybe the Samaritan was able to see himself in the beaten up and almost dead victim? Maybe he was able to ask himself how he would want to be treated if he found himself at the end of a beating?
And maybe if we all did that, we might see a little more light and little more hope and little more space that we can all share.
Something I truly believe will be on everyone’s lists of things we love about Northern Ireland.