The Future of our Past

How do we move forward from 1916?

By Rev Dr Trevor Morrow

Early this year, the Very Rev Dr Trevor Morrow was one of the keynote speakers at a conference in Northern Ireland exploring the legacy of 1916. Trevor has dedicated years to working for peace and reconciliation on both sides of the border and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Ulster for his contribution to peace-making. Here VOX magazine brings a summary of his timely message:

There is a fundamental distinction between historical analysis and historical narratives. Historians examine primary sources with some level of objectivity and attempt to verify what has taken place. Those who engage in narrative are more selective. They use stories to justify who they are and to find some sense of identity. Such narratives have moulded our thinking around 1916.

At the battle of the Somme, the engagement of Britain and France against Germany was based on their belief that this was a just war. Those involved in the Easter Rising also believed passionately that it was necessary as an act of justice. Significantly, all of them called upon God for support.

I am a theologian who has lived in both narratives. I am Trevor Willy John Morrow. Both my grandfathers were masters of their respective Orange Lodges, and my father had photographs of relatives who had died at the Somme.

But I moved to Lucan Presbyterian Church where members of the congregation, including elders, spoke of 800 years of English oppression. They saw what took place at the GPO as a necessary, if in some ways unacceptable, form of liberation.

My responsibility as a minister of the Gospel is to analyse and assess these stories from the perspective of a greater narrative: the kingdom of God. Followers of Christ know that this gives us our primary identity while not denying our other identities. For example, I have lived in Leinster for 32 years, but I still stand up for the Ulstermen when it comes to rugby. And Paul did not become a Gentile when he became a Christian.

In Luke 12:13-21, a man comes to Jesus and says, “Tell my brother to give me my portion of the inheritance.” He was demanding his rights. This is the only incident recorded where Jesus specifically addresses the issue of land.

Jesus’ response is extremely curt. “O man, who has made me an arbiter…” There is a play on words here between the Greek word for “arbiter” and that for “reconciler”. Jesus did not come as an arbiter (delivering judgements on the issue of rights) but rather as a reconciler (restoring relationships).

To illustrate this, Jesus tells the story of the rich fool. The problem is not that this man becomes wealthy and successful but that, in a society where the ultimate virtue is hospitality, his attitude is entirely selfish. He talks about “my land, my crops, my future…” What happens is death followed by judgement.

Justice is a controlling motif in this passage as it is in our thinking. People cry out for justice. But when we pursue justice, it is from our own perspective. Each of us overestimates what is due to us and underestimates what is due to others.

Too often, our pursuit of naked justice produces a constant process of retaliation. At the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Prince says, “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love! And I, for winking at your discords, too have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.

Naked justice results in tragedy. Ireland shall never be at peace if we simply pursue justice.

Naked justice results in tragedy. Ireland shall never be at peace if we simply pursue justice. By comparison, God’s final judgement is liberating because the innocent are vindicated and the guilty are exposed and judged.

The heart of the Gospel is that justice has already come. The judge has been judged. He died for our sins. The cross is the ultimate act of forgiveness in dealing with the past in which, “justice is not minimised, rather it is enthroned because justice and mercy meet and cause the enemy and the alienated to be embraced.” (Jürgen Moltmann)

As Christians, this is how we deal with the past. Through the cross, we have been given the ministry, not of arbitration, but of reconciliation.

The rich fool is judged because of his attitude to land. He thinks it is his. We must understand the importance of land in the story of God’s kingdom if we are to deal with what has taken place here in Ireland.

Land is a central to the biblical story. God created a portion of land - Eden, in which His presence was evident, in which He entered into covenant and exercised kingly rule. Abraham and Moses were promised a land of their own. The people in exile longed to return to their land.

All of these narratives find their fulfilment in Jesus. His disciples asked, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom?” (Will we get our land back now? Will these dreadful Romans be thrown out?) He answered, “No, when the spirit comes, it won’t just be in Jerusalem; it will be in Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world.” This “land” is going global. Eden will be restored.

Jesus encourages us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on the land as it is in heaven.” The vision of the book of Revelation is of a new heaven and a new earth - a land through which flows the river of life.

If that new “land” is the fulfilment of God’s purpose, then we have a responsibility to adjust our attitudes and actions toward where we live now, on the basis of what will be. In comparison to the rich fool, how can we be rich toward God in terms of this land? Unlike the fool, we must see that this land is not ours. It is a gift. And it can only be enjoyed when it is shared.

Unlike the fool, we must see that this land is not ours. It is a gift. And it can only be enjoyed when it is shared.

On a visit to the Maze Prison, I overheard two women talking behind me. One told how the previous week she had missed her bus. A man offered her a lift but the woman told him, “I can’t go on your bus because I’m UDA and you are IRA.” But he insisted. So she got on the bus and they took her right to her door. As she got off, she told the man, “If Us’ns and Yous’ns could get together, we could solve this problem.”

That is a shared narrative. Out of kindness, people who are polarised begin to share their stories. This process was repeated hundreds of times, and it was the precursor for the peace movement. Often it was structured, and we commend organisations like Corrymeela, the Rostrevor Renewal Centre, and Nexus Ireland in Lucan that were involved in cross-community and cross-border reconciliation.

We also commend organisations like the Irish Rugby Football Union. Recognising how difficult it was for the Ulster Unionists on the Irish team to sing the Irish national anthem, they deliberately created the song “Ireland’s Call” so that all Irish people could share together in the song - they created a shared narrative.

Unless there is a radical movement of the Holy Spirit in transforming people’s hearts, this cannot happen. The ministry of changing hearts is the very essence of the Gospel.

Miroslav Volf quotes an amazing lady (a 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights activist) with the fabulous name of Sojourner Truth. It is from a sermon called, “When I Found Jesus”.

“Praise, praise, praise to the Lord… I begun to feel such a love in my soul as I never felt before, love of all creatures, and then all of a sudden it stopped and I said, ‘There’s the white folks that have abused you and beat you and abused your people, think of them.’ But there came another rush of love through my soul and I cried out loud, ‘Lord, I can love even the white folks.’”

That’s grace; that’s amazing grace.

One seminal moment of the peace process was the response of Gordon Wilson to the Enniskillen bombing. Some people think he forgave at that moment. He did not. Forgiveness is incredibly difficult. What he said was, “I feel no ill will towards these people. I will pray for these people.” Forgiveness of those who had killed his daughter was a long process of struggling in the context of pain, of anger, and of moral outrage. That is the underlying story of the peace process.

For me, however, the church is not just to be a safe place for people to share their narratives, but it is to be the bridging narrative. We are part of a new mankind in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Here on this land, the church is to be a sign of the kingdom where people from different narratives, different cultures, different traditions, and different expectations will function together in one community of faith.

Here on this land, the church is to be a sign of the kingdom where people from different narratives, different cultures, different traditions, and different expectations will function together in one community of faith.

Munther Isaac says, “A church in a particular land exists for the sake of that land and takes her mission agenda from it.”

We have an appalling record in terms of how the institutional churches have contributed to the peace process. The effective ministries of reconciliation and peace-making have been done on the fringes, and many have been looked upon with suspicion.

Too often, the moderators and archbishops etc. were chaplains to their tribe, perpetuating their own narratives instead of developing a bridging narrative for the future of Ireland.

Recently, I worked with Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews in Cyprus. The Lausanne Congress asked me to facilitate conciliation and bridge-building between these polarised peoples.

At what seemed like an impasse, a Palestinian (a follower of Jesus) said, “You know this is hard, but the cross leaves us with no option.” As believers, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, and we have no option.

In 2009, the Christians in Israel and Palestine produced the “Kairos” document, and I think it is a prophetic word for us as we think of Ireland, north and south:

“Our land is God’s land. It is holy in as much as God is present in it, for God alone is holy and sanctifier. It is the duty of those who live here to respect the will of God for this land. It is our duty to liberate it from the evil of injustice and war. It is God’s land and therefore it must be a land of reconciliation, peace and love. This is indeed possible. God has put us here as two peoples and God has given us the capacity, if we have the will, to live together and to establish in it justice and peace, making it, in reality, God’s land...”

The Very Rev. Dr. Trevor Morrow recently retired after many years as minister of Lucan Presbyterian Church. In 2000, he served as the youngest and first Republic-of-Ireland-based Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Today he is an author and preacher who continues to work for peace and reconciliation, both in Ireland and beyond.