On a blustery April morning I walked down the gangplank of the overnight ferry from Liverpool, scanning the faces below for a wave or smile. It was the spring of 1965, and I had been assigned to assist James Wells, pastor of the Belfast, Northern Ireland, congregation with Passover and the First Day of Unleavened Bread. We finally made eye contact and exchanged greetings and then headed for his car. I was curious how Belfast would look after seeing it repeatedly on television news, and I was not surprised. Police and barricades were evident and protests covered miles of graffiti littered walls.
Tension was a way of life in Belfast. Bombings and killings, rock throwing protesters and barricaded communities were normal. Mr. Wells commented that a bombing had occurred just that week not far from where we were to keep Passover. The hatred between Catholic and Protestant, between the Republic of Ireland and Ulster (Northern Ireland), had existed for so long it defined daily life in Belfast. But these were relatively speaking, “better times.” “The Troubles,” as they were to become known, lasted for 30 years and spilled over into England and even Europe.
Belfast left an impression, but less than three months after my visit I was sent into the U.S. field ministry. The memory of Belfast faded. It was purely by happenstance that my mind was taken back to Belfast one Sunday afternoon in 2008 on the way home from a Portland Spokesman Club meeting. Rick Steves, a locally popular television travel commentator, had recently inaugurated a radio program, and I tuned in.
That Sunday he didn’t talk about travel in Europe or hold a call-in program, but he rather conducted an interview on sectarian fundamentalism. His abrupt shift from being a travel commentator caught my attention, but it was the credentials of his guest that held it.
Rick was interviewing Lord John Alderdice on the topic of sectarian violence with a focus on the current issue of radical Islamic violence. While his guest’s primary experience was with a different group of people, he was no stranger to the subject. John Alderdice had the most impressive set of credentials for understanding the peacemaking process I had ever seen. By background he was experienced in understanding conflict and conflict resolution from all sides.
John Alderdice is an elder in the Presbyterian Church and the son of a Presbyterian minister. By education he is a psychiatrist, trained at the Queen’s University of Belfast. His special interests included the application of psychoanalysis to understanding and dealing with terrorism and violent political conflict. Politically, he was a member of the Alliance Party, one of Northern Ireland’s five political parties. He was elected its leader in 1987, a position he held until 1998. While his credentials were outstanding the bigger question was what they had produced.
The answer to the question requires an understanding of the times. The tipping point in the history of conflict in Northern Ireland occurred in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement marked the end of the bloody 30-year period of the Troubles. The agreement created a governing body called the Northern Ireland Assembly, and John Alderdice was selected as its first speaker.
Making peace is a skill; wanting peace is a passive desire. If we can take a lesson from the Northern Irish negotiations, the first step in peacemaking is to reverse the tide.
With his credentials, his success and the obvious respect of his peers, John Alderdice had my attention, and I was deeply interested in his observations. As the interview progressed, Rick asked, “What do you think drove the problem?” Lord Alderdice responded with this comment:
“I think what happens is when you find some people facing a trauma, some kind of assault on their identity as large groups of people, particularly where that involves them feeling disrespected and humiliated, you find that they fall back into fundamentalist ways of dealing with things, not free, understanding, reflective ways of relating, but fundamentalist ways, and they respond with violence and with fear against the other, and they see the other not as someone with whom they can engage, but someone whom they must attack in order to defend themselves.”
Lord Alderdice’s assessment had the clarity and simplicity one finds in places like the book of James (James 4:1-3), where James answers the question: “Where do wars come from?” Just as James condenses his observation into the simplest elements: Wars come from the fact that you lust for something you don’t have. When you don’t control your lust, war is the result. Lord Alderdice observed that people strike out at those by whom they feel humiliated or disrespected, and conflict is the result.
How very simple! We respond kindly to those who respect us, and we throw up defenses against those by whom we feel disrespected, going so far as to do battle with those who humiliate us.
Rick Steves’ interview that Sunday afternoon only served to enhance my respect for men like John Alderdice—people who have the heart and skill necessary to broker peace. Peace is a wonderful thing. Every converted person believes in peace. Every converted person wants peace. Every converted person can advocate for peace, even preach peace. But Christ in the Beatitudes was interested in the person who could make peace (Matthew 5:9).
Making peace is a skill; wanting peace is a passive desire. If we can take a lesson from the Northern Irish negotiations, the first step in peacemaking is to reverse the tide. If you are at odds with anyone stop adding words and deeds that fuel the feelings of being disrespected, or even worse humiliated. Some problems die for no other reason than that we stop feeding the fire.
When walls have been built between people, they usually come down a brick at a time. This is why it takes time to make peace.
Apologies, if they are heartfelt, are a powerful step in peacemaking. I have a greeting card I have kept in my desk for over 20 years. On the front is an orangutan sitting with a baleful look. The caption reads, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” But upon opening the card it continues, “Not as wrong as you were, but I was wrong.” I have kept the card as a counseling tool—the perfect model of a useless apology. Apologies can subtract from or add to conflict.
Cessation of hurtful words or deeds is a start, and a genuine apology furthers the process. But how do you restore a sense of being respected and erase the feeling of humiliation? Can you find something you both agree upon, something you both like, or even better some good thing you can genuinely say about the other? These are deposits in a relational bank account. Have you ever noticed how friends can get away with hurtful things that others can’t? It’s because over time they have made multiple deposits in a relational bank account, and we will allow them to make occasion withdrawals without closing their account. When you have no relational bank account with someone, any withdrawal triggers a penalty.
Some who have no experience in making peace consider shuttle diplomacy foolish or at best a waste of time, but stop for a minute and make it personal. If someone who has shown you disrespect—or even worse publically humiliated you—if they says one nice thing about you, does that erase everything? No. It’s a start—one deposit in a relational account. When walls have been built between people, they usually come down a brick at a time. This is why it takes time to make peace. It also takes a commitment to keep working toward greater and greater peace. Israel and Egypt didn’t come to peace overnight, but they have peace now. While the Good Friday Agreement was recognized as the tipping point in Northern Ireland, it took another nine years to cement relations at the governmental level. At the community level it is still a work in progress.
The progress made in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is the result of the efforts of men who have a passion for making peace and who understand how to go about it. Any time you face a conflict, whether between individual or a group, remember Lord Alderdice’s observations. If you can take his observations and build upon them, you too can be a maker of peace.