My mum’s teen years were characterised by routine bomb scares. But the most frightening part isn’t the horrifying violence she witnessed, but the nonchalance with which she talks about it. Northern Ireland’s atmosphere of hatred was her version of normal.
Humans are incredibly adaptable. Even the most traumatic of circumstances can easily become just ‘the air we breathe’. Even if it’s subconscious at first, we end up accepting the most unacceptable environments as our reality.
Thanks to the peace and reconciliation efforts of brave, compassionate people in the 1990s, I have a different story to tell. My own adolescence was rescued from the wreckage of the Troubles. I was twelve years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. World leaders will mark its 25th anniversary this month. Almost overnight (with tragic exceptions such as the Omagh bombing) there was positive change.
Peace, though, isn’t something that happens at the stroke of a pen. At least not in the full, expansive sense of biblical shalom (meaning wholeness, integration and harmony). You can get people to lay down their weapons, but shalom doesn’t occur until the trauma is addressed and the root causes of the hatred are healed.
I’m uneasy as I write this because I realise that, like my mum, I have accepted a version of normal that needs to be challenged. Despite only experiencing the tail end of the Troubles, I still need to unlearn some of its programming, and overcome my own sectarianism.
Unlike the generation of Protestant Christians before me, I know better than to judge or persecute someone based on whether or not they are Catholic. But my own normal – like many of my generation – is to wake up to a daily social media feed where I see Christians attacking each other over doctrinal differences, dividing and subdividing into tribes labelled ‘us’ and ‘them’. Then I get on with my day, thinking that sectarianism ended, for me, in 1998.
Has peace truly been achieved just because we traded our petrol bombs for online violence? Or because we changed our targets from Catholics to, say, the more progressive elements of the Church of England? Or Hillsong and the megachurch movement?
While we continue to live inside a narrative construct that says our ‘sect’ of Christianity is the hero of the story while someone else’s is the villain, I fear my generation is still…troubled.
Jesus prayed that we would “be one” (John 17:21). While I would never deny the importance of sound doctrine, Jesus certainly did not pray that we would fight tooth and nail over it, to the point of battling our neighbour. Rather, in the same book, it says we should be known by our love for one another (John 13:35).
The Good Friday Agreement was the legacy my parents’ generation left me – a step in the right direction towards peace, and away from car bomb-littered streets and plastic rounds.
As we remember the Agreement’s anniversary, I find myself leaning on some mixture of Jesus’ beautiful prayer and the guttural lament of Bono in ‘Sunday bloody Sunday’: “Tonight, we can be as one.”