Friday, 25 October 2013

Death in the Midst of Life: Exploring Devotion to Santa Muerte

Comedian Chris Rock once joked, 'Here's a horoscope for everyone: Aquarius- you're gonna die; Capricorn- you're gonna die; Leo- you're gonna die; Gemini...' and so on and so on. I think you see where he was going with this... 

... and he's absolutely right- death comes  to us all.  While it is often said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, lots of people don't pay their taxes, cheat on their taxes, pay too little taxes, defraud the government out of their fair share of taxes. 

Nobody defrauds death. 

No one cheats death. 

The healthiest, wealthiest, most privileged people on Earth will die- and despite all their best efforts, might die very soon.

That said, many Christians- and people in general- don't spend a lot of time meditating on their own death. To do so is seen a morbid, and indeed, it certainly can be. But death is a natural part of our existence, and all of our various religions and philosophies agree on this. 

For Christians, the Bible is full of death, much of it very unpleasant, violent and cruel. Some Christians revel in it, others are repulsed by it. But it is all there.

Of course, the central event in Christian theology and worship is a death-  the death of Jesus. But even the death of Christ can be glossed over or rushed through in an effort to skip on to the resurrection and cosmic victory (‘Yay! We win!’). I've often noticed that there are usually far fewer people at the Good Friday service in the churches I've attended than the Easter morning service. I once reflected with an Anglican priest that those who come to Easter Sunday service- with the church festooned with flowers, a riot of colour and beautiful sound- will never appreciate how beautiful it is unless they've consciously come and worshiped in a dark, colourless building on Good Friday and contemplated that Jesus is dead and decomposing in the ground on Holy Saturday. 

There is an image of death in Mexican Catholic folk theology that has had a significant influence on my personal theology and belief- Santa Muerte, 'Holy Death', 'Saint Death'. Santa Muerte generally appears as female skeletal figure in a long robe. She is usually holding one or more objects, usually a scythe, a globe or an hourglass. She somewhat resembles a ghoulish version of the Blessed Virgin Mary, though in belief and practice, the two women are quite distinct.

She has many nicknames: the Skinny Lady (la flaquita), 

the Bony Lady (la Hueseda), 

the White Girl (la Niña Blanca),

the White Sister (la Hermana Blanca), 

the Pretty Girl (la Niña Bonita), 

the Powerful Lady (la Dama Poderosa), 

the Godmother (la Madrina). 

All these eponyms point to the fact that reverence for Santa Muerte is a mixture of the sacred and the irreverent, the serious and the playfully, darkly humourous.

The rituals and practices that surround the devotion to Santa Muerte are rooted in their Catholic context- masses, processions, votive offerings, prayers, litanies, home and public altars, clothing and jewelry. In the interest of brevity, I'll not go into the historical, sociological or cultural understandings of the veneration of Santa Muerte in this post, but for anyone interested in exploring any of these topics in depth, I would unreservedly direct you to R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D's definitive work Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, December 2012). Chesnut is a scholar of Latin American religion, holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. I've read several of his books and he really knows his stuff.

My own work in Latin American liberation theology, ecumenics, and the global Catholic experience (not to mention my fascination with all things skull-related, to which anyone who knows me well will attest) all initially sparked my awareness of Santa Muerte and fueled a desire to learn more.  

As liberation theology's starting point for reflection is the lived experience of the people of God, I was particularly interested in the type of people who were devoted to Santa Muerte. They are very often the socially and economically poor and marginalised and people whose lives or employment carry the real potential for immediate death. 

Many followers of Santa Muerte tend to live on the margins of the law or outside it entirely. As such, her devotees often include street vendors, taxi drivers, bar keepers, street musicians, vendors of pirated merchandise, street people, prostitutes, pickpockets, petty drug traffickers, gang members and prison inmates- as well as, ironically perhaps, police and soldiers. Many of these types of people do much of their work at night; as one of Santa Muerte's titles is Señora de la Noche ('Lady of the Night'), devotees believe her intercession can protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence, and all types of violent death.

Another group that tends to give a good deal of devotion to Santa Muerte is Mexico's LGBT communities, members of which tend to be outcasts from society, and she is often invoked for intercession at same-sex marriages.

Needless to say, although the vast majority of Santa Muerte devotees are at least nominally Catholic and liturgies, prayers and litanies to her also very often include mention of Christ, the Virgin Mary and other saints, the Catholic Church in Mexico is implacably opposed to any devotion to Santa Muerte, deeming all of it satanic. Devotion to Santa Muerte is regularly denounced from pulpits, with parishoners sternly admonished that devotion to her is at best a confused version of Christianity and at worst a dangerous diversion and a slippery slope to criminality. And as is true with any aspect of religious devotion, devotion to Santa Muerte often has a dark side. Her name and image figure prominently in the narco-terrorism and brutal violence of the drug trade along the US-Mexico border. This has, however, done little to put off those drawn to her, the majority of her devotees insisting that there is no contradiction between their place in the Christian faith and their adoration of ‘la flaquita’.

So what lessons have I drawn from my own experience with Santa Muerte, and what lessons do I think she might hold for all Christians, regardless of their interest in her image or person?

First, again drawing on my work in liberation theology, there is that theology’s emphasis on the Christian faith being a meditation and reflection on the God of life in an environment full of death. 

For many of us in the stable and wealthy west, not thinking about sudden and imminent death is one of our greatest unconscious luxuries. For many people in the world- many Christians- death is very present, and it is no wonder that they might embrace a personification of death that is powerful yet benevolent and approachable. 

It is up to Christians who do not live under those conditions to reflect on why those conditions persist, how they or their governments might be complicit in it, and what the whole body of Christ can do to stand and act with them toward social change.

Secondly, there is the reality of the hierarchical church’s attempts to ‘own’ and control people’s beliefs and spirituality. Of course, it is the place of Christian leaders, through the spirit of God, to lead and disciple, to live with and stand with the people in their lives, but it is vitally important to remember that no church can ‘own’ Jesus. No church can control control his grace, mercy or salvation. 

The fact is that many people- particularly the ‘least of these’, those for whom Christ came, lived, died and rose, and particularly the Mexican LGBT communities- do not feel comfortable approaching him or his mother through the narrow and guarded gate that the church has placed them behind. And the church needs to reflect on why that is so and repent. The reality is that for many, like it or not, Santa Muerte meets them where they are- which is what Christ and the Blessed Virgin do, and what the church should be doing and often does not.

This is similar to concepts that Ikon, the creative community I’ve been a part of for many years now, have been exploring for some time. Sometimes we might need to abandon our Christianity to live as a Christian.

We need to reject our faith in order to embrace Christ. We need to face death in order to know how to live.

We might also need to broaden our vision of what Christian faith is, beyond our sectarian notions of what is permissible in our own context to do and believe. Christians who are uncomfortable with thoughts or images of death, thinking them weak or unfaithful, might reflect that Christianity has always had its reflections on death, none more  stark than the Latin antiphon Media vita in morte sumus (‘In the midst of life we are in death’). They might explore more deeply Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the days we worship a dead God. We might explore these things together, across our man-made boundaries, which I believe God hates. 

Feeling my Santa Muerte rosary against my chest reminds me throughout the day that death is near us all and that life is precious and relatively short.

It spurs me to live my life to the full, like every day might be my last,

to compliment my wife, to play with my children,

to help my neighbour, to work for peace and justice in my community and beyond it.

And to die happy.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Mass Demonstrations: The Anarchist in the Midst of a Hierarchical Church

Recently, a friend of mine who has a prominent lay position in the Church of Ireland (the Anglican Church in Ireland and Northern Ireland)  got in touch with me to ask me how I reconciled an anarchist perspective with being part of a church with a hierarchical structure- in his case the C of I, in mine, the Catholic Church.

Believe me, he’s not the first person to ask. 

Over the years, many people have asked me similar questions. Religious people frame the question around the supposed absurdity of a Catholic being a committed anarchist. Doesn’t anarchism reject hierarchies? Isn’t it against organisation altogether?

From the other direction, I have anarchist comrades who find the idea of an anarchist who chooses to remain within a huge, hierarchical church at best ridiculous and at worst untenable. Isn’t the Catholic Church reactionary and intolerant? Isn’t being part of it a surrender of one’s own autonomy?

That’s why I’ve decided to post my initial reply here for general consumption. To be honest, it’s good to get some of this into this forum from the outset. As this blog is a platform for my theological ideas about religion, politics and culture, it’d be difficult to truly understand my worldview without factoring in my devout Catholic Christianity as well as my committed anarchism.

I'll just mention that these are very brief thoughts on ideas that have had whole volumes written on them, so if anything strikes a chord, you can go as deep as you want into it.

Initially, you'd have to identify and define both of the two concepts; anarchism and hierarchical structure. So, very briefly, I'd hold to historian George Woodcock's definition of anarchism as ‘a system of social thought that has the aim of fundamental changes in the structure of society and particularly at replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental cooperation between free individuals’. This is crucial: anarchism is not opposed to organisation; on the contrary, anarchism is a method of organisation first and foremost. Anarchism is, however, deeply opposed to one specific form of organisation- the modern, authoritarian model of social organisation that we now call 'the State'. For the past two to three hundred years, we have become so used to the idea of the ‘State’ that we can no longer even contemplate the idea of the State not being there. This isn't surprising- the State controls most of the media, the schools, and the social order. It's in its own self interest to make sure that people think of it as utterly indispensable.

In one sense, anarchism isn't even opposed to authority; it is however deeply opposed and to the idea of centralised power. 'authority' is a concept of knowledge. A plumber, for example, is an authority into water and heating systems. When I have a problem in that area, I invite a plumber into my home to assess the problem because of his specialised knowledge- his 'authority'. I still have the power over my home. The plumber and I negotiate a price, he does the work and he leaves. If, however, he fixed the toilet and then decided that he was moving into the house, that would be an abuse of his authority, authority would have morphed into power, and would need to be actively resisted.

As to organisation, anarchism tends to see society not as a structure-rigid, unmoving, unbending- but as an organism: growing, moving, flowing. Structures are built; organisms grow. This has been the main historical arguments between Marxists and anarchists; Marxists tend to see society as something built, whereas anarchists see it as something grown (I’ve been on the sharp end of this argument over the years in Belfast in various projects that bring Marxists and anarchists into close proximity: the anti-war movement, the anti-globalisation movement, etc. Personally, I think we can all get along. While maintaining my anarchism, I’ve read copious amounts of Marx and find him never less than utterly fascinating and highly compelling).

This distinction is where I sit with the whole idea of church. I believe in God and I believe that God gives gifts of leadership, wisdom, and organisation to all of his children- not just to the white ones, the rich ones, the male ones, the straight ones, the American ones or the European ones. The original model of the Kingdom of God as I see it in the person of Jesus was broad, inclusive and growing. A bishop should be understood to be a role of organisational authority, not of prestige or (especially) power.

Of course, over the years, the church became exactly like the model of the Roman Empire it found itself in; the leadership came from the upper stratum of society. It became powerful and coercive. It became like the government.

But the original model of, say, a bishop was that of a shepherd, a father, a wise organiser. When these gifts of the Holy Spirit of God were recognised by the people, they were put to use. I have no problem whatsoever with that. The problem lies with humanity and its unending desire to rule, to dominate, and to control. That has nothing to do with the structure of the church: Catholic churches (by those I mean the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches) have one style of organisation: bishops, priests and deacons. Reformed churches (by those I mean Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists) have another. Non-Conformists (Baptists, Charismatics, Nazarenes, etc.) have others. Any one of those models can be oppressive and coercive, or harbour oppressive and coercive individuals in them; of course, for sectarian reasons, we tend to see the danger of abuse and coercion in the 'other' church as opposed to 'our own', but that's another story...

Anyway, anarchism is about standing up to and resisting abusive power, whether that's a pope in one circumstance or a cop in another. There's nothing inherently wrong with popes or cops (some anarchists would fundamentally disagree with me on that, particularly the ‘cop’ bit...). The question for me is who gets to be popes or cops, what safeguards are in place to control their power, and how we deal with them when they step over the line. People in power are not the enemy; power itself is, particularly and especially power in only a few hands. This is why anarchists see the need to diffuse power, to distribute it, to keep power in as many hands as possible- there is then less chance of abuse. I've always described money and power- the two ‘gods’ of our society- as being like manure: if you spread it around, it helps things to grow; put it all in one place and it's a big pile of shite.

I have no problem with archbishops or bishops as an idea. If love is their law, which is what I see in the person of Jesus, I’m satisfied.

And if they don’t model love, equality and justice, why is it up to me to leave the Church? The Church is precious to me; it’s my home. As Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the anarchist/pacifist Catholic Worker movement said, “Yes, the Church is a whore. But she is my mother...”

The French Catholic priest and anarchist Fr. Adrien Duchosal put it this way:

‘No Gods, no Masters’ and ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’- these two convictions I hold in all sincerity. No one can be the master of others in the sense of being superior. No one can impose his or her will on others. I do not know of God at all as supreme Master... God, at least the God whom Jesus calls Father and whom he tells us to call Father, is never presented as a Master who imposes his will on us or who regards us as inferiors. For Jesus there is no hierarchical relation between Father and Son. He says, ‘I and the Father are one... he in me and I in him' (St. John 10:30; 17:21).

Duchosal maintains the Christian perspective that when God chose to reveal himself to humanity he came in the person of Jesus, the servant, the peacemaker, the friend. Thus, as humans, if we are modelling the person of Christ in our words and actions- the Christian’s only purpose- whether we be pope, priest, or plumber, we are all equal. Any attempt to impose inequality on us- whether that come from a political party, a class structure or the Vatican- must be rejected and resisted.

God did not reveal himself as a hierarchy- Father, Son and Spirit are equal.

Jesus did not come to lead or to rule but to live and to reveal.

This is the anarchist vision at its root, and it coincides with the Christian vision at its root.

Friday, 11 October 2013

'Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign': What's Put Up and What's Not

In 1971, Ottowa, Canada’s Five Man Electric Band released the song ‘Signs’, a lament over the amount of posted rules and regulations proliferating in modern life. The chorus complains:

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign!?

The song has had a real resonance for me since moving from Ireland to Montana. The US in general has a lot more roadside advertising than Europe. But in my local area, one sign in particular seems to be everywhere. On the 20-mile drive from Bigfork to Kalispell, I have counted at least nine of them, putting even McDonalds to shame. Several are on buildings or posted next to the road. Many are on private property, and a sizeable number are displayed on the walls of churches.

It is the Ten Commandments.  

The particular sign I keep seeing is available from a website (advertised on the sign itself),  A quick perusal of the site makes clear that the mission of 'God’s 10' is to ‘draw men’s hearts back to God and to restore the relationship with God and to re-establish the foundation for a relationship with God and with one another.’ Practically, this involves 'God’s 10' helping churches ‘in each state in the United States to establish God’s Word in a visual manner.’

As a theologian who works in theology that is practical and contextual, I’m always interested when I see the biblical text used publicly or politically, as well as where it is used and how. Inherent in that is also an interest in which parts of the biblical text are not used- and again, extrapolating why.

So, why the Ten Commandments? Why display them and not some other biblical text? The website does not say. There is a section that explains what the Bible is and how it is laid out, but the site does not explain why the Ten Commandments are felt to be of particular importance. Perhaps, from their perspective, the answer is self-evident; obviously those behind the website see the Commandments as very important indeed, perhaps an essential underpinning of the Christian faith.

My take on this is that the website is an extension of a tendency within evangelicalism toward public witness, with a nod to another tendency within certain expressions of evangelicalism which desires to ‘reclaim’ public space for God. This evangelical understanding believes that, regardless of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion by the government, America has a very specific and definitive Christian foundation that other religions and the outright godless have been seeking to erode. In this sense, the First Amendment has become, not a protection of religious liberty, but a hindrance to it. The visible diversification of American public life, with many faiths seeking a more equitable and diverse public face to religious expression- not to mention those within American society who wish to have as little public religious display as possible- are seen as ‘un-American’, a threat.

The argument made by these certain evangelical expressions is that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of all law and ethics. The Commandments are deemed an essential part of secular law. Therefore publicly posting them- particularly in public buildings like schools and courthouses and on public property like town squares- is not ‘establishing religion’ but re-asserting a lost historical understanding of America's (supposed) Christian underpinning. This argument holds no water for those who point to the establishment of America as more a product of the Enlightenment, with the First Amendment a key protection against a tendency to establish any one religious idea as preferable to any other. 

What can be seen here is that these arguments are as much about divergent understandings of American history as they are about divergent readings of the biblical text. I’d also argue that they are an expression of dismay at the loss of assumed privileges by white Christian evangelicals regarding the loss of prominence of their one specific vision of Christianity in public life. The website’s use of the words ‘draw men... back to God’; ‘to restore’; and ‘to re-establish’ are further evidence of this.

But getting back to the subject of the Ten Commandment signs, for me as a theologian, I’m intrigued as to why Christians would feel that the first introduction to Christianity for people deemed unbelievers would be the Ten Commandments and not something from Jesus. This was the opinion of the American author Kurt Vonnegut who, near the end of his life, wrote:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes, but often with tears in their eyes, they demand the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I’ve haven’t heard any of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount- the Beatitudes- be posted anywhere. 'Blessed are the peacemakers' in the Pentagon? 'Blessed are the merciful' in a courtroom? Give me a break...

Vonnegut makes a very good point, even if he ignores- or was ignorant of- the evangelical belief that the biblical text is a unified whole. But his point about the absence of Jesus from much of the rhetoric regarding public display of the biblical text is one worth dwelling on.

To be fair, when looking at all the various versions of the ‘Ten Commandments’ sign available from the website, Jesus does get to talk on a couple of them, but always along the bottom of the sign, not in the main body. There is John 3:16 on one, which is no surprise. John 14:6 (‘I am the way the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me’) is also fairly unsurprising.

The use of John 8:34 (‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin... If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed’) is intriguing, and seems to begin the process of building a link between the person of Jesus and the Commandments. This process is made explicit with the use of Matthew 5:17 on one of the signs (‘don’t think I have come to destroy the law... I have not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it’). It is even more explicit with the quoting of John 14:15 (‘if you love me, keep my commandments’).

However, this then raises the question: what are the commandments of Jesus? As a Jew, Jesus was well aware of the canon of the Jewish law, particularly the Commandments’ basic elucidation of right and wrong.

The difficulty for the ‘God’s 10’ argument for the seeming supremacy of the Ten Commandments is that the Gospels don’t portray Jesus using the Jewish law as it was popularly understood then- or now. Rather, we see Jesus making it more complex, more nuanced. The Gospel accounts constantly portray Jesus confronting those who felt they had an inside track as to God’s requirements for righteousness and salvation.

The one account we have of Jesus interacting directly with the Ten Commandments is in Mark 10, when a rich young official enquires of Jesus how to attain perfection. Jesus reiterates the Commandments (‘you know what the commandments say: “Do not commit murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false witness. Do not cheat. Honor your father and mother”’). The young man presses Jesus (‘I have obeyed all those commandments since I was a boy’). The text says that Jesus ‘looked at him and loved him’. ‘You are missing one thing,’ he said. ‘Go and sell everything you have. Give the money to those who are poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.’ At this, the text says, ‘the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he was very rich’, to which Jesus declares to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for rich people to enter God’s kingdom!’

Jesus here makes clear that true love is not in keeping the law- or indeed  in declaring the law- but in declaring and living a new law: the law of love- love for one’s poor neighbours, to the point of ultimate self-sacrifice.

And it is this kind of love- the overriding message of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the human person of Jesus- that the Ten Commandment signs, I believe, completely miss. The closest they come is in the use of John 15:12 (‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’). But again, this quote is appended to the bottom of the sign, under the prominent display of the Commandments. 

And there is the rub: the central message of Jesus- the love of God for humanity and the coming of the Kingdom of God- was not merely a quick addition to the Ten Commandments. It was a new creation, a new revelation, a new beginning, a fulfilment beyond any previous understanding of the mind of God.

The fact that Christians do not- cannot; DARE not- publicly display signs that say ‘Go and sell everything you have. Give the money to those who are poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me’, proves the scandal of the Gospel, even for those who call themselves Christians. We dare not say what Jesus said. We dare not do what Jesus did. Better just to post a list of do’s and don’ts. The do’s and don’ts are easier; they catch the unbeliever up short. The words of Jesus invite the (so-called) unbeliever and the (so-called) believer equally. For all the talk of Christians that Christianity isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts, the unseemly haste with which we’re quick to post lists of do’s and don’ts- and always 'OUR' list of do's and don'ts-  makes me think that we don’t really believe that.

The Orthodox Christian mystic St. Cosmos of Aetolia (1714-1779) expounded on these words of Jesus thus:

If you want to find perfect love, go sell all your belongings, give them to the poor, go where you find a master and become a slave. Can you do this and be perfect?
You say this is too heavy? Then do something else. Don't sell yourself as a slave. Just sell your belongings and give them all to the poor. Can you do it? Or do you find this too heavy a task?
All right, you cannot give away all your belongings. Then give half, or a third, or a fifth. Is even this too heavy? Then give one tenth. Can you do that? Is it still too heavy?
How about this: don't sell yourself as slave. Don't give a penny to the poor. Only do this. Don't take your poor brother's coat, don't take his bread, don't persecute him; don't eat him alive. If you don't want to do him any good, at least do him no harm. Just leave him alone. Is this also too heavy?
You say you want to be saved, but how? How can we be saved if everything we are called to do is too heavy? We descend and descend until there is no place further down. God is merciful, yes, but he also has an iron rod.       

How can we call our selves followers of Jesus if we don’t want to do anything that Jesus said? And the message of the Incarnation- the coming of the Son of God into the world- is that the bare, naked, unadulterated law will never be enough.

The law is, and always will be, a ‘sign’; ‘do this, don’t do that… Can’t you read the sign?!’ The sign might point to perfection, but it will never make us perfect. 

Perfection, Jesus said, was in love. 

The love of Jesus is not a 'sign'; it is the 'way'. 

Friday, 4 October 2013

‘Living With It’: A Theology of Reconciliation for What Doesn’t Go Away

Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem ‘Fine’ begins:  

This is time
                     humming taut
                                                 as a telegraph wire,
My heart,
                                with the truth,
                                                            whole and sole.
This happened-
                              with fighters,
                                                       with the country entire,
In the depth
                        of my own soul.

Much of the reality of working for reconciliation is in those lines. There is tension. There is a heart, lonely and holding onto its irreducible truth. There are the actions of fighters, actions that affect all of us at some level, but affect some to the depths of their soul.

But first of all, there is time.

Conflict and reconciliation are played out in time. If reconciliation, at some level, involves facing up to conflict- what led to conflict, what happened to those involved, and how we move forward- it involves all aspects of time- past, present and future. 

Some aspects of conflict in Ireland and Northern Ireland are in the past. The partition of Ireland- and the creation of Northern Ireland- was, for many, an experience of marginalisation and alienation, suspicion and threat. The breakdown of social and political stability after 1968 very often involved trauma and violence, fear and anger, and long-lasting pain and bitterness.

In the present, while life since the Good Friday Agreement is significantly less violent, more stable and certainly more pleasant, it’s still a dismaying maze built out of all that came before.

With all that in mind, it’s unsurprising that reconciliation- the process of living well together after violent conflict in the past, and in the midst of a present marked by structural sectarianism and deep social division- is so difficult. How do we start? Perhaps more fundamentally, what is it we want?

A common starting point in theologies of reconciliation is the imagery of healing. ‘Healing’- literally to ‘make whole’- is the process of restoring physical and psychological health to a body that is diseased or damaged. In a context that is moving from conflict to peace, this imagery can be very beneficial, particularly in the context of personal injury, trauma, and loss.

It does, however, carry the assumption there was a healthy and normative state to which the body can be restored. However, for many conditions this is not the case and the theological language of ‘healing’ becomes problematic.

In a place like post-conflict Northern Ireland, which in many ways does not have a normative, shared, unified position to which to return, another image of ‘healing’ might be beneficial. I’m suggesting an understanding of ‘healing’ in the context of living with conditions that arise from birth or development, or from a genetic or neurological disposition that cannot necessarily be ‘healed’ in the same way as a wound or an infection.

We have many beautiful examples in the biblical text of Jesus and the apostles healing people of physical ailments and restoring them to their community. However, we have no images of Jesus delivering anyone from clinical depression, fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder, diabetes or autism- physical, mental and neurological challenges that are simply ongoing.  Such conditions complicate our theology of ‘healing’ with different understandings- and different expectations.

Our 13 year-old son is on the autistic spectrum. He is intelligent, thoughtful, funny and, in his own manner, very personable. He does, however, struggle with social interaction and finds dealing with his own emotions difficult. He is often not mindful of the thoughts and feelings of others, which means he can seem inconsiderate and impolite. He often misses the social cues that would indicate that people enjoy his company, which means he struggles with a low self-opinion. He becomes overwhelmed with personal interaction quickly, which means he can become agitated and angry.

Living with a person on the autistic spectrum is an ongoing, daily challenge for our entire family. Autism is not something Iain ‘has’, and there was never a point where he didn’t ‘have’ it. Rather, autism is part of who he ‘is’; it is a way of being. Iain is not ‘disabled’. Indeed, if he has a disability, it is often other people’s inability- or refusal- to acknowledge his particularities with understanding or grace. The frequent thoughtlessness, obstinacy, and lack of understanding from other children, teachers, shopkeepers- even his family- are the source of most of his daily difficulties.

Yet when his particularities are acknowledged with grace- a little bit of understanding, explanation and patience- Iain’s condition fades into the background and the fun, capable young person he is emerges.

‘Healing’ in this context does not mean ‘curing’, returning to ‘normal’ or the condition disappearing - that will not happen. Rather, for Iain, his family, and his friends, healing involves commitment, determination, realism and courage. Here, ‘healing’ and reconciliation equal understanding and grace, an acceptance of another’s needs and our own expansiveness over the long term against a backdrop of continuing challenges.  The acceptance of this should never be mistaken for fatalism. Rather, it is an ongoing process of establishing the parameters of what constitutes realistic hope.

It is ‘living with it’.

I think that such an image of healing might help people in Northern Ireland to understand and live with the reality of a past that was never particularly normative or healthy and an ongoing present following  in its wake. The legacy of political decisions made a century ago- the ‘genetics’ of this place- led to a difficult ‘birth’ and development. It also colours a complicated present and a challenging future.

What can we do? We cannot go back to the better ‘way it was’- there is no such place. Rather, we can realistically seek to live together well, in every situation, day in, day out.

We ‘live with it’. We live with ‘them’. We live with ‘us’. And we do our upmost to ‘live with it’ well.

This will take grace and patience, images of which the biblical text has in abundance. Jesus became as we are, and he remains as we are. Being human, in a sense, is the ongoing condition that God lives with for all time.

We in Ireland and Northern Ireland still find ourselves in time. And time, it seems, does not ‘heal’ all wounds. But this image of reconciliation might help us ‘live with it’, but ‘live with it’ better and to the full in the midst of who we all are.

And in time, it might even help us- as it does with my family- to love each other as we are.