Sunday, 28 December 2014

Disunity and Dis-Uniforms: Looking at the Feast of the Holy Innocents through an Irish Lens

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when we remember those children in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas killed by Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16-18). 

It is one of the most disturbing incidences in the biblical text.

What reflection can be derived from such an atrocious act?

I suggest that we critically reflect on how war, poverty, and political and social policies around the globe continue to destroy the lives of children, not just in ‘developing’ regions but in the ‘developed’ as well.

Separation barrier between the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas, one of over a hundred in Belfast

I, of course, tend to view this through an Irish lens, and reflect on what the 1968-1998 conflict over Northern Ireland and its aftermath did- and continues to do- to the region’s young people.

Northern Ireland is a ‘young’ region; 40% of the population is under 25. The effects of the 1968-1998 conflict and deeply-rooted, ongoing sectarianism and segregation affect children and young people in unique ways. It can be argued that children and young people suffer a disproportionate cost for the actions of the past and the ongoing segregationist and sectarian policies of our present. 

For example:

-          Most children in Northern Ireland live in segregated areas, and the segregation affects them in distinctive and more acute ways than adults.  Children in Northern Ireland wear school uniforms that immediately mark them as Catholic or Protestant. Thus, segregation extends from home, to school, and to social and leisure activities.

-          For many, the first sustained contact with the ‘other’ community may only come at third-level education or first employment. The fear of being identified as an ‘other’ limits young people’s movements more than adults, and thereby their opportunities and choices.

-          Young people from lower income and ‘interfaceareas (where one community’s territory is next to another’s) face greater obstacles in achieving either third-level education or sustained employment. Unemployment rates among young people in Northern Ireland tend to be higher anyway and, in interface communities, the levels are again increased. This then acts as an important driver toward substance abuse, mental health issues and lack of social capital and transport. Moreover, sectarian dynamics, as they are manifested at interface areas, exacerbate unemployment, acting as a ‘double penalty’ on young people due to the tendency to only feel safe within the confines of one’s own community and the hesitancy to leave it due to a more pronounced fear of physical attack. Youth recreation also suffers if one’s perceived area has no such facilities but patterns of fear and territorialism discourage travel to or through what is perceived the ‘other’s’ area.  

-          Children and young adults at interfaces tend to have more direct experiences of political violence than middle-class counterparts. Particularly, Northern Ireland’s history of conflict exerts more pressure on boys and young men, where masculine identity and violent behaviour are often seen as an essential experience of being young and male.

-          As well as more acute experiences of violence, interface children often display distinct patterns of distrust of the police. Even more disturbingly, the history of paramilitary control of many interface areas has led to the tendency for areas to ‘police’ themselves, usually through para-military intimidation and physical force. Through behaviour deemed anti-social, children and young people often found themselves- and continue to perceive themselves- the chief targets of this ‘irregular policing’.

-          68% of 18-25 year-olds had never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the ‘othercommunity. Throughout the conflict and into the present, attempts were made to mitigate the lack of meaningful contact with young people from the other community through cross-community inter-group contact schemes. The effectiveness of such schemes, however, has been a matter of intense debate. Basically, no amount of infrequent and carefully orchestrated contact, can overcome the formative role played by family and community in a context of near-total cultural segregation. More problematically, many young people, particularly young men, reported that such schemes increased the chances of sectarian violence by making them more easily recognisable to elements in the ‘other’ community.


I was deeply moved by this video project produced in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city. In it, two secondary school girls, one from a Catholic background and one from a Protestant background, exchange school uniforms and walk through the city.

It brought back so many personal memories of young people I have worked with in schools, churches, community centres, and other projects over the years.

It is difficult for someone not from Northern Ireland to grasp the amount the courage needed to do what these two incredible young women did for this project. I believe it stands as an indictment of politicians, church hierarchies, and other community leaders who rarely show the same level of purpose, courage, or vision... 

It also stands as an appeal to those in power to critically reflect, both on what they have done, and what they have failed- and continue to fail- to do...

Holy Innocents, pray for us

Friday, 26 December 2014

St. Stephen, Patron of the Cruelly Punished

Today is the feast of St. Stephen, when we remember the cruel death of a young man by stoning, in his case for holding different religious views from the majority (Acts of the Apostles 7). 

If Stephen's death, and our remembrance of it in our Christian liturgies, is to mean anything, it must help us develop our praxis, helping us reflect and act upon our faith in the social reality in which we practice it. 

It should help us ensure that no one else is allowed to suffer pain or death for what Stephen said or did. or suffer death as he did. 

Stoning is a legal method of execution in 13 countries, and an extrajudicial method in several others. 

The process of stoning someone to death usually involves burying a man upright up to his chest (or a woman up to her shoulders). Islamic law dictates  that the stones used be of a size not so large as one or two strikes would result in death, but not so small that the stoning would take an undue amount of time. Preferred stones are therefore about the size of a hand; the process can take up to 20 minutes.

But this isn't simply an issue within Islam; several extremist Christian groups in the US and elsewhere, as well as individual clergy, laypeople, and politicians (posting or commenting on social media where, bizarrely, they seem to think no one can hear them) have expressed their desire to reinstate stoning as a 'biblical' punishment for a raft of crimes. 

St. Stephen is remembered as the patron saint of altar servers, casket makers, and- in what I think to be somewhat poor taste- headache sufferers. 

I prefer to think of him as the patron saint of those who must endure cruel and unusual punishment

Please support Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in their efforts to ban both cruel and unusual punishments and the death penalty worldwide. 

Holy St. Stephen, pray for us.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Making Mary and Joseph Comfortable: Looking at the Christmas Story from an 'Eastern' Perspective

I’m writing this on Christmas Eve. Advent is nearing its end and I’m looking forward to the feast of Christmas. Tonight I’m off to midnight Mass, where all of the readings and reflections will now focus on Bethlehem, the holy family, and the birth of our Lord. 

The story is so ingrained in our lives we can recite it from memory. The angel’s announcement, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the manger, the shepherd’s, the wise men…

However, I think we need to revisit the story a bit- not the biblical text itself, but how we read it, and critically reflect. What are we reading? How are we reading it? Are we leaving anything out? Are we needlessly adding elements that weren’t there? 

Much of my understanding of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus come from two personal experiences: first, I had the immense privilege to attend lectures by Dr. Kenneth Bailey, formerly Theologian in Residence in the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East (Cyprus) and Research Professor of Middle Eastern NT Studies (Jerusalem). Bailey’s extensive experience of Middle Eastern life and tradition directly informs his exposition of the biblical text, revealing elements that a Western reading of the texts can misunderstand or overlook. 

Secondly, I have been to the Middle East myself, have visited Bethlehem, and heard firsthand how the ancient Christian community there, drawing on long tradition and oral history, understands the accounts. 

From both these experiences, I’m convinced that our reading of the birth of Christ is so overlaid with our own dysfunctional culture’s prejudices as to be almost completely erroneous. 

Think of your immediate mental images of the birth of Christ as it is trotted out in every nativity play in every church or community centre you’ve been in: There’s Mary, nine months pregnant, loaded awkwardly and painfully on a donkey, being dragged door to door by Joseph, only to have every door slammed in their faces and eventually huddled in a dark and smelly barn, alone and abandoned. 

I'm not going to even ask about the snowmen...

This vision of the story is so familiar, we no longer even question any of the assumptions it makes. But most Abrahamic cultures in the Middle East- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim- would view it as absurd, even insulting. 

So, let’s look at the Christmas story again, this time through an ‘Eastern’ lens: 

There are two vital elements to that lens: family and hospitality. Almost all of Abrahamic culture revolves around those two elements, and they are much more broadly understood in those cultures than in our own. 

When westerners think of family, we tend to focus on ‘immediate’ family, the ‘nuclear’ family- husband, wife, and children. Abrahamic cultures in the Middle East focus on the ‘extended’ family- aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, third cousins, all of whom are often considered as close as brother and sister. The conceptions of family and community were- and are- much wider and encompassing in the East than in the West. 

Thus, when the emperor Augustus decreed his empire-wide tax, we can reasonably assume that Joseph was not the only man in Nazareth heading out to his home town. We can also reasonably assume that a good portion of Mary’s family traveled with them as well. Sisters, brothers, cousins, parents, friends… Westerners travel with their immediate family; Eastern families travel with the ‘extendeds’. 

We can also assume that Mary didn’t start out on this trip nine months pregnant; people of her culture didn’t go places for the weekend. Joseph and Mary would have gone for an extended period, probably several months. 

Why? Again, we need to remember that Joseph was from Bethlehem; not only that, he was from the house and lineage of King David- a very prominent family pedigree! It is completely reasonable to assume that Joseph and Mary stayed with family- Joseph’s family. Even if Joseph had no living relatives in Bethlehem (which would be nearly impossible in a culture where the concept of ‘extended family’ is so strong), he’d simply have had to say who his family was and ‘Eastern’ hospitality would have opened any door in Bethlehem to him and his family. 

Because of the tax, Bethlehem would indeed have been crowded, and it is quite likely that there was no room in the house- or, more likely ‘houses’- for Joseph, Mary, and the whole Nazareth clan. This would not have been a problem, though; Joseph and Mary stayed in one of the caves. 

Yes, a cave. If you travel to Bethlehem today, you will see the extensive use of caves for family dwelling. These are not dark, wet, cramped caves; they are roomy and comfortable, warm in the winters and cool in the summers- all the comforts of home… because they are home. 

A Bethlehem cave. Not 'too' shabby...

When it came time for Mary to give birth, one person would not have been present: Joseph. Men in that culture didn’t ‘do’ births then, and they don’t ‘do’ them now. No matter though; Mary would have been surrounded by women- lots of women; her mother, sisters, Joseph’s female relations- all of these would have been considered Mary’s relatives. It was noisy, feminine, caring. 

When the birth of Jesus is viewed though this ‘Eastern’ cultural lens, it looks completely different- warm, caring, close, and familial. Many Christians in the West would probably be amazed at it, maybe even uncomfortable. 

If that is the case, we need to ask, why? 

I think there are two reasons. First, Western Christianity is almost thoroughly alienated from its Eastern cultural roots, and because we are almost entirely divorced from Eastern culture, values, and understandings, our reading and understanding of the biblical text is impoverished. 

Worse, it has left Western Christians alienated from actual Middle Eastern people, particularly their Christian brothers and sisters. The near-complete abandonment by Western Christians of the Palestinian Christian community- the community who actually live in Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank and Gaza- is the most shameful result of that alienation. 

Secondly, Progressive/left Christians in the West invest heavily in the traditional, erroneous images of the birth story, using them as the basis for a theological reflection on the need to care for the homeless and the stranger. 

Admirable as that is, it actually says more about the theological context of the West than it does about the cultural context of the Middle East. 

We need to find ourselves in the biblical text and the experiences its people, but we should be careful not to project our own culture's sins and selfishness backwards on to them. 

It is our culture that turns its back on the stranger, not theirs.

We are inconvenienced by those in need; they aren't. 

We live atomized lives focused on our own individual needs; they don't.

We have extremely limited ideas of family and community; they don't. 

But worse, our traditional reading of the birth of Christ often projects culturally thoughtless and racist images onto the events- rude, inhospitable, ‘innkeepers’, ‘dirty’, ‘stinking’ living conditions, and ‘smelly’ shepherds. 

That is not what people in the Middle East were like then, nor are they like that now. 

So, how do I think we should read the accounts of the birth of Christ? How should we then live? 

We can emulate their lives. We can allow the Abrahamic cultures of the Middle East to nourish our own religious and cultural lives. We can emulate their hospitality, their strong emphasis on the family, their attention to tradition and inherited values. 

We can rejoice that Mary and Joseph were not alone and abandoned but were treated with warmth and care. 

And we can dedicate ourselves to treating others- strangers, our families- with the same warmth and care that they received. 

A peaceful, hospitable, and comfortable Christmas to you all.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Madre de los Decaparecidos: Mother of God, Mother of the Tortured

Today, the US Senate releases its report into the CIA's torture of detainees after the events of 11 September 2001.

Some rejoice when truth is made known; some tremble with anger or fear. The message of the Gospel of Jesus is: which side are you on?

In this icon, The Blessed Virgin Mary is the 'Mother of the Disappeared'.

She wears the white scarf of the Argentine mothers who stood for years in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, demanding to know what happened to their loved 
ones who were arrested, tortured, and killed, holding banners demanding 'Donde estan?' ('where are they?'). 

She holds the crown of thorns that remind us that she is the mother of a son arrested, denied justice, and tortured to death in public. 

The 'white hand' of the death squads of Central America defaces the icon. 

Jesus and his mother were- and are- every victim of injustice, torture, and death, every victim of power and money.

They are in our prisons, in Guantanamo, in our 'black spots'...

What we do the least of these, we do to him... and to her...

Lord Jesus Christ, tortured and murdered, have mercy on us and give us courage to speak and act. 

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Tortured, pray for us.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

'Breathe...': A Theological Reflection on The Death of Eric Garner

Eric Garner, an unarmed black resident of New York City, was strangled to death by an NYPD officer. A grand jury ruled that the officer will not stand trial for Garner's death, regardless of the fact that the incident was filmed by a bystander at a few feet away and the death was ruled a homicide by the city coroner. 

For a nation with the history of deep racial and cultural divisions that the US has- with its indigenous population; with those brought here as slave labour; those Hispanic cultures still deeply resentful of the Mexican-American War’s land grab that left many on the wrong side of a border they didn’t help draw- the events have exposed festering wounds that, for many, have never closed, much less healed or even scarred. That all this has happened in the shadow of yet another notorious police shooting of an unarmed black male in Ferguson, MO with an identical grand jury decision, the situation was like pouring salt into those wounds.

Garner’s last words- repeated gasps of ‘I can’t breathe’- have become a rallying cry for many who have taken to the streets in outrage at the events.

Garner said ‘I can’t breathe’…

Those in the streets say, ‘We can’t breathe…

‘We can’t keep living like this.’

Personally, I ask myself, what can I do?

I believe that theological reflection has an important role to play in social transformation, in radical social change.

I believe the role of the radical theologian is to frame the process of social transformation using a spiritual paradigm, as well as helping to push it forward through the moral impetus of that framing.

Like so many others, I’m drawn to Garner’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe.' 

Genesis 2:7- 'God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.' 

Mark 15:37- 'With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.' 

It is out of the creative love of God that we have our life and breath; it is out of the violence of the state that Jesus' breath- and Garner's- was taken away. 

In John 20:22, after Jesus was raised, 'he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit."' 

Through the resurrection, God overcomes the brutality of the state powers that murdered Jesus and through his restored breath once again blesses us with new life. 

In our own context, breathing is life, the evidence of our life in God, and the presence of the spirit of God within us.

By breathing, we bear witness to the resurrection, God's destruction of the structures of death and oppression. 

The antithesis of the resurrection, of the God of life is, of course, the reality of death- whether that death be immediate or drawn out through oppression, poverty, and marginalization. 

In any case, it is life taken; 

Stolen by oppressive power.

By living a life infused by the breath of the spirit of God- of peace, justice, truth, and mercy- we bear witness to the God of life and build resistance to the structures of death.

this way, breathing is, in and of itself, civil disobedience; 


Resistance to brutality, 

To power,

To cruelty...

Psalm 150:6- 'Let everything that has breath give glory to God...'

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Palestinian Christians: The Abandoned Sheep

Imagine there was a country- not a small, unstable state, but a 21st-century modern state, with stable democratic institutions, a thriving, diversified economy, and the fourth-largest military on the globe- with a sizeable Christian minority.

Suppose that Christian minority was being denied basic human rights- freedom of movement, freedom of worship, freedom to live where they chose, freedom to own property….

Suppose they were subject to arrest and detention without trial; 

Suppose their property could be confiscated on a moment’s notice;

Suppose they were subject to segregated schools; suppose there were even roads they were not allowed to drive on;

Suppose this Christian community was under military occupation and the regular targets for military action, economic blockade, and attack.

I don’t know about you, but I imagine that American Christians would be out of their minds. Advocacy groups like Voice of the Martyrs, Christian Freedom International, and Focus on the Family would be incandescent with anger. News outlets like CBN, the 700 Club, and FOX News would be reporting it 24-7. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly would be screaming for action. There’d be denunciations from pulpits; it’d be all over the cover of Christianity Today, World magazine, and the Christian Post; needless to say, President Obama would probably be on the receiving end of some very pointed questions: ‘these are our Christian brethren! Why were we supporting such a regime? Why were we giving them billions in military aid?!'

But we’re not hearing any of that. The Christian media- at least the Evangelical end of the spectrum- is virtually silent. In fact, it supports the repressive regime, demands it be given more aid, more weapons, more political support.

How can this be? Simply but bluntly, it is because the Christian community in question are Palestinians.

There are about 350,000 Christians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. They have been there for 2000 years, but in the last 60 years, the number of Christians is dropping- by the day- like a stone. Most emigrate as the occupation continues to strangle the local economy and illegal Israeli settlements continue to expand, confiscating more and more Palestinian land and diverting more and more water.

Nazareth and Bethlehem- Jesus’s birthplace and home town- used to be predominantly Christian. Not anymore. It is not an unreasonable fear that, in a few decades, there might be no living Christian presence in the Holy Land. The most sacred sites in the Christian religion might become mere museums. A Christian community that can trace its lineage to the Day of Pentecost (they are the ‘Arabs’ of Acts 2:9) will be gone.

And the state of Israel will be delighted to see them go.

Now we sit, once again, and watch the Israeli military pound Gaza into rubble once again, with civilian casualties in the hundreds.

Once again, we hear the endless repetition from the US government: ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’.

No, it does not. Under international law, they have one prerogative: withdraw. End the occupation; withdraw to the 1967 borders; dismantle the settlements; build two states on a foundation of real justice and real peace.

I don’t want to get too utopian here, though. Ending the occupation will not solve every political problem in- and between- Israel and Palestine. But I am convinced that it will end about 70% of them. But the occupation should not be ended because it is expedient, but because it is right- and acting rightly allows space for other right actions. 

Israel has the right to exist- but not like this.

Israel has the right to security- but not like this.

The very fact that these sentiments will immediately be read by many as being anti-Semitic or pro-Hamas only shows how dysfunctional most of the discussion and debate surrounding the Israel-Palestine issue has become.

Under international law, an occupied nation has the right to resist its occupation. But all of the rockets Hamas has fired into Israel have not brought them any closer to their military aims. They are symbolic rather than strategic, lacking any semblance of praxis, action for action’s sake. All of their 'resistance' is stupid and criminal. 

Yet it is no less stupid and criminal than the Israeli strategy, and theirs has proven far more deadly.  While Israel has every right to not want violent Islamists living anywhere near them, the occupation- with all of its military, economic, and legislative might- has not been able to subdue the Palestinian insurgents, and while they try, the lives and livelihoods of thousands are destroyed. The occupation has has given Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and every other violent Islamist organization an enormous issue to hide behind while conveniently advancing agendas that are spectacularly frightening- getting rid of the state of Israel altogether being the most disturbing. Ending the occupation would be one giant step toward exposing these people for who they really are and what they really want- and how few people actually want it.

Regardless of the damage it does and the injustices it perpetuates, the occupation continues and spreads. In this fruitless endeavor, Israel has been lavishly supported by the US government for decades. Any nation over which the US holds enough sway tacitly looks the other way. Theodore Herzl’s Zionist dream is a nightmare for many. And the question that so many of us keep asking is, Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of the preservation of an exclusively ‘Jewish State’?  

It is not merely Palestinians who think this way and are asking that question. There is a growing body of opinion within Israel- proud, patriotic, some even Zionist- who are speaking out.  There is the Parents Circle - Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Palestinian/Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the conflict; there is Breaking The Silence, an organization of Israeli military veterans who are publicly exposing the brutality of the occupation, as well as Courage To Refuse, another group of military veterans refusing to go into the West Bank; there was the Shminitsim (‘twelfth graders’)  incident in 2001, where a group of young people resisted their military service on moral grounds; there are dozens of authors, writers, journalists, academics, and activists who are raising awareness, asking questions, demanding answers.

On the Palestinian side, there is the Holy Land Trust, Tent of Nations, Bethlehem Bible College, and Sabeel, working against incredible odds to maintain a positive, empowered, nonviolent, and creative Christian presence in the midst of a violent occupation and harassment.

And in the midst of it all are the Palestinian Christians- fleeing the army, watching their homes being flattened, dying, opening their churches to hundreds of those fleeing the bombardment…  And the silence of their American brothers and sisters in Christ is deafening.

‘But’, I hear over and over, ‘we must support Israel’, to which I constantly answer: no, you must pick which ‘Israel’ you wish to support. Right now, the Evangelical churches in the US have thrown their wholehearted support behind the most militaristic, intransigent, theocratic, and fanatical elements within Israel.  I’ve traveled to Israel and the occupied territories and met dozens of peacemakers- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secularists; Israelis and Palestinians. These people are doing incredible work against incredible odds.  If they had a tenth of the financial support, the region would be a much different place.

In John 10, Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd- a good shepherd. The good shepherd, he said, knows his sheep and his sheep know him; it’s a powerful image of the bond that Jesus felt for his followers. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of a shepherd who loses one of his hundredfold flock and does not rest until he finds the one lost sheep, a powerful image of the love that God has for every one of us.

The Palestinian Christians are not ‘lost’; they know who and where they are they are, and so does their shepherd, Jesus.  

Rather, the Palestinian Christians have been abandoned, and abandoned utterly- not by Christ but by a vast majority of their fellow Christians, especially in the US.

Worse, they are being sacrificed.

They are being sacrificed to a particular reading of scripture that equates all references to ‘Israel’ in the Bible with the modern state of Israel;

They are being sacrificed to the notion that any criticism of the modern state of Israel- for any action- is anti-Semitism;

They are being sacrificed to the absurdity that to speak out for justice for Palestinians is support for terrorism;

They are being sacrificed to the most militaristic, extremist, and theocratic dreams of the settler movement in the West Bank;

They have been sacrificed to a failed political vision.

It is never the God of life who demands a human sacrifice; it is the idols of death. The first law given to Moses was specific: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ This was the God who revealed himself, first and foremost, as a God of life and liberation. Yet the temptation will always be there to put something- the interpretation, the ideology, the policy, the state- before the God of life.

And when that happens, people die. They always do.  

When I was in The West Bank, every Christian I met was dismayed that their brothers and sisters in America cared nothing for them, and in fact supported their oppressors. Every one of them said the same thing: ‘Tell them about us; tell the whole world what is going on here'. 

I’ve attempted to do that ever since- to bear witness to the Palestinian church; to the Israelis trying to change their country; to Muslims who refuse to be enemies of the other Abrahamic faiths; to Israeli and Arab secularists who are tired of the 'parties of God' having an unconditional veto over peace and pluralism; to the peacemakers…

For God shall call them his children…

Stop the war. End the occupation. Build the peace. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Orange Crushed: Developing Praxis in North Belfast

Woodvale Road, North Belfast, early morning, 13 July 2013

Last year, 12 July 2013, after an Orange Order parade that had been banned by the Parades Commission from passing the Ardoyne shops in North Belfast was stopped by the police, there were days of serious rioting, dozens of police in the hospital, and (just to change things up a bit) an MP knocked unconscious by friendly fire. That night, I sat in my window on the Crumlin Road, one of the most contentious pieces of real estate on the island, and watched the flames from up the road. The next morning, I walked up to the scene of the standoff between the rioters and the police. The road was an inch deep in shattered glass, bits of brick, burnt wood and plastic, and splattered paint.

As I walked back home, I was deeply frustrated and angry with the Orange Order, who I felt had been incredibly reckless with the lives of their own supporters, the police, and local residents. They had urged their supporters onto the streets to protest the rulings of the Parades Commission, with only the most amorphous messages about ‘nonviolent protest’. After a night of mayhem, they had called off the protests, a day late and a lot of blood and money later.

The Order might reasonably have been asking, what went wrong?  Had they not called for peaceful protests? Had they not made it clear that civil disobedience was what they had in mind? Had they not told those who wanted to attack the police to stay away? It seemed that they’d planned for everything.

It’s now July 2014, and here we go again…

It’s less than a week until the Glorious Twelfth in Northern Ireland, and the Orange Order has yet again been banned by the Parades Commission from marching past the very same Ardoyne shops.

A loyalist protest camp,  festooned with banners of support from loyalists all over the province, has been in place at the site of the march for a full year.

There has been an illegal march every night for a full year.

The policing bill for this is now over £9 million.

This week, every Unionist politician walked out of the most recent round of ‘flags/parades/the past’ negotiations and have promised for more protests in the future.

The PSNI has not yet asked for mutual assistance from other forces in Britain, but they’re keeping the option on the table.

Relations on the ground in North Belfast are as poisoned as ever.

Last year, the day after the Twelfth, I wrote a piece that tried to address where I felt the Orange Order had bungled the situation. I’ve been involved with street protest for over a decade now, with the anti-war movement, anti-globalization and anti-capitalist groups. This doesn’t make me an expert, but I do have some insights from this experience to share. It was written with a year to go until the next standoff. Even the morning after, I was absolutely certain- and so was anyone else with any kind of a sober judgment- that the Parades Commission was not going to allow the parade to go through in 2014 unless there was considerable dialogue between residents and the Orange Order. I figured, well, might as well get cracking early...

Looking at the past 11 months and 3 weeks, the Orange Order hasn’t taken any of my advice.

No matter; hope springs eternal. So, with less than a week to go, here are my ideas of how this year might go better than last.

1: Have a Plan. Organizing an effective protest takes, well, a lot of organizing- A LOT of organizing. Get a hold of any decent history of the American civil rights movement or any other socio-political movement and you’ll see how much work it takes. What do you want to happen? What, in your mind, will constitute a successful action? What’s the message? Who’s involved with you? Are you all on the same page? Is it a legal protest? If so, do you have paperwork and are the police informed? Are you (or anyone around you) planning- at best- civil disobedience or-at worst- criminal activity? Do you all know the difference between those two things? Do you have a plan if you’re arrested?

Last year, the Orange Order had no plan. They called on their supporters to protest the Parades Commission rulings regarding the contentious parade, and told their members and supporters not to abide by the Commission’s rulings... but not to break the law. This was absurd, as the Parade’s Commission is a legally-constituted body. If you don’t abide by its rulings, you are breaking the law. Elected Unionist officials should have broken off contact with the Orange Order at that point. Needless to say, they didn’t, which raises uncomfortable questions for their commitment to the rule of law.

Anyway, the Orange Order said not to break the law or attack the police. What should supporters do? The Order said nothing specific.

This was never going to end well.

2: Don’t do anything when you’re angry. Not one thing. Nothing. An angry crowd does one thing and one thing only: damage. Telling people who are angry- and the Orange Order and every Unionist politician who could get himself in front of a microphone tells us over and over and over how ANGRY everyone is- to get up and hit the streets is never going to lead to anything constructive. Now, lots of historic change begins with civil disorder. But no real social transformation starts to happen until people calm down and start organizing (see point 1).  

So… If your people are angry, UNLESS YOU WANT TO HAVE STUFF DAMAGED, you make sure they stay off the streets. You issue a statement that says, ‘I know everyone is angry, so stay off the streets today and tonight. When we’re not angry, we’re going to plan our next move.’ It’s not very sexy and people who love to do damage won’t vote for you, but unless you want a whole lot of people injured and arrested, it’s what you do.

But I think you see where I’m going with that: violence gets you noticed. But it doesn’t lead anywhere constructive- certainly not in North Belfast, and if they haven’t figured that out by now, the leadership of the Orange Order is wilfully ignorant, truly devious, or spectacularly naive. On top of that, they were dangerously reckless with the lives and safety of others.

3: Know the Law. The conventional wisdom about protesters is that ‘they have no regard for the rule of law’ or ‘all they want to do is break the law’. This is a very clumsy stereotype. Activism of any kind very often demands an intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of the legal code- what you can and cannot do, what the authorities are allowed to do, what the penalties are, etc. Most of the activists that I’ve worked with over the years know a staggering amount about the legal code and can recite it, section and clause, to a police officer, a reporter or a security guard at a moment’s notice. Believe me, if a cop is trying to confiscate your camera because you took a picture of his land rover, you’d better be able to very quickly and clearly- and in as calm a voice as possible- quote the law as it is written. He might still take your camera and you’ll have to say it all over again to a magistrate trying to lock you up or fine you for doing something perfectly legal. Trust me on this.

That said, the fact that the Orange Order in 2013 called on their supporters to disobey the Parade’s Commission’s rulings, BUT not to break the law, is a stunning lack of an understanding of the law. Again, the Parades Commission is a legal body and its rulings are legally binding. If you disregard them, you are breaking the law. You might decide to go ahead and disregard them, but you’d better understand what that means. And make sure you’re supporters know what that means. They might decide to go ahead and ignore the rulings, but you can’t then say, ‘I did nothing wrong’. Well, yeah, you did. In 2003, four Catholic Worker activists cut through a fence at Shannon Airport, broke into a hanger and took a hammer to the nose of a US war plane that was contravening Irish neutrality and was a tool in an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation. It took 5 years of trials for them to finally be acquitted of any wrong-doing. And a thorough knowledge of Irish and international law was absolutely vital. Again, trust me on this. 

4: What’s the Next Step? This is related to point 1, but it needs to stand on its own. This relates to one of my favourite things: praxis. Praxis is an ongoing process of reflection and action, followed then by more reflection and then more action. They need to go together. Reflection on its own is just navel-gazing and theorizing. Action on its own is just, activism, 'doing stuff'. But praxis is how progress happens. Reflection on a problem helps to analyze and crystallize the problem. Out of this, an action can be undertaken. After the action, we reflect again. What was accomplished? What was learned? What happened that was totally unexpected? How can we act better in light of what we originally wanted to accomplish and what actually happened?  

If 12 July 2013 taught the Orange Order anything it’s that a.) you shouldn’t reflect when you’re angry, and b.) you sure as hell shouldn’t act when you’re angry.

But no use crying over spilled milk and wounded cops- especially a year late. They acted, and now they must reflect. How did it go? What went well? What didn’t go well? What was learned?  Are we any closer to the stated goal?

It is now less than a week until the Twelfth. If the Orange Order doesn’t want a repeat of 2013, I’d suggest getting started on it soon. It’s  not too late… yet.