Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Pastor James McConnell, Peter Robinson, and The Scale of Sectarian Danger

It hasn’t been a good week for tolerance or equality in Northern Ireland… And it wasn’t anything to do with the EU and local council elections.

In a sermon given last week, Pastor Jack McConnell of the Whitewell Tabernacle, a large and influential Pentecostal church in North Belfast, publicly referred to Islam as ‘heathen' and 'satanic… a doctrine spawned from Hell’.

Reaction from many quarters was swift:

the Presbyterian moderator, the Rev Dr. Rob Craig, said the comments were ‘unacceptable… They are not consistent with the Gospel of Christ and the love of God’;

the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said ‘all of us in positions of leadership have a responsibility to represent and stand up for all the people of our society. We have a duty to promote equality, mutual respect and tolerance for all in our society based on the core principles contained in the Good Friday Agreement’;

Dr. Raied Al-Wazzan, of the Belfast Islamic Centre, said ‘this is inflammatory language and it definitely is not acceptable. This kind of language is actually increasing the ethnic religious hate crimes’;

Amnesty International and other human rights groups also denounced the pastor’s words, reiterating that such language was illegal;

the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) confirmed they are investigating the statements.
The situation escalated on 28 May when First Minister Peter Robinson came to McConnell’s defense. ‘There isn't an ounce of hatred in (McConnell’s) bones’, he said. ‘This is someone who preaches the gospel. It is the duty of any Christian preacher to denounce false doctrine. He's perfectly entitled to do that - it's an appropriate thing for a minister to do.’ He went on to state that, like McConnell, he wouldn't necessarily trust Muslims either,beyond the daily exercise of going to the shops.
To dissect these incredible statements by two publicly influencial men, we can start by understanding that McConnell’s statements are part of a much larger fundamentalist Christian theology which sees all of reality as starkly divided between what is of God and what is of Satan- there is no moderating scale between them. If something is not ‘Christian’- and usually their definition of ‘Christian’ is quite narrow- it is satanic, ‘evil’. Furthermore, any display of tolerance or basic respect runs the risk of supporting the ‘evil’ thing. Worst of all, rhetoric and statements that the law clearly defines as ‘hate speech’ are understood by McConnell and other radical Christian clerics- I’m sorry, but there is no other term for them- as ‘speaking the truth in love.’ Any offense taken from them can be dismissed since they were simply ‘preaching the Gospel’.
But even if McConnell’s reprehensible words can be, if certainly not rationalized, then at least contextually understood, Robinson’s are utterly inexcusable, coming as they do from not only an elected official but from a head of government. They are confirmation that Robinson is unfit for public office, much less to lead a government, particularly in a post-conflict country. He should resign. At the very least, his words should be publicly condemned by the Prime Minister, who recently announced his desire to form closer partnerships with Robinson’s party in the House of Commons.
Likewise, the whole episode is further proof- if any more were needed- that Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided and sectarian place. The description of ‘sectarian’ in relation to this episode might seem incongruous to many, as McConnell was not talking about Irish Catholics, Nationalists, or Republicans- he was talking about Muslims. Indeed, the law would delineate between ‘hate crime’ or ‘hate speech’ and crimes related to sectarianism. But the fact remains that, in Northern Ireland, the two types of crimes inform and perpetuate each other, and in the light of this episode, I think it is vitally necessary- once again, and over and over- to talk about sectarianism.

Probably the best resource I’ve ever found on the topic is the book Moving Beyond Sectarianism by Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg. The book came out of years of research, community meetings, and small group work in Belfast by the authors as part of a project facilitated by the Irish School of Ecumenics,Trinity College Dublin at Belfast. The book does an excellent job of dissecting sectarianism, minutely and carefully, teasing out its dynamics and expressions. Liechty and Clegg ultimately conclude that sectarianism is not simply something we ‘do’- or something ‘they’ do- but something we are and something we live in.  

In Northern Ireland, sectarianism is not one, obvious thing; rather, it appears as a spectrum of attitudes, actions, beliefs and structures. These run from the most visible and recognizable (physical violence and intimidation) to less obvious, but equally destructive ‘patterns of relating’ over the long term (hardening boundaries between groups; overlooking others; belittling, dehumanizing, or demonizing others, etc.). Sectarianism also encompasses what might be called ‘boundary maintenance’ along religious and political lines, the unhealthy interaction of politics and religious belief, and their use in the process of perpetuating division and conflict.

Ultimately, sectarianism is about relationships; it serves the process of defining for people how much- or how little- interaction with the ‘other’ group is considered safe or permissible.

Furthermore, sectarianism has a tendency to become a self-perpetuating cycle; all that is necessary to perpetuate it is to do little to consciously stop it. Primarily, this is most commonly achieved through a lack of sustained, meaningful interaction between groups or individuals. Ironically, sectarian dynamics render this interaction superfluous in the minds of the people within the system, as the system ensures that ‘we’ know what ‘they’ think without ever having to engage ‘them’ in a relationship of dialogue’. The ‘other’ remains ‘wholly other’- nothing like one’s selves- in order to maintain one’s own positively constructed identity.

Sectarianism is complex, but also can be extremely nuanced and difficult to nail down, making it both difficult to diagnose and easy to rationalize or dismiss. Most Irish and Northern Irish people would be quick to say, ‘I’M not sectarian’ because many would limit sectarianism to throwing a brick through a sitting room window or shouting 'Loyalist scum!' at a crowd of Protestants or ‘Fenian Bastards!’ at a crowd of Catholics. But sectarianism can also be extremely polite and appear totally reasonable. For those of us from Ireland or Northern Ireland, it is a way of being, part of our perception. I didn’t move to Ireland until I was 33, but it was woven into my consciousness from my childhood in Irish-American New Jersey. It’s still in me; it’ll always be there. It’s a way of processing information and relating to others, particularly ‘those’ others. I cannot smash or purge myself of it; I can only acknowledge it when I feel it arising within me and consciously decide to approach my relationships or beliefs and emotions about the 'other' in a different way. When you live in a sectarian system, moving beyond sectarianism is a series of daily choices- what to say, how to think, how to act, and how to manage emotions.

One fascinating bit of Liechty and Clegg’s output- and one that I think is especially prescient to the events surrounding McConnell and Robinson’s statements- is their ‘Sectarian Scale of Danger’, which represents a series of rhetorical statements progressively moving from not sectarian at all to inescapably sectarian. This underlines the premise that, while every sectarian statement is not equally egregious, all perpetuate the system at some level. I include some of my thoughts and commentary throughout the list: 

  1. ‘We are different, we believe differently.’

This is the only statement that is free from sectarianism, the only statement in the list that can be said without any sectarian sentiment whatsoever. Beyond that, the sectarian danger grows…

  1. ‘We are right.’

With the second statement, we have begun to state an opinion that differentiates one set of beliefs or actions from another. It is very possibly true- or at least it could be. But a very specific line has been crossed.

  1. ‘We are right and you are wrong.’

With statement 3, we have now made our first definitive value judgment. Again, it might be true or have some degree of truth in it, but the line that was crossed at statement 2 has been slightly hardened.

Liechty and Clegg then expand on statement 3 with a series of elaborating statements. As the list continues, while it might be theoretically possible to hold the sentiment without sectarian intent, it becomes increasingly difficult and unlikely:

3a. Our way is right, but other ways are, or at least may be, equally valid.

3b. Our way is right, and we are not really interested in other ways of doing things- we make no judgment about them, one way or the other.

3c. Our way is right, and it is better than yours, although your way has some merit.

Statement 3c encompasses the official stand of the Catholic Church toward Protestant churches in the wake of Vatican II- that authentic Christian faith is most completely found within the Catholic Church, but that Protestant churches are brothers and sisters in Christ, filled with the Spirit of God, but deficient in certain doctrinal and practical aspects. Those statements seem entirely reasonable to the speaker, but they can easily come across as arrogant or thoughtless to the hearer.

3d. Our way is right, your way is wrong.

Statement 3d now moves us into the beliefs of many Protestants toward Catholics and the Catholic Church, as well as between many Protestant churches, and of many Christians toward other religious faiths.  

3e. We are right and you are wrong- but in this one particular area, we don’t emphasize this, because you and we have a great deal in common in other areas.

Statement 3e is the underlying foundation for divergent churches to engage in community service projects together like aid of the homeless, Christmas toy drives, disaster relief, etc.

3f. We are right and you are wrong- but out of concern and respect for the relationship between us, and in the hope of living in harmony, we have no wish to stress this.

Statement 3f is the informing basis for relations between churches of different denominations- usually in a rural area or a small town- that officially disagree with each other on any number of issues, but lay that aside in the name of ‘good community relations’. While this can be reasonably positive in theory, what it often means in practice is ‘benign apartheid’- little or no contact, no meaningful relationship, or any serious attempts to increase understanding.

3g. We are right and you are wrong- contemptibly, dangerously wrong, but we cannot say so, perhaps because it would be dangerous, or at least politically incorrect or socially unacceptable if we did.

3h. We have chosen to say that you are wrong because it puts the relationship between us on a more honest basis.

3i. We have chosen to say that you are wrong because we are so enthused about what we believe and do that we hope you will accept it, too.

3j. We have chosen to say that you are wrong because it is our duty to denounce error and expose injustice.

Statement 3j is the domain of ‘speaking the truth in love’, those declarations of dogma or opinions about the ‘other’- other denominations, other faiths, other sexual or gender identities- that are very often thoughtless, ill-informed, or outright offensive, but due to the lack of any sustained contact or dialogue with the ‘other’- as any attempt to do so might be seen as a dangerous compromise or ‘condoning of sin’- the ‘loving’ intention is lost or unheard.

3k. We need to stress that you are wrong because we would be uncertain about our rightness if we were uncertain about your wrongness.

3l. We need to stress that you are wrong because we are in a struggle with you, and the conviction of not only our rightness but your wrongness strengthens us in that struggle.

Statement 3l brings us close to the attitude of many fundamentalist Protestants toward the Catholic Church during the conflict. Ian Paisley’s 1982 book No Pope Here, a copious litany of Reformation-era anti-Catholic vitriol, is an almost-perfect example.

  1. You are a less adequate version of what we are.

Statement 4 encompasses many Orthodox attitudes to Catholics, Catholic attitudes to Anglicans, Catholic attitudes to Protestants, Charismatic attitudes to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, etc.

  1. You are not what you say you are.
  1. We are in fact what you say you are.
Statements 5 and 6 has several manifestations: there is the attitude of many Christians toward groups such as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses- groups that would identify as ‘Christian’ but would have those claims rejected by many Christians; there is the attitude of many Protestants who would reject- or seriously qualify- Catholics’ claims to be ‘Christian’; there are the barbs of ‘terrorist’ thrown back and forth by one group or another at the heroes or leaders of the other; and there are the claims of some victims of the conflict to be ‘innocent victims’ at the expense of others lost or bereaved. There are times, of course, when someone makes claims about themselves (to be, say, a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant) that, if untrue, could have consequences so serious that they must be challenged. But in matters of faith and doctrine, the matter becomes much more opaque and the basic right to identify oneself becomes worthy of protection.

  1. What you are doing is evil.
  2. You are so evil that you forfeit ordinary rights.

Numbers 7 and 8 have crossed the line into severe danger of sectarian intent. There is almost no chance of declaring them or something similar and credibly argue that you didn’t mean to be sectarian.

  1. You are less than human.
  2. You are evil.
  3. You are demonic.

The sentiments of numbers 9 through 11 are blatantly sectarian; it is impossible to believe or voice these sentiments without sectarian intent. And it is here, unfortunately, that we encounter the statements of Pastor McConnell, with his references to Islam being ‘heathen’, ‘satanic’, ‘dangerous’, ‘a doctrine spawned in Hell’, as well as his remarks that ‘millions of Muslims are taking over the world’ and that he never trust a Muslim. Furthermore, by declaring that ‘the IRA had a lot of terrorist cells that could bomb Britain’ and that ‘the same thing is being repeated’, he draws all Muslims into the paradigm of the Northern Ireland conflict. This is blatantly sectarian, utterly dehumanizing, ignorant and thoroughly reckless in a country with the levels of violence against minorities as those in Northern Ireland. He condemns all members of a diverse, worldwide faith- as well as some of the most vulnerable individuals and families in the country- as untrustworthy, devious, and violent.

McConnell has manifested in the most egregious, ugly way the ghosts of our past and the shadows of our present. He should repent, ask forgiveness, and open his heart and his mind to those he has wronged.

And Robinson must resign. Immediately. No doubt about that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment