There are countries that have walls. And we think, Well we don’t have walls in our country.
And we see militaristic writing on those walls. And we think, Well we don’t have hurtful or hateful messages in our country.
Or we see streets draped in offensive flags. And, once again, we think, Well we don’t have racist or sectarianist flags in our country.
The beautiful thing about the peace and transformation process is that we all need it. Every country. And every person.
In the U.S., we, too, have walls, words, images, flags that cause pain.
We all need to navigate conflict better, to build a longer-lasting peace.
“My life’s work has been trying to make a difference,” said Rev. Dr. Gary Mason who is building a peace and conflict transformation organization after completing his work with the East Belfast Mission and Skainos, a community center in East Belfast. He has partnered with Global Ministries and United Methodist Women on conflict resolution for more than two decades.
Gary calls the present mood in Belfast, a “benign apartheid.” After all, 93 percent of children are educated separately, that is, among solely Protestant or Catholic students. While adult workplaces are more integrated, at the end of the day, most people go home to segregated neighborhoods, behind walls.
“We most certainly knew how to end the war. We just don’t know how to build the peace.”
Conflict resolution is about living together, sitting side by side, deeply listening. Finding room in your heart for forgiveness, admitting your part in the conflict, and having compassion.
Maybe it is no different from our family dynamics when siblings stop talking to each other. Eventually, the warring factions may sit down together, uneasily perhaps. And, even when peace is forged, the resentments and hurts are not easily forgotten. Old wounds take a long time to heal. Scars do not disappear.
In Northern Ireland, the wounds are ancient, perhaps 800 hundred years old. And the peace agreement forged during the Clinton administration are recent. The Good Friday Peace Agreement brought hope in 1998, but the recent world-wide recession has cooled the optimism.
The replacement of para-militaristic murals with shared cultural icons is one ray of hope in Belfast, according to Pastor Margaret Ferguson of the East Belfast Mission. “Every picture paints a thousand words,” said Margaret in her Sunday sermon.
In one mural, a poem authored by two men, one Catholic and one Protestant, replaced a militaristic mural.
Even the new Titanic Museum, Margaret said, is a sign that Belfast could and should be known for contributing to the world through shared cultural values, like shipbuilding or poetry, rather than bloodshed.
I am reminded that we, in the U.S., have a difficult history too. It may not be a history of sectarianism, but of racism, an on-going story in which we separate ourselves from our sisters and brothers. We have built walls, painted murals, said words, flown offensive flags.
Yet we, too, can found signs of hope, forge compromises, find a common humanity in the person we once called enemy.