Nurturing A Democratic Society – The Archbishop Of Dublin Addresses The Northern Ireland Dialogue Society In Stormont Castle, Belfast
Added on 01/03/2013
There are many ways of assessing the effectiveness and the maturity of a democratic society today. Democracies, like any other human construct, can slide into inertia and cynicism. Their members can lose heart. The ease and volume of media–based communication can demoralize those who are working for good on the ground every bit as quickly as they can energize. Such disempowerment brings in its wake a sense of disenfranchisement. This, in turn, creates disengagement and a deeper level of dissatisfaction. Nurturing is a maternal word and an educational word. Both perspectives broaden the political expectation into the realms of personal care and shared learning. All can again participate in something which is real because it is local.
One way to turn negativity round is to encourage those who are citizens to articulate and to begin to do the things which matter to them most – for others, precisely because they are aspirations they have for themselves at their best. And such encouragement goes far beyond what political representatives can do on our behalf. It involves what we can do in our communities, when we engage with commitment to others who inhabit and form those communities. And so democracy moves from being the external and private safeguarding of who I am at the greatest point of my need to being the internal and public opening up of opportunities for shared growth and flourishing of the other person who is distinctive to me and my neighbour. Identity is challenged positively in such a way that it no longer looks inward for the security of containment but outward for the adventure of altruism. It is enriched and enhanced by offering itself into the space of another person who, perforce, is different from me and my needs. Nurturing needs other people.
Communities, of course, differ widely and many exist in name only. Geography alone does not make community. ‘Shared space’ is a term which trips off the tongue. But much space in Northern Ireland is not shared in any meaningful or generous sense. Sectarian communities, communities which over–emphasize their single identity status, whether out of fear or marginalization, rejection or containment, institutionalize segregation and make distinctiveness an end in itself. This may be what we have let ourselves become but it is not, nor has it ever been, the way of the Abrahamic traditions and peoples who meet one another worldwide and in every local setting. Loving our neighbour as an expression of appropriate loving of ourselves is a river which flows through each of these traditions and flows from each to the other.
I will give you two small examples from my own experience of community space which is shared by the use of it, as sacred space is also shared by the use of it. The community and the sacred march hand in hand. For ten years I was the bishop of Clogher, living in Fivemiletown in the constituency of Fermanagh South Tyrone. One summer evening, I was making my way to Enniskillen and I passed a lay by which I knew well. Often I had seen people with caravans pulled in there for a rest; I had seen people having picnics, walking dogs, stretching the legs of their tiny children after a long drive on the way to the Fermanagh Lakelands. That evening I saw four Muslims kneeling, facing Mecca and praying – entirely naturally and easily in the Tyrone sunshine. Their car had a Belfast registration. This was the space they needed and this place was theirs for prayer on their way home. It was shared and sacred all at once.
From time to time, I go to Kaduna in Northern Nigeria. Always I go to the market to see my friends and to enjoy the bartering. There is one trader, a Muslim, who again with total ease repeatedly leaves me to look after his stall as he washes and prays. He trusts me and we are simply friends, meeting very occasionally, but still friends. Again, this is space shared and sacred.
The world is a big place and a small place at the same time. And my neighbour is the person who meets my need for open friendship and trusting acceptance and receives from me what I give in response in affection and respect. My neighbour is the person who nurtures community for me.
I have perhaps once too often said that Ireland suffers from religious indigestion every bit as much as it suffers from religious hunger. You may instantly rush to refute this remark. However by it I mean that our psychological landscape, our understanding of society, our sense of ourselves has, over the centuries, been fashioned around seemingly unarguable and untouchable religious norms which inevitably seep into political identities and standpoints. The public face of religion is, therefore, under instant and microscopic scrutiny in Northern Ireland and across all of Ireland more generally. We have rather set ourselves up for it. Religion instinctively has taken ownership of the society with a sense of entitlement. Repeatedly, it finds itself insufficiently supported from within its own disparate memberships to address the questions of community which constantly, and rightly, are being fired at it from every direction. Frequently it finds itself sponsoring and offering patronage to privatized community and an identity of respectability. And time after time, it is the moral questions which fan the flames of disappointment and frustration. Time after time, they are not the right questions to be asking for nurturing open belonging and mature community. Wrongly framed, as all of us know, moral questions do little more than alienate others and institutionalize exclusivity and exclusion.
If ever there were a need for nurturing, it is in this area. Megaphone moralizing cannot nurture a cohesive society. People simply turn their face away as far as the private and the public things which matter most to them are concerned; they make up their own minds and carry on living. We need to listen to the fresh injections of thinking which others offer us, not least those of the Abrahamic Faiths. Their members and representatives have a rich tapestry of international experience. They also have what I call worked examples of being majority and minority communities in difficult places. They are no longer visitors but citizens – and those of us who feel Northern Ireland is ‘ours’ in a primary sense need constantly to remind ourselves of this and respect it. Democracy is not only for those who got here first. It is for all who live here now.
The litmus test of generous democracy is to be found at the points where we stop and ask ourselves: Can my neighbour really read my principle as anything other than a prejudice? And: Ought I not to ask my neighbour how what I have just said or done affects her or him? I remember in 2002 attending a Day Seminar in this very building. Each speaker had five minutes allotted and one woman took no more than thirty seconds. I will always remember her words: I am a French Algerian atheist. I fit nowhere into your ‘two communities.’ If we tunnel down into the phrase: ‘two communities,’ what words come to mind? I can guarantee that sooner rather than later Catholic and Protestant will come to the surface. And these then instantly become coat–hangers for political identities which have long shaped a democratic framework. On any international analysis, this framework has been creaking with insecurity from the very first day. We speak of ‘The Troubles.’ Anybody would surely admit and agree that there have been rumbling ‘Troubles’ every decade since Partition in Ireland and long before. These Troubles are in the psyche every bit as much as they are in the polity. They have to do with the borders of the mind and of the heart. In many ways I have found that they have become even stronger as the geographical borders have opened up to safer passage in both directions.
Many of us have probably heard more than enough about the Decade of Commemorations in Ireland already. I myself have heard Mr Peter Robinson MLA and First Minister give a broad–ranging lecture on Sir Edward Carson in The Department of Foreign Affairs in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin last year. However, through the Centenaries which are coming to meet us, and indeed many already have, we will find that the greatest test of democracy will happen in 2016 when the Centenaries of The Somme and The Rising come together. I know that many in church and state are working on the preparation and the delivery of appropriate ways to express commemoration. My question is not: Where will I find ‘my identity’ represented in all of this? but rather: What fresh understanding of Ireland north and south will this give to those who are my neighbours and who have critical questions about who I am and who I have allowed myself to become? The pressure on all of us to forget rather than to remember is relentless. The cynical rewriting of history, of course, generates this. But so does the neo–liberal emphasis on the subjectification of each and every individual and the commodification of personal experience. We simply cease to look for what is there because we are more concerned with self–inflation and celebrity status than with personal histories.
Borders suddenly are everywhere to be found, not only those which separate jurisdictions and separate communities within jurisdictions, but also those which are borders of the mind and of the heart. This keeps alive and kicking the ‘siege mentality’ which alienates the self not only from the community but also from the self itself. It means that, in place after place, people begin to speak of themselves, as I have myself heard them speak, as ‘the last of the Mohicans,’ ghosts stalking a landscape which never was theirs exclusively except in the imposed inheritance of delusion and which now is a zone of alienation while being the only home they have or will ever have. Such people live fear–filled lives within and beyond the borders of their own space and soul.
One of the ways in which I often address such complexities in order to get a handle on them is this. I think of: narrative, grammar and vocabulary. The vocabulary is the language which we use to describe who we are and what is happening. The grammar is the connections which we use to describe and to delineate the opportunities and the boundaries of our identity; it has to be more than a sort of ventriloquism for the Gnostic and the initiate and must instead be capable of public articulation and critical challenge. The narrative is the broadest and the biggest possible story which can be told, in openness and honesty, in joy and sorrow, even if we ourselves decide we can cope with no more than a couple of chapters of this narrative at a time. Even by doing this, we have graciously and readily admitted that others have an entitlement to their story and that the whole story together is both theirs and ours. In such a way as this, we safeguard our identity while making room for the shaping of a new story incorporating and ennobling the story of others.
Tonight’s dinner and discussion provide the opportunity to bring history into the future. It is not the closing down of possibilities. Rather, it is the opening of windows – beyond inclusion to engagement, beyond ecumenism to Inter Faith encounter, beyond tolerance to invitation. The question which presents itself urgently to us all is surely this: Is Northern Ireland, at yet another difficult time in our history, willing and eager to embrace its fear of itself? Identity and respect go hand in hand. The nurturing of both together is the greatest safeguard against intimidation and anarchy. Democracy deserves the opportunity to nurture once again peace and stability.
Archbishop of Dublin
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