A MESSAGE FROM THE REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Called to do the hard work

I am looking forward to being in worship with you this Sunday after several weeks away on vacation! It was good to have some downtime to rest, even though it was mostly a “staycation” here in Bethlehem.

The exception to that, though, was a pretty big exception: I receivedRev JC Austin a last-minute invitation to join a trip to Northern Ireland! As many of you know, I am on the board of The Ministry Collaborative, a national organization that focuses on supporting and developing pastors and priests in many denominations. I was asked to join the trip because the staff person who would normally go had to back out, the cohort in question is based in Philadelphia, and I have a lot of experience leading trips.

It was an extraordinary experience in so many different ways, and I can’t do it any real justice in one newsletter article! But I’d like to give you an overview of the context, at least, and then invite you to consider one experience in particular in your own hearts.

It was an eight-day trip, all in Northern Ireland. As you probably know, Northern Ireland is not part of the Republic of Ireland, but rather the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland was partitioned off when the Republic of Ireland was granted independence in 1921 because while the Republic is 90% Roman Catholic, the six counties that make up Northern Ireland have a Protestant majority, mostly made up of Presbyterians and Anglicans.

The northern Irish Protestants themselves had no desire to be part of a Catholic republic, and called themselves Loyalists or Unionists because of their desire to remain British. Thus, those six counties were partitioned into Northern Ireland as the fourth region of the United Kingdom. While the most violent phase of the conflict in Northern Ireland, known as “The Troubles,” lasted only 30 years (1968-1998), the decades prior to that were filled with division, hostility, and even violence between the Protestant majority and a Catholic minority.

But the Troubles were a new chapter in all of that, with paramilitary forces on both sides clashing with each other, as well as with the UK police and military, and numerous bombings, as well. By the time the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, ending hostilities, thousands of innocent men, women, and children had been killed, many more wounded, and the entire population traumatized.

During the trip, we met with numerous people, including many people of faith, who worked for peace during the Troubles and have been deeply involved in the ongoing efforts to promote justice, peace, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. But one of the most notable experiences was about someone I did not meet: David Trimble.

Trimble died literally as I was on my way to Northern Ireland; he had been one of the most prominent political leaders of his generation there, and received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in creating the Good Friday Agreement and getting his party to accept it. However, prior to that work, he was an unabashed Protestant partisan, having started his career in a fringe right-wing party with ties to Protestant paramilitaries that was often accused of fascist sympathies.

He was despised for most of his career by the Roman Catholic minority, and seen as a champion of Protestant dominance in Northern Ireland. Yet soon after being elected leader of the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, he began doing the unexpected: working for peace with his enemies. In 1997, he became the first Protestant leader ever to agree to negotiate with the main Catholic political party, Sinn Fein, often described as the political face of the Irish Republican Army, the main Catholic paramilitary group. Some Protestants were outraged, calling him a traitor and even threatening his life. But he, along with other key leaders on both sides, persevered and established a peace in Northern Ireland that most people thought would never come.

During my time there, every Catholic leader I met went out of their way to declare their sorrow at Trimble’s death and their respect for him as a leader of uncommon moral courage. And one night, as we attended a traditional music festival dedicated to peace and reconciliation, a Catholic Republican musician stood alone on the stage and played a traditional Irish lament on his wooden flute in memory and honor of Trimble, while two prominent political leaders, one Catholic and one Protestant, sat beside one another, watching and nodding approvingly. It is hard to overstate just how remarkable and unlikely any of that would have seemed to anyone in Northern Ireland not even 30 years ago.

It is tempting to call that and the peace process as a whole a “miracle” because it is so improbable that it was even attempted, much less that it was so successful.

But that is a way to offend both Protestants AND Catholics in Northern Ireland, because while most would agree that God was at work through that process, calling it a miracle discounts how much hard and skilled work went into creating it by so many people, how many difficult and even once unthinkable compromises were made, and how people like Trimble had to make a conscious decision to make hard choices that went against almost everything they had believed and worked for their entire lives.

With all that in mind, I invite you to join me in reflecting on what lessons that might have for us here in the United States, in a time of dramatic polarization, incendiary rhetoric, and even political violence. How does our faith equip us and call us to do the hard work of justice, peace, and reconciliation in our nation and our community right here in the Lehigh Valley? What are the difficult and courageous things we need to be exploring towards those ends?  Who are the enemies that we need to reach out to and work with for the common good despite everything that tells us not to do so?

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called children of God.” Peace, then, is not something that simply happens; it is made, and those who make it are blessed in the making, not just in the results. So it was in Northern Ireland; so it may be for us here and now.

Grace and Peace,