An Open Letter to Northern Ireland’s Political Leaders

(This open letter first appeared in Steve Stockman's blog and is reproduced by permission)

Dear Political Leaders

As you go into intensive talks this week to save the political institutions and our unraveling peace process I want to assure you of my prayers. I will not lie to you. I feel disappointed and a little let down by the current crisis. I have invested a little bit of my time on the peace process and this was not what I had hoped for. I am aware that not all of you have time for Christianity, the Church or clergy. I also know that some of you do. Whether you do or not I want to ask you to ponder some wisdom from an ancient text. Whatever your view of the Scriptures please reflect on this wisdom, an alternative view of life that might just bring some needed imagination into our current inertia. You might think it naive. I believe it to be prophetically profound and a formula that would guarantee success in the coming talks. In the New Testament book of James we read,
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3: 13-18).
This is radical stuff. Revolutionary even. It smashes all of our default positions and shines another light on attitude and motive. I would ask, of you all, two things this week. First, to come to the talks in humility and without any selfish ambition. Humility is a powerful thing. Please look into the depth of your own souls and ask where it is that you have caused our crisis. I believe that all of you are to blame to some extent. As the ancient text says elsewhere, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). I pray that you will find where you need to seek forgiveness and that you will find forgiveness graciously offered by the other. Second, and most crucial, to all of this, is your motivation. The ancient text is a revelation on that. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:18). That last word is just as easily translated justice. I believe that at times some of you are focused on righteousness and others of you on justice. The wisdom of this text says that when we put peacemaking first the righteousness or justice will come. My frustration with most of the language that comes out of Stormont is that Peacemaking is not the first thing on the agenda. Who is to blame or which side is right or has the high moral ground is not the right agenda. I am praying that you all choose the peace that will be for the common good of all our people as the very first aim of all your deliberations. How can you get the best result this week for Northern Ireland/The North? Put our peace before anything else! Can I finished by saying that I will be looking into my own soul too. Every one of us in our wee country should be doing the same. You all take the criticism but we all have to take our share of the blame. We are a country too comfortable in the destructive evil of sectarianism. I will be searching deep into my own heart and soul as I pray for all of you to do the imaginative and courageous thing. Grace to you all. May grace indeed be amazing enough to interrupt our past and wonderfully usher in a grace centred future. Talk well!

Steve Stockman

Steve Stockman is minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church
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6 Responses to An Open Letter to Northern Ireland’s Political Leaders

  1. Pingback: Can There Be a Distinctively Christian Contribution to Northern Ireland Politics? | the Irish Church

  2. Esmond Birnie says:

    At one level Steve seems to be saying that NI politicians demonstrate sinful attitudes and behaviour and this is a large part of the current problems. The first part of his argument is certainly correct but I’m not sure how far this gets us in practice.

    I do believe in original and universal sin. That does imply that politicians in, say, London, Dublin, Washington or Berlin are as sinful as our own but those political systems do not seem to have the recurrent systematic crises that we suffer. So, we need to ask ourselves whether there is something about the institutions in NI as laid down in 1998 and then amended a bit in 2007 which makes our politics prey to periodic crisis. All politicians, like all people, are sinners but are we “incentivising” particularly bad behaviour- probably yes.

    I am grateful to Steve for setting out his position- not least because there is considerable more “content” or substance in his arguments than was contained in the public statement issued by the four “Irish Church Leaders” at the end of September. That said, I’d like to examine the following specific points:

    -“…I believe that all of you are to blame to some extent”.

    Once again, at a certain level I can’t argue with the theology here. None of us are perfect. However, there are certain dangers here. For several decades now much of the commentary by the “main Protestant Churches” on the Northern Ireland political situation has been characterised by an extreme reluctance to make judgements as to who is to blame for political deadlock. If, say, there is a unionist position and a republican one then either BOTH are wrong or we should split the difference! There are secular parallels to this. Rightly or wrongly Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are given a lot of credit for the earlier phases of the political and peace processes. Significantly, both these politicians were exponents of a so-called third way, i.e. it should always be possible to steer a middle way between say, capitalism and social justice or, indeed, unionism and Irish republicanism. But is this always the case and should Christians, in effect, be exponents of moral equivalence? (Many secular commentators think Blair-Clinton “triangulation” didn’t work very well in any case.)

    “My frustration with most of the language that comes out of Stormont is that peacemaking is not the first thing on the agenda”. Here my inclination is take the opposite view from Steve in that I fear that one of the main reasons we have fallen into such a severe political crisis is precisely that for over two decades we have pursued a “peace at all costs” so-called peace process. Since the mid 1990s many of us were persuaded to make moral compromises in order to keep everyone talking, to keep all Parties at the table and in the room. The moral elastic was stretched pretty thin and whilst I still feel the 1998 Agreement was the best that could be done at the time in an imperfect, fallen world are we not now hearing some of that elastic break?

    -“Who is to blame or which side is right or has the high moral ground is not the right agenda”. Again, that sounds like moral equivalence, big time, to me. I cannot imagine Steve, or for that matter the Irish Church Leaders, would have wished to confront issues like Apartheid, slavery or global poverty through the lens of moral equivalence.

    Once again, I’m coming to the opposite view to Steve. The NI Parties are dividing on some pretty fundamental questions and those questions are legitimate ones to put. For example, is austerity fundamentally damaging to the well-being of society and especially the poor (that, incidently, was very much the “big idea” in last month’s statement from the four Irish Church leaders though, as Newton Emerson noted in the Irish News some of their evidence base is questionable)? OR, how on earth can we sustain a situation where such a large and growing proportion of our population are dependent on the welfare system? Are the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries essentially fairly benign veterans’ associations as some seem to believe or are they still armed and active and certainly up to their necks in organised crime?

    -“I am praying that you all choose the peace that will be for the common good…” My problem here is what does “the common good” really mean? I suspect Sinn Fein have their own definition and the DUP another.

    -“Put our peace before anything else!” Taken at face value that seems to be saying peace at any price. I don’t think that is a sound basis of political progress.

    In overall terms, my difficulty with Steve’s Open Letter to our political leaders is that I fear he has (unintentionally) trivialised NI politics. For sure, there are disagreements between the Parties but we shouldn’t say these are all the product of sin and wish them away. We shouldn’t try to “triangulate” or exercise a third way or moral equivalence. In reality there are important differences of principle about the economy, about law and order. My position seems to be the reverse of Steve’s. I think we need to recognise that the differences are there and re-design the institutions so that they can be expressed in an honest and non-destructive manner. In the long run this would be more productive and sustainable than the attempt which we’ve had since 1998 to weld all the Parties together.

    Thanks again to Steve for making his case. I hope all the political leaders (and others) do reflect on the moral basis of their Party political positions. I’ll close by quoting from a source which I’m sure is not a common one on PS.

    Speaking in the context of the final phase of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan told the (US) National Association of Evangelicals in 1983, “…I urge you to beware the temptation of pride- the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault…and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil”.

  3. Joe Duffy says:

    Steve
    Thank you for an inspiring and challenging post that resounds around the island of Ireland.
    Lets pray to God that this message will open hearts, minds, souls, all across the island.
    The issues we face, whilst to-day may resonate in Stormont, are issues all residents of the island need to address, both in Stormont and Leinster House
    God bless

  4. Stephen Johnston says:

    Thanks Steve,

    You took the words right out of my mouth!

    I say AMEN to your open letter. I say that as an individual and as a Presbyterian minister.

    I think the sentiments of this letter reflect what a great many Presbyterians and Christians would say. We need LEADERSHIP from our leaders! And we need more Christian leaders to stand up and call for better! The Church needs to be more courageous in being a PROPHETIC GRACE-FILLED VOICE.

    May God give us grace, humility and courage.

    Stephen Johnston
    Kilkeel

  5. Kelvin McCracken says:

    I heartedly endorse Steve’s message and pray that our MLA’s will read it and take note. However, we who are the Body of Christ carry a huge responsibility because the sectarian spirit, the blame game and the focus on justice rather than grace, mercy and forgiveness have all been strongly evident within many who name Jesus as Saviour and Lord. We would do well to take to heart the words of Joel ( 2:12) “Even now ” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning”. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Let us all take to heart Steve’s word about asking God to search our hearts and minds!!

  6. Patrick Troughton says:

    YES!!

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