I think looking back on it, even as a child, when some of my older relatives said things like, ‘he has a Protestant face, look how close his eyes are’ or ‘look at her nose and especially the jaw-line, you would know straight away she is one of the other side’, I think at some level I knew this was silly. I did not really buy it. I think for a while I bought the idea that Protestants did not smile as much, and even that there mouths were a bit tighter than ours, as in pursed slips, pinched cheeks.
Way before I met a real Protestant I thought they were posher than us and maybe spoke a bit like the Queen or Prince Charles. As I say that was before I met a real one. They were not real to me until I actually met one. The strange thing is I had actually met not one but two of them, in fact twins, called David and Andrew, and yet did not really get it. I was only five years old and had about a year and a half of innocence left in me. There is a difference between innocence and being gormless.
In much the same way as later on I failed to connect the copulating gerbils in Davy Rice’s biology lab with how I came into the world, I also failed to connect David and Andrew who I played with in the grounds of the church to the bad guys on the Shankill road who could easily come and murder us in our beds at night. I instinctively knew the twins were not bad guys. Our mutual knowledge and indeed our conversation was to forever remain juvenile as within a year or so of meeting them their church and house was burnt down and I never saw them again.
In my dabbling back into those early years I have no desire to dilute or minimise the pain that ensued. The twenty five or thirty years of what is still euphemistically referred to as The Troubles remain one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world and whilst we are in a much better place than we were the pain of this darkness lingers. Thankfully the work of people like John Dunlop, Cecil Kerr, Al Reid and Gerry Reynolds who laid firm foundations for the more public work of Hume and Adams, continue to bear fruit. This is evident in the ongoing work of healing and reconciliation.
Of course, world wide, the scandal of the disunity continues to haemorrhage the life blood of the Gospel. In many places people who profess to follow Christ not only hate each other but actively set out to kill one another. This is one of the great ongoing scandals of our age. It is so far from what was envisaged that it is in fact anathema to the words of Jesus ‘that they may all be one’. Oh if only the world looked at the followers of Jesus and were moved ‘see these Christians how they love one another’.
As we move towards Church Unity Week the danger is we tick a box, give it a nod. The once a year, oh aye, thats right we are supposed to be one, and off we go. Maybe we can, maybe we should do better. As always a few key questions of ourselves might help. Am I a force for unity? Do I tend to look for healing ways? Am I more at home with tearing down? Do I blow up more bridges than I build or mend?
I think there is much more to the call to unity than we might first envisage. I think at its core it is a call to communication. Real honest sensitive communication takes courage. It is hard work. It is a call to come to know the stranger. To know the stranger that we might befriend them. To extend the open hand of friendship in all the vulnerability that is in that gesture. To choose the gesture of being open to rejection or attack in the hope of friendship, acceptance and love.
Sometimes in the school yard as two lads clash very quickly the crowd gathers, very quickly they are shouting. Goading. ‘Fight Fight Fight’ The pressure is on. Don’t be a coward. Chicken. Mammy’s boy! Wimp! Now and again some lads pull them apart. Now and again someone shouts stop. Sometimes, just now and again somebody steps out of the mob and says ‘enough!’