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How Religious People Must Help Prevent Political Violence

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I was always afraid of violence when I was growing up. Northern Ireland was a European centre of politically-motivated killing for most of my childhood. Politicians and public officials were killed all the time. Political activists who espoused violence were often killed, too. And people who had no direct involvement in either politics or violence were caught up in it -- killed in bus stations or pubs or on the street. Nearly 4,000 dead in about 25 years of intensive violence, perpetuated in the cause of two competing ideologies: should northern Ireland stay part of the United Kingdom, or be reunified with the Irish Republic, along with the attendant questions of human rights, equality, historic injustice and the kind of stake our people would have in our own society.

We took the rhetoric of "targeting" political opponents beyond the dehumanising manifestation currently alive in U.S. culture, which found horrific expression in the Arizona shootings this weekend. Some of our current political representatives actually killed people themselves. Anyone who worked for the state -- police officers, civil servants, even census takers -- could be considered a legitimate target by Irish Republican militants. The daily nerve-wrack of checking under the car for a bomb became a fact of life. And despite the protestations of some historical revisionists, for many ordinary Protestants, their religion and ethnicity seemed to be enough of a reason for them to be living in fear. At the same time, the Irish Republican and nationalist community often found itself repressed by the state, living under suspicion and abused into second class citizen status; pro-British militants killed many people just because they were Catholics.

Nearly 4,000 dead and 43,000 directly physically injured. And then, what?

We stopped.

We talked.

We took responsibility.

We made a deal.

Now, we govern ourselves with former sworn enemies, who used to violently threaten each other while sitting in a legislative assembly together, not unlike a typical U.S. statehouse -- a key difference being that we have imagined democracy as best expressed in consensus and compromise, rather than one community dominating another. It's not perfect, but it is extraordinary. You should look into it. There are huge lessons for all of us.

Books have been written on the role that ordinary people like us can play in shaping political processes that reduce violence, but in the simplest terms, what I want to say about the potential lessons from northern Ireland for the U.S. at this point in its precarious history is this: You have to get to the negotiating table now. If you wait until another shooting or bombing or threat, nothing will have been gained.

After the peace process in northern Ireland had begun to take root, I chaired a public meeting at which the person widely believed to have co-led the IRA for much of its modern existence spoke about what he would like to see change in our society. I began the meeting by asking him if, given that he had frightened me throughout my childhood, he could give me any guarantees that I didn't need to be afraid of him anymore. He first attempted to deflect the question, saying, "Well, Gareth, lots of us have reasons to be afraid of various people." I interjected, and offered a compromise, "OK Gerry," I said, "I'll make you a deal: I'll not give you any reasons to be afraid of me, if you don't give me any reasons to be afraid of you." It was a little snarky on my part, but it was a start. We shook hands, and I haven't met him again, but we haven't threatened each other either. He has pursued a non-violent political path, as have the rest of northern Ireland's elected representatives.

They did this for many reasons -- two of which are that they realised the cost of violence is too high and because they allowed a third party in the form of U.S. intervention through the presence of Senator George Mitchell as a mediator -- to help them discover something like the common good. In talking, they started to reduce their own prejudice, and eventually, people who used to advocate each other's violent death started sharing offices. One even acknowledged praying with a man, while both of their political supporters might have been glad to kill either of them only a few years ago.

These things are possible when public representatives are given the space by their supporters to start talking about their opponents as human beings. These things happened not in fiction, but in the very recent past of an island only a few thousand miles away from the White House. They happened partly because the White House offered help.

All this leads me to a simple conclusion: it is one of the gifts of the United States to help mediate in other people's conflicts. Amazing things can happen when U.S. non-violent humanitarian intervention takes place and provokes a vision of possibility that transcends the belief that things can never change because they have always been this way. The U.S. has the gifts to help others; this may be a moment when others need to help the U.S.

So, offered humbly, let me, as an outsider now making my home in the U.S., suggest a few thoughts that may deserve reflection:

The fear expressed by many at the pace of social change is real, and needs to be responded to with respectful listening, not mockery. Sarah Palin is a human being. So is Glenn Beck. They speak for a large number of people, whether some of us like it or not. They will not be calmed down by being shouted at or mocked. The degree to which the fears they articulate are genuine will only find its proportion when their political opponents treat them with respect, or at least show willingness to listen. It works both ways of course, but that's not a point I need to make today.

There is a relationship between the psychological cost of recent wars and violent political rhetoric. The cultural expression of what the United States means is part of the problem: seeing itself as a hammer leads to seeing everyone else as nails. The world is too small to be able to afford this.

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 horror approaches, it would be good to take time to ask if lamentation was postponed in favor of revenge, and then to finally start having a national conversation about how to grieve in a way that honors the victims without turning painful emotions into a reason to create more violence, here or overseas.

Religious rhetoric in the US has too often been put to the service of carving up dividing lines between who "belongs" and who doesn't. The involvement of national religious figures in demanding vengeance for 9/11 and promoting the war in Iraq are only among the most recent manifestations of how religion can be a force for destruction. This shadow side is mirrored in politics -- a means by which massive good can be brought to marginalised people, or by which a nation can oppress an entire people. It is mirrored in the media, where simmering rage can be fuelled into fire, or humanitarian wisdom shared the largest audience possible. Religion, politics and the media are not the problem, but they do have shadow sides that need to be taken seriously.

This summer, some of us are hoping to nurture a space where spirituality, justice, and art meet: a space where political divisions find peaceable expression, where the common good is nurtured and where we transcend the dehumanization of people with whom we disagree. You can find out more about the Wild Goose Festival here. But for now, let's remember that real violence is part of a continuum that begins with violent attitudes. If I am to be any use in this world as a peacemaker, I need to work on my own inner violence at the same time as trying to listen to and communicate with those who see me as a threat.