Rm 8:14-23; Mt 11:25-30
“The problem for our politicians is not so much that they can’t agree on a new economic strategy. The real core problem is that they are still fighting over which narrative about the past will obtain supremacy. History is told by the victor.
While the war is over, the conflict is alive and well … Because of the victory of Jesus we do not need to be victorious, only to speak the truth for it is that alone that will set us free” – Bishop McKeown
For older people of my vintage it can actually be hard to imagine that a very large proportion – about one third – of our population is under twenty-four years of age and has little or no memory of the Troubles at all. In the lives of those who were involved in any way at the Droppin’ Well bomb, the traumatic events of those days will be seared into their memory.
But for nearly half our population, the event that we remember today occurred before they were even born. So, for the bulk of our 1.8m people, what is important about 6 December 1982 is not so much what happened, as how we choose to remember what happened. That is why today is not just remembering a past event and lost lives. How we remember those events is a significant factor in how we help our younger people to envision the future. In our still contested political space, commemorations like this can be not so much sentimental as seminal.
The stories that we tell about the past in this country have tended to be characterised by tales of victimhood and heroic resistance. It was Chesterton in The Ballad of the White Horse, who suggested that we are all mad, because “all their wars are merry/ And all their songs are sad.” Yesterday the Apprentice Boys of Derry celebrated the 326th anniversary of the shutting of the gates by thirteen apprentices against the forces of King James in December 1688. In this, the decade of centenaries, we will hear many calls to commemorate heroic resistance or generous sacrifice. And it is important that we remember those whose lives and life chances were snuffed out by the brutality of others. But any Christian religious service can never be about promoting a selective, myopic recalling of the past, allowing ourselves to be used to serve other current political or personal agendas. The prophetic voice, speaking the truth in love, invites us all to see the past through the lens that hung on the cross of Calvary and looks at the world in a different light because the Resurrection of Jesus from the dark, lifeless grave. During this Advent season we encounter such an uncomfortable prophetic voice of hope in John the Baptist.
The first message of Advent hope in the midst of human stupidity is simple. Today’s celebration is focused on trusting that the dead are in the fine strong hands of the Lord who made them in love, and on us finding peace with what has happened so that we can be architects of a better future rather than prisoners of the past and its pain. We can do that because, as Christians we believe that the most important battles were not fought in Ballykelly, the Bogside, on Bazentin Ridge or Baghdad but on Calvary and in the hearts of each of us.
We tell an incredible story about the past that, on Good Friday, Jesus took upon Himself all the sin of the world – violence, injustice, oppression, stupidity, greed – and soaked it up so that it crushed Him. Thus, His Resurrection on Easter Sunday was not merely pretending that the human brutality of Calvary hadn’t happened, rather it was a statement that the dream of God for the world was stronger than even the worst that human beings could do to each other.
Because of Christ’s death and Resurrection, there is more grace in the world than sin, more goodness than evil, more hope than despair. Nothing can separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord. Can we tell a story about Ballykelly and about the events that preceded and followed it, which highlights the heroism of the many and refuses to see only the devastation caused by the few?
Secondly, we need to remember that such a message will not always be welcome. The lens through which we view the world may be seen by ‘the learned and the clever’ as mere child’s play. But God has hidden much from the learned and the clever and has revealed much to mere children. The first reaction to being attacked is to defend oneself and one’s perceived interests. But Jesus says that we should bring our crosses and our heavy burdens to Him. That means that we will never find rest by using our fears and our pain as a justification for causing pain to others. Can we avoid a narrative about Ballykelly that would make it an excuse for some to visit violence on others? Can we remember the faces of the dead in a way that brings us peace and not turmoil, that reminds us of the horrible waste of life and resources that is any armed conflict and inspires us to be architects of peaceful ways of resolving problems. I doubt if the seventeen dead in the Droppin’ Well would want us to recall them and their terrible death in a way that perpetuates hatred or bitterness. That would mean that neither they nor we could be at peace.
Thirdly, we are asked to tell a story about the past that avoids any narrative which divides the world into the goodies, namely us, and the baddies, who must be crushed. The enemy is a human being like each of us. He too sees himself as defending something precious and perceives us as the enemy, out to destroy. We are still struggling in this society to learn a new narrative about our history that tells a truer story about the terrible events that mark our history. The problem for our politicians is not so much that they can’t agree on a new economic strategy or fiscal policy. The real core problem is that they are still fighting over which narrative about the past will obtain supremacy. History is told by the victor. While the war is over, the conflict is alive and well. The unspoken struggle is about whose narrative can be imposed – the simplistic myth of the heroic resistance to occupation and colonialism or the equally inaccurate myth of the thin blue line against the barbarous terrorist assault. All struggles are about power. In that struggle, everything can be used as a weapon – culture, religion and perceived allegiances. Often religion has been happy to let itself be used as a weapon in the armoury. Can we look at our different narratives about Ballykelly and ask whether our stories help or hinder the search for a better future for our young people? Can we help our elected leaders to move beyond their thraldom to barren narratives about the goodies and the baddies? Can we encourage them to be honest about the complexities of the past and tell them that we don’t all want to crush and smash the other? Can we help them prioritise being at peace with a truer truth about the past rather than promoting a destructive story that rejoices in heroic suffering and glorious victory? Because of the victory of Jesus we do not need to be victorious, only to speak the truth for it is that alone that will set us free.
Today many of you will quietly remember names and faces. Some of you will remember chilling sights, sounds and smells from that terrible night thirty-two years ago. But Jesus teaches us that we can choose how we remember all our dead and those who inflicted terrible pain across this country, both by their actions and their inaction. John the Baptist reminds us that the way of the Lord is to be prepared in the wilderness, not in the palaces of the powerful. We know that the roads walked by peacemakers are often very rough. The strong often prefer victory over compromise. But Jesus invites us to seek healing and not destruction, new beauty flourishing in what was thought to be desert. That yoke is easier and lighter than some might think. Can we recall the dead of the Droppin’ Well and of other horrors from the past in such a way that, in Jesus’ name, we offer our children not a re-run of our nightmares, but God’s dream of a future that consists of peace, not disaster, reserving a future full of hope for them (Cf Jeremiah 29:11). That is God’s dream for the broken heart of the world. He invites us to be humble enough to see the world through divine eyes and to resist every temptation to expect God to be stupid enough to see things through our own myopic logic.
Advent is an invitation to hope in God’s power. Can we remember Ballykelly in such a way that we hope for what God wants, and not just for what makes us feel comfortable? Amen.
· Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry, which can be followed on Twitter @dioceseofderry. Website www.dioceseofderry.org. This homily was preached on 7 December 2014 in the Church of Ireland church in Ballykelly.
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