On Wednesday I was in London for work with the Alliance. During our board meeting, as we were praying for the UK, news of what was happening in Westminster started coming in.
I had travelled to London from Northern Ireland. I was born and raised during the Troubles, a thirty year period of history during which over 3,500 people were killed and almost 50,000 injured. Three hundred of the dead were police personnel, over 500 were terrorists and the majority were civilians.
On Wednesday teatime I sitting in my bedroom of the retreat centre in London when I got a call inviting me to attend Martin McGuinness’s funeral the next day. I initially declined. But when I rang back, they explained that the request was from the family who wanted to have church leaders in attendance who had worked with Martin on reconciliation.
So, the next morning I flew back to Belfast reflecting on the juxta-positioning of these two events – a terrorist attack in London and the funeral of a known terrorist leader turned peacemaker. I was journeying from terror to hope – my short flight symbolic of Martin McGuinness’s journey.
I had met Martin on a number of occasions and he had talked about his relationship with Ian Paisley, his own faith and his desire for reconciliation. It is well known that the two men had prayed together and discussed faith.
Eileen Paisley, the wife of the late Ian Paisley, got to know Martin McGuinness much better than I did. She said, “God uses different means to speak to us. He knocked the Apostle Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus. He spoke to Martin Luther by sending a lightning bolt. You don’t know what God used on Martin McGuinness, but he did change.”
In attending the funeral it was important not to forget the victims. The presiding priest acknowledged that many would find Martin McGuinness ‘difficult to forgive.’ During a reconciliation project we ran last year, I interviewed a good friend, Thelma, whose brother was an 18 year old policeman when we was shot in a terrorist ambush. She spoke of the long journey to forgiveness and freedom in the years following that. We wondered together would such a journey have been possible without first experiencing Jesus’ forgiveness of us.
Ian Paisley junior said in response to McGuinness’s death that we are judged not on how we begin life but on how we finish. Though Martin always seemed to me to have struggled with his own violent past, he finished by leading the Republican movement away from violence. There is also perhaps a the long journey of being forgiven.
Terrorism is an awful thing designed to strike fear in the human heart. It denies that we are image bearers, designed for dignity, relationships and flourishing. The prophets railed against idolatry and injustice. When we displace God (idolatry) we undermine our own humanity (as the only permitted beings to bear God’s image) and that of others (injustice). Terrorism is a symptom of a deeper problem.
I pray for those injured in London and the families of those killed as well as the families of the victims of the Troubles.
I pray for Martin McGuinness’s wife Bernie and the extended family.
I pray for our country which appears more divided socially, economically, nationally and religiously.
I pray that the church will stand as a symbol of unity and a beacon of hope.
And I pray that during this season of Lent, we will pause to reflect on Jesus’s ultimate act of sacrifice that brings the opportunity of true freedom to everyone.
For the cross is not a celebration of violence but the moment when Jesus absorbed the violence of this world and took it out of circulation – God’s love and wrath were satisfied, justice was done, and we were given the chance of forgiveness and the power to forgive.