(This is the fifth in a series about civil discourse, respectful dialogue across difference, and nonviolence. Read Marie’s first post here, second post here, third post here and fourth post here. And join in the conversation by posting comments on the website below this post and future ones, as well as participating in the dialogue on our Facebook page and Twitter.)
I am writing this as I prepare to leave Belfast after a few extremely informative and interesting days learning about the peace process that is slowly moving the people of Northern Ireland out of the “troubles” toward a stable peace. At first encounter, Belfast seems to be entirely past the endemic violence that plagued community after community for decades. Tremendous credit is due to courageous people and an effective peace process that is rebuilding the structures of a society that was deeply fractured for generations. Very, very hopeful is the commitment of parents we met to raise their young children without prejudice.
But lurking just beneath the surface and threatening to undercut movement toward peace are deep divisions that still separate too many local communities. The “peace wall” that separates Catholic from Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast cannot yet be dismantled. Gates in the wall are open during the day, but are still locked at night. Hundreds of British flags fly on the Protestant side of the wall, but are noticeably absent on the Catholic side where affiliation tends to be stronger with Ireland to the south than with the UK. Partisan murals are slowly being replaced with some more focused on peace, but there is ample evidence that different stories are being told and retold on opposite sides of the wall.
On the one hand, I was struck by the tremendous difference between the “peace wall” in Belfast, a wall that actually does help keep the peace, and the “separation wall” being built by the Israeli government that divides Palestinian communities internally; people from their land, work and needed services; and family members from each other. This separation wall, once built, is never open for free passage and is exacerbating the brokenness, while Belfast’s “peace wall” seems at least to point in the right direction.
On the other hand, I could not help reflecting on the great tragedy of Northern Ireland’s “troubles” and the possibility that the lack of civil discourse in the U.S. political arena could ultimately lead to our own bleak version of “troubles.” The multi-dimensional enemy-making and destructive wall-building now so prevalent in our society threatens to breed a kind of hatred that is not easily reversed. Already it has provoked – or at least created space for – inexcusable violence directed at the “other:” Muslims, Sikhs, immigrants, liberals, conservatives ….
As election day approaches, efforts to promote respectful political discourse will become even more important. The Franciscan Action Network (FAN) has developed excellent guidelines that you might find helpful (www. franciscanaction.org), while many parishes or local communities are sponsoring workshops and parish dialogues to promote civility.
At the same time, every effort is important to break down walls of hatred and to foster respect for – celebration of – the gift of diversity. For example, Pax Christi USA’s partner, JustFaith Ministries, has developed an excellent program to foster Christian-Muslim understanding. Consider sponsoring Muslims and Christians Working Together for the Common Good in your local community.
Marie Dennis is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the Co-President of Pax Christi International.