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Overcoming political polarisation: some thoughts from Northern Ireland

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Dr Maria Power, Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation, asks what we can learn from Northern Ireland about tackling our polarised politics.

When Pope Francis was on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on 29th October 2021, he suggested that:

‘Every crisis calls for vision, the ability to formulate plans and put them rapidly into action, to rethink the future of the world, our common home, and to reassess our common purpose.’

While Francis was talking about climate change, his words also provide us with inspiration as we seek to overcome the political polarisation that is still prevalent in Northern Ireland, some 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement was reached. In brief, the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist, and the Catholic, Nationalist, Republican communities still vote by and large along sectarian lines; resources such as housing and public amenities are still contested (although this is slowly abating); corruption is common among the political classes; new migrations to the region have resulted in racism; and paramilitarism is endemic within working-class communities. As one of the participants in my current research project commented:

‘it’s too much in our DNA for it to disappear in just 20 years.’

Within working class communities in particular, polarisation is framed in terms of winners and losers of the conflict, with the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist community viewing itself as the loser abandoned by the British state that it had so valiantly fought for.

However, there is an alternative narrative, one of faith-based organisations and churches working to present a different vision of politics and society in which we use the teachings of Christ—and if you’re Roman Catholic the magisterium—to create a picture of society as it should be, and a map to get us there.

How we got here

It is obvious from this description of contemporary Northern Ireland that the world is not as it should be. It is not the way God wants it to be and political, social, economic, and religious relationships in Northern Ireland are broken. As the work of Tearfund and Thrive Ireland so aptly demonstrate broken relationships with ourselves, God, others and wider creation creates the perfect storm of personal and social conditions that leave a society open to political polarisation. In Northern Ireland, this has led to identity being formed primarily through the lens of the political – with identity politics and therefore political polarisation being intensified by high levels of socioeconomic deprivation. This leaves communities vulnerable to control by paramilitary organisations making it harder to move beyond the polarised silos of Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist, Catholic, Nationalist, Republican, and migrant. Yet moving beyond these labels is what is needed to overcome prejudice and see ‘the other’ as truly human. Attitudes are based upon perceptions until real relationships exist. The churches often contribute to such patterns through their own siloed understanding of their role in society and the creation of what one evangelical minister described to me as a ‘turn or burn’ culture, which often holds people of faith back from challenging behaviours that are contrary to gospel teachings.

Where we’re going

But before we can decide or even suggest how to change things, we must envision what a society free from political polarisation looks like—as Francis puts it, ‘to rethink the future of the world’. As a pastor from a deeply divided rural area asked me, ‘if we don’t know what we’re trying to achieve, how can we get there?’

So, here is a very brief outline of my own vision, which is based upon the gospel, Catholic social teaching, and dialogue with religious and secular actors who are working to overcome political polarisation and build a peaceful society.

The dignity of every human person is recognised, meaning that politics is no longer viewed as a venue for competition, but as a means of service to society. As a pastor at an inner-city church said to me, we need to ask ourselves:

‘What does it mean to be made in the image and likeness of God? We need to go back to realising that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God.’

Political and social policy needs to be founded upon the principle of human flourishing; ‘our focus needs to be on enabling people to achieve their God-given potential’ (Street Pastor). Relationships need to be based upon acceptance rather than tolerance. Tolerance is just a way of co-existing, while acceptance is a way of living communally. Finally, churches need to take a lead (and many have already done so) in building a more peaceful society. The minister of an affluent suburban congregation put it this way:

‘Peacebuilding and reaching out across divides should be an expression of the life of the church.’   

What will/should that journey look like?

So, now we have a destination, how are we going to get there? The first thing that we need to do is treat the causes as well as the symptoms of political polarisation. For example, the social and economic deprivation that is leaving communities vulnerable to the identity politics creating political polarisation needs to be addressed at all levels of society through, for example, grassroots-motivated community development work as well as government policy. Everything needs to be adapted to the local social ecology. The work of The Resurgam Trust in Lisburn has shown how a community can transform itself by working in partnership with everyone, from the most marginalised to statutory bodies. As churches and faith-based organisations, we must engage in self-reflection and discernment, rather than assuming that we have all the answers. We must also understand our own broken relationships and seek to fix them through dialogue and relationship building. As Thrive Ireland proposes, we need to listen to God, listen to the community and listen to each other to determine what a community needs. Diane Holt, the Director of Thrive Ireland, suggests that we must:

‘listen with the intent of understanding so that the fears can and will be dealt with; but (this way of listening) also allows people to find out things for themselves.’

Prayer can also be a useful tool in challenging political polarisation, as it changes the person praying as well as the person being prayed for and can shape people’s knowledge and understanding of a situation Such a process of listening and understanding can only occur where strong relationships exist. Most of all, however, we need to remember that this is a long-term process, we won’t necessarily see the final product.

To come back to Pope Francis, political polarisation can be overcome if we take the time to rethink the future of our world and our place in that future. Not only can we provide a vision of that ‘alternative possible future’, but we must also have the resources to guide us on the journey. We need to do this both as individuals and collectively, through our faith institutions, and as a society. But one question must be at the heart of all of this and should animate any action that we take: ‘What is God’s vision for the world?’

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Review of ‘Coming Home: Christian Perspectives on Housing’ edited by Malcolm Brown and Graham Tomlin

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Maria Power praises the new edited volume ‘Coming Home’ for its much-needed theological reflections on housing and homelessness.

Over the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns have taught us just how important our homes are. For those of us who live in cities, our proximity to our neighbours, along with our constant presence at home, has led us to get to know them well. When the first lockdown began in March 2020, we were thrown into a crisis situation with people that we might previously have been on ‘nodding terms’ with. Whilst this has been trying in some circumstances; in others it has been a blessing, and relationships and friendships have formed that have created a new sense of community and a greater sense of place. Through the experience of the pandemic, we’ve come to realise that our homes aren’t just boxes that we retreat to at the end of a long day at work, but rather part of a wider whole. Home is now somewhere we work, educate our children, spend our leisure time, socialise, eat, and rest. More importantly, they are an essential element of our identity—an identity which is not just formed by the physical presence of the building and the way we choose to live in it, but the relationships we form because of it and the ways in which we use it as a base from which to go out into the wider world and build community.

The issue of housing and home, then, has a fundamental impact on our wellbeing. If all is well in our homes, we can flourish. If not, then everything becomes a struggle. Just having an address allows you to do so many things: securing employment, accessing healthcare and educational opportunities, opening a bank account, applying for social welfare, and using the local leisure centre and library, for instance. Homelessness (be it couch surfing, living in your car, or sleeping rough) is much more than the indignity and trauma of not having a place to eat and sleep; it cuts you off from society.

Given the importance of housing and home to our sense of well-being and identity, I have always been perplexed by the lack of theological reflection on the issue. With the notable exception of the work of Tim Gorringe on the built environment, those of us seeking to understand the role that housing and home plays in human dignity and flourishing have little to rely on. That is why the work of Malcolm Brown and Graham Tomlin in editing Coming Home: Christian Perspectives on Housing should be so gratefully received by academics and practitioners alike.

This collection contains ten essays written by contributors who include academics, chaplains, PhD students, and those who have made the theme of housing a fundamental part of their ordained ministry. It ‘deliberately combines contributions from established and well-known theologians and practitioners, and some younger emerging voices.’ (p. xv) Coming Home is one of the outcomes of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community which was established in 2019 following the publication of Welby’s Reimagining Britain in 2018. The goal of this commission and the subsequent publication is worth quoting fully:

The challenge was to think clearly about what a Christian approach to housing might look like. Might it be possible that the light shed by Jesus Christ, the light of the world, into the dark places of housing injustice and poverty, could help us to reimagine what good housing looks like and shine new light on a crisis that has defeated the best efforts of many governments and specialists over the years? Our hope was that a Christian view on housing would inform our further proposals to government, the wider Church and diocese and to the local church. (p. xvi)

This collection of essays, therefore, has laudably high aims. And, for the most part, it achieves those aims. Between them, the ten essays included in this book begin some much-needed theological reflection on the issue of housing and home–though they represent a starting point rather than an end point in the discussion. Two essays in particular stand out.

The first, by theologian Tim Gorringe, offers ‘Theological Priorities for Housing’, which ties the issue at hand to the very foundation of faith—the Bible. In this essay, he starts by showing us how crucial the issue of home and the built environment is to Christian faith. The fundamental importance of home therefore has implications for the built environment. And he lists six theological priorities for the building of houses: sustainability, justice, community, empowerment, beauty, and life. The most striking argument he makes is also the most obvious, but it bears repetition nonetheless:

We have to ask what vision of society we want our buildings to embody, and what materials we ought to use. The question “how should we build?” implies a vision of society as a whole. Human ecology is part of planetary ecology. This means that questions about building cannot be divorced from questions of culture, politics and spirituality. (p. 20)

The key here is the issue of imagination and the creation of alternative possible futures, not only for ourselves as individuals but also for society as a whole. Such work cannot be left to policymakers alone; Christians, too, ought to become more involved in shaping society. Only through such involvement can the kingdom become a reality.

The second essay, by Niamh Colbrook, considers ‘The Integrity of Creatureliness: Materiality, Flourishing, and Housing’. As a PhD student, Colbrook is one of the emerging voices referred to by Brown and Tomlin in their introduction. Her essay is a model of good public theology, offering a blend of insights from the social sciences with theological reflection through the lens of creaturely integrity. She concludes with suggestions to help Christians discern their response to the housing crisis. Her argument relating housing to flourishing is particularly helpful:

The housing crisis, then, brings us face-to-face with the systematic inequalities that impede flourishing both in the short- and long-term, and their emergence in and through our relationship with our material environments. (p. 110)

This is an accessible and inspiring collection of essays, which encourages us to take responsibility for developing solutions to the housing crisis. I hope that it is widely read and considered, both by policymakers and by local parish communities.

Dr Maria Power is a Senior Research Fellow in Human Dignity at the Las Casas Institute for Social Justice, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation. Maria is currently researching the role that housing and urban regeneration can play in peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.

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Review of ‘The Ethics of Encounter’ by Marcus Mescher

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Dr Maria Power, honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation, finds much to recommend in Marcus Mescher’s recent contribution to Catholic social teaching.

When Francis succeeded Benedict XVI as pope in 2013, Catholics understood that we were witnessing the start of a new era in the church. Francis, although of Italian heritage, is a Latin American Jesuit who is deeply embedded within the theological traditions of the region. He is also a man of agile intellect who draws upon his experiences of ministering to some of the most marginalised people in the world in the preparation of his teachings. For many conservatives Francis has been a frustrating, and even alienating, pope. He has set about reforming the church with gusto, most notably appointing women to key decision-making roles. Furthermore, he has oriented the church firmly towards a theology of mercy, for instance in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, declaring the death penalty to be contrary to church teaching. In Marcus Mescher’s The Ethics of Encounter, we have an excellent example of how Francis’s teachings should be put into practice.

Whilst Francis’s institutional reforms have been gratifying for mainstream Catholics, it is his development of the church’s Catholic social teaching that has given the most cause for hope.  In doing so he has energised the faithful by moving away from the academic, and at times dry, approach of Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II, to a style of teaching which clearly shows Catholics how they are expected to live. Gone is the idea that the afterlife is the main focus of Catholic faith. It is now made clear to Catholics that the creation of the Kingdom on earth is just as important as salvation. Consequently, one of Francis’s most important teachings has been the ethics of encounter, and in Mescher’s book we are provided with a superb contextualisation of this concept for the United States of America. Whilst we need monographs outlining the content of the teachings, we now need to be shown how to live them; and this book is an excellent demonstration of how Catholic social teaching should be used by Catholics and studied by academics.

Mescher defines the relevance and importance of encounter thus:

Each encounter is […] an opportunity to become more attentive and responsive to God who is both transcendent […] and immanent. […] Coming face-to-face with another person is an encounter with someone “wonderfully made” in the “image and likeness” of God. In this way, encounters are sacraments – visible signs of God’s grace – such that encountering another person not only reveals the sacred in our midst but also bears an inexhaustible potential for greater discovery. […] When we encounter others, we encounter God. […] Every encounter involves a choice: to engage or ignore, to accept or reject. (p. 11)

In five substantive chapters, he guides us through the practice of the ethics of encounter. He starts, as Catholic social teaching expects, by defining the problem, showing how American society is more divided than it has ever been—in part as a result of the ‘networked self’ resulting from digital technology. The second chapter, in common with Fratelli Tutti, offers a meditation on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable guides us through the theology of neighbour that underpins the ethic of encounter. Mescher shows us how we can use the religious or prophetic imaginary to discern how to meet Christ in the other. The third chapter takes Gustavo Gutiérrez’s emphasis on friendship as its basis because ‘Gutiérrez’s emphasis on friendship provides a practical framework for assessing the moral demands of solidarity’ (p. 22). Chapter four deals with the virtues necessary to practice the ethics of encounter. These include courage, mercy, generosity, and humility. The final chapter uses the case study of Father Greg Boyle SJ’s Homeboy Industries to show how individuals and communities can be transformed by encounters which acknowledge the God-given dignity of every human being. Through the use of such a case study we are shown how even those believed to live on the extreme edges of society can be transformed by God’s love.

The Ethics of Encounter is everything writing on Catholic social teaching should be. It is grounded in the gospel, the Magisterium, and the lived experience of the kind of mercy that can truly transform lives. This book provides a method that can, and should be, replicated in other contexts, such as the United Kingdom. Many people mistake the encyclicals for guidebooks or roadmaps. This is not the case. Each encyclical has to be contextualised for a particular situation. Unfortunately, much of the current literature on Catholic social teaching fails to do this. However, The Ethics of Encounter takes one of the most important church teachings of the 21st century and demonstrates how people of good will should integrate it into their lives. In doing so, Mescher has provided us with what I’m sure will become a classic in the field of Catholic social teaching.

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