I was at Skainos last Thursday night for the “Listening to Your Enemies” event, part of the 4 Corners Festival. There were many profound moments, which others have blogged about effectively elsewhere (links below)
Let me put on record a couple of things which occur to me. First, I was deeply impressed that so many people, unfamiliar with the area and unaccustomed to protest, who walked through the demonstration to attend the meeting. Second, there were more people inside the building than outside. Third, at least as profound as anything said on the platform were the stories shared from the floor, and all were sensitively and gently handled by Lesley Carroll, the Chair. Fourth, I am passionately committed to these kind of events and to the process of listening to those with whom we disagree.
So why am I still uneasy?
Perhaps one reason is that whilst by some measures the event was a success it was not good for the community of Inner East Belfast. It wasn’t good because of the media coverage, it wasn’t good because of the violence and threatening behavior, it wasn’t good because it stirred up tensions and enmity which, whilst it is always there, managed to burst through the thin crust of civility last Thursday.
And for what?
One local resident said to me, and it cut because she has a point, that I, and many of those who attended, don’t have to live with the consequences of the event. I can leave with the memory of a stirring occasion and a great story to tell. Don’t get me wrong, it took courage to come to Skainos for many who attended. Real courage. Their attendance is significant. But what can be done to ensure that events like these don’t simply become another type of troubles tourism?
The other thing for me is that in a sense Thursday night was easy to attend. The two speakers were articulate and thoughtful. They had considered stories to recount and did so eloquently. Even the things which were difficult to hear were told coherently.
After they had left the building I accompanied Dr John Kyle across the road to the protesters, to inform them that the event was over. I was there simply as wingman for John, who bravely sought to engage those outside the Bethany. The anger he encountered was vivid, real and deep. It was so deep as to be incoherent. There was nothing that was easy to hear, and not a thing said in a considered or intelligible way.
I found myself wondering about that. What would the meeting inside the building have been like if the protesters had the stage? And how many of those who were inside would have attended such an event?
And this is the crux I think. Those outside have no advocates that we can hear or understand. They have no voice other than incoherent rage. They are the least respectable aspect of our community because they don’t conform to the social norms.
I’m primarily a theologian who tries to think theologically about what I encounter. I’ve written about this form of advocacy before on this blog. Of how in Exodus chp 1 an enslaved people speak only in incoherent groans and who are acted up0n by the powerful who are the only ones with a voice in the narrative. And it is their groans that God hears.
It strikes me that if our Gospel calling is to give a voice to the voiceless then it means not just attending events like ‘Listening to Your Enemy’ but also to finding ways of listening to the protesters.
But it might mean even more, and that is actually standing with them to help them find a voice, or maybe even being that voice in what is currently a wilderness.