'Distorted Christian Theology Is What Generated the Holocaust'

The Church has a blood-drenched, barbaric past, says Rev. Gary Mason, a leader of the Northern Ireland reconciliation movement. But religious leaders can be agents of healing, too

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Rev. Gary Mason.
Rev. Gary Mason.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, lives in Belfast, a leader of the reconciliation movement in Northern Ireland. Where: The lobby of his hotel in Tel Aviv. When: Wednesday, 12 noon

You were a little boy when the “Troubles” began in Northern Ireland. What do you remember from that time?

When I was a very little boy, there was still a certain amount of integration in Belfast. On the small street where I grew up, in a Protestant-Unionist neighborhood, there were also a few Catholic families. By the end of the 1960s, that had changed. People were forced to leave their homes. Each side closed itself off in neighborhoods of their own. When evening fell, the bombs started. As a boy, I knew that every night when I went to sleep I would hear bombs and gunshots. I also knew that when they said on the news that someone had been killed [on one side], within a few hours we would hear about someone being killed on the other side. I think that to children of my generation, it seemed perfectly natural for people to have to or want to choose the path of political violence and terror.

As a youth, were you approached to join a militia?

Of course. I absolutely remember one night, when I was a boy, how friends of mine entered a certain room together. I knew why.

Why didn’t you join them?

I don’t know why I didn’t. There are probably a lot of sociological, psychological, theological explanations. I saw how people were pushed into making dreadful decisions. I have a friend who told me that he goes to sleep every night with the faces of the people he killed. When I go to sleep I get into bed with a book. No faces haunt me.

I came across a quote of yours to the effect that “decommissioning our minds is even more important than decommissioning our guns.”

Right. You can always get another gun. It’s words and not guns that created our world; it’s thoughts and beliefs that generated anti-Semitism, racial and religious segregation. I was taught from birth that Catholics drown Protestants [referring to a massacre perpetrated in 1641 at what is now Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland]. On the other side, Catholic children grew up with the image of Oliver Cromwell and his army plunging spears into the hearts of Protestants. So the only truly important question in conflicts is what we do now, how we cope with the past and stop transmitting the pain from one generation to the next.

Israeli soldiers, on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip watch Palestinian protesters, May 14, 2018.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

That’s not easy when you’ve grown up with an “us versus the enemy” narrative. In this context, the identification of the sides in Ireland with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very interesting: There are Palestinian flags flying in the streets of Belfast.

In general, the Protestants in Northern Ireland support the Israelis, while the Catholics back the Palestinians. We host a lot delegations of Israelis in Belfast, and they’re stunned when they see the Palestinian flags. The Catholics and the IRA see themselves as being under occupation, like the Palestinians. They also maintained relations with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] in the early 1970s.

Now, if you ask Catholic Republicans what happened in Northern Ireland, they’ll claim that the war broke out when the British Army went into the streets. The Protestants will claim that it took place because the IRA tore Belfast to pieces with bombs, and body parts were hurled into the streets. You’re familiar with that here, in Israel, exactly as I am. Thirty-thousand political prisoners passed through our penal system. Since all those prisoners were released, in the wake of the agreement [the 1998 Good Friday Agreement], only 3 percent of them have broken the law again.

So you have to ask yourself: Are those people psychotics, or were they motivated by what they saw as injustice and systemic weakness in the face of the killings and the assault on their community? I think of it in terms of people who made horrible decisions for the supposedly right reasons. The question is, how to cope with it. How to cope with what we did to each other? In the end, people have to live with the fact that the person who murdered their father or their son is walking about free, and they may see him on the street.

It’s somewhat similar to the situation in Rwanda. After the genocide, people had to reconcile with neighbors who had massacred their families.

I once heard a bishop from Rwanda who belonged to the reconciliation forces talk about the process. I admit that I’m unable to comprehend how it worked there. How there were no more murders. Even in our context, I’m not sure I understand how the killing simply stopped.

What’s interesting in your peace agreement is that it was accepted with the full cooperation of the people, not over their heads. Everyone got to speak his piece and take part in the discussions, even terrorists.

That’s the difference between a political peace process and a social peace process, and that’s what I’ve come to Israel to talk about. [Mason, the founder of an organization called Rethinking Conflict, was in Israel as part of a series of events intended to present new approaches to conflict resolution.] Civil society in Northern Ireland feels ownership and partnership over the agreement; from their point of view it’s not something that the politicians arranged over their heads. Even though what happened with us is what sociologists call “second-choice peace,” meaning that in the process itself, none of the sides got exactly what it wanted.

And that’s also part of the criticism of the agreement. Even now, there are powerful tensions, and physical separation between the communities. Brexit also seems to have jolted the status quo.

Fundamentally, our society is still divided. The agreement we reached is far from perfect. Even today, 20 years after the agreement was signed, 90 percent of the people continue to live in segregated neighborhoods. That’s part of the city. But what is changing is that there are more and more marriages between the sides. Brexit rocked Northern Ireland, which has effectively been run without a government for the past 14 months. . There are tensions, even after the agreement.

Maybe it’s impossible to leave the past behind.

The British Army in front of a burning building in the streets during the riots of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in August 1969 in the United Kingdom. Credit: Fondation Gilles CARON / Gamma-R

I have a sociologist friend named John Brewer who uses the phrase “remembering forward”; he likens it to observation through a car’s rearview mirror. Anyone who drives a car and looks only through the rearview mirror ends up crashing. The problem of many societies that are caught up in conflict is that they look only through that mirror. Of course, we don’t want to deny the past, but we also don’t want to live in it.

The past is used to justify positions in the present and the future.

We all learned the history, it’s imprinted upon us. We all know what happened, where and when, and it’s always couched in terms of “what was done to me.” Never what I did to the other side.

I’m not saying that people should be denied their historical narratives – because that’s what shapes them as people. But when the historical narrative drags me backward and prevents me from moving ahead, we need to think about what to do. In the words of my friend: how to remember forward and not backward, to recreate the narrative, such that there will be recognition of the past, but without allowing it to control and determine the future.

‘Theological virulence’

In this sense, Israel is built on the memory of the past. The legacy is post-traumatic stress disorder: Attempts were made to annihilate us in the past, and more attempts will be made in the future. We are a persecuted nation, we always were and we always will be.

In this context, I am critical of the Church, even though I am part of it. Distorted Christian theology is what generated the Holocaust. What Hitler did was to take Christian religious anti-Semitism and turn it into racist Nazi anti-Semitism.

That is a far-reaching allegation, coming from a clergyman.

The Church was saturated with anti-Semitism. In Moldova, at the beginning of the 20th century, priests led marches in the streets and called for the killing of Jews. The Church has a blood-drenched, barbaric past. The Church has many things to its credit, but these things are to its discredit.

I know that Jews and Israelis feel threatened and persecuted, and I think the Church has a part in this. I’ve read hundreds of books about the Holocaust. I think that I have a good understanding of how the narrative of Jewish and Israeli thought was shaped, and that the contemporary Christian Church does not recognize the contaminated theology that shaped that narrative. By the way, I also don’t think that the war in Northern Ireland was a religious war.

What was it, then?

I would say that bad theology shaped the mentality and the way of life such that it also swept up completely secular people. In my view, there are religious leaders who need to ask themselves what role they played in this. I believe that the reason of reasons was not religious belief but an in-built difficulty between the two communities, which was nurtured and intensified by the theological virulence, to the point where a narrative of religious war was fomented. At the beginning of the 1990s, there were actually three major conflicts: the Israeli-Palestinian, South Africa and Northern Ireland. The prevailing assumption was that Israel and South Africa would reach agreements in the near future, while the Northern Ireland conflict was irresolvable. Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill maintained that there was no prospect of resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland. Both were wrong. In the end, it turned out that with proper leadership, it’s possible.

A chilling message from the Ulster Vounteer Force on a mural in North Belfast, Northern Ireland, Sept 14, 2005. Credit: AP

It’s doubtful that what’s happening in Israel now can be called proper leadership. There’s no leadership at all.

Our agreement was achieved through 99 percent persistence and stubbornness, and 1 percent intelligence. Everyone knew what the issues were. Here in Israel, too, everyone knows what the issues are. There’s not going to be some genius who says, “Hey, just a minute, I have an idea that no one’s ever thought of.” The question is whether it is possible to live here together, or if we just go on killing one another.

I think the understanding that exists here is that this is the situation, that there is no solution and no choice but to continue paying the price. The conflict in Israel is a non-issue; stop looking for ways to solve it.

Not long ago, I read statistics stating that if we hadn’t terminated the [Northern Ireland] conflict, another 2,400 people would have paid with their lives.

That’s a huge number, relative to the size of the population.

For a population of a million-and-a-half people at the time, the numbers are: 47,000 wounded, 36,000 cases of gunfire, 22,000 armed robberies, 16,000 bombs, 30,000 security prisoners and 4,000 deaths.

Victims, some of whom you knew well.

You know, I never took psychiatric medication, but I think that I suffer from secondary PTSD. In October 1993, less than a mile from my church, an attack took place that would become known as the Shankill Road bombing. Eight innocent people were killed, and many more were wounded. When I visited the hospital, I met a fellow from my congregation who’d lost his wife that night. I had married them. Her name was Sharon McBride. She and her father were killed in the attack. Another woman was killed, too, Wilma McKee. On Friday she received the news she’d been waiting for so eagerly – that she was cancer-free. On Saturday she was killed.

Twenty-five years have passed since that night, and if I close my eyes I can still tell you the exact shade of the wall in the hospital corridor. The pain and the horror of that night will stay with me until the day I die. After that attack, a friend and I had to stop a group of Protestants who were planning to enter a Catholic church with firearms and simply mow down everyone there, in revenge. We cajoled. We talked. We even begged. In the end they didn’t carry out a large-scale attack, but they killed two Catholics.

After seeing so much bloodshed, you took an active part in the peace process as one of 12 religious leaders.

We all worked in a field in which people were being killed on a daily basis, and everyone knew who killed them and why. There was a great fear that all the people who were making an effort to achieve the agreement would change their minds and back off. We needed to identify where there was potential for violence and take action to suppress it. All along, we spoke with people, asked them if they had intentions of doing something; we deepened and consolidated the personal relations with them. It was amazingly complicated, because there were disagreements even within the camps themselves. There were some who felt that these things were being forced on them and wanted to respond by murdering people.

Murdering people from their own side.

Yes. The night before a funeral service that I was to perform, of a person from our congregation who’d been murdered by a member of another congregation, I received calls saying that there were intentions to try to stop the funeral and attack the participants. I went to try to appease people whom I knew were enemies of the deceased. I explained to them that throughout the whole history of the conflict no religious leader had ever been forced to stop a funeral. I told them that I might soon have to bury one of them. After all, that wasn’t an imaginary scenario. What would their family feel then? It was a long, hard talk, but in the end they acceded. That’s the advantage religious leaders have over political leaders: We have moral authority and close relations with people whom we accompany from their infancy.

Rev. Gary Mason. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

While you yourselves stand on both sides of the barrier.

I think we had a deep understanding that we need to create a moral frame of reference for this whole conflict, because there’s no better way if you’re trying to persuade terrorists to lay down their arms.

Religion has to be transformed from the bone of contention to the bridge of reconciliation.

Yes. The first step is to make the enemy human. [The philosopher] David Livingstone Smith has said that genocide is preceded by dehumanization.

That’s a lesson the Jews learned from their own cruel experience.

The Jews underwent a process of systematic dehumanization whose end result was genocide, and we are sitting in a room with people from whose point of view those on the other side were not human beings. Someone once told me that he heard an extreme religious speech, which made him feel that God was inside him. I replied that it certainly wasn’t a religious speech, because that speech had driven him to murder two people. I think that the religious leaders in Northern Ireland, as in Israel, have an obligation to their publics to choose their words carefully, to spread messages of healing, not divisiveness and escalation.

What I hear most when I speak to my Israeli friends is hopelessness. They believe that there is no real chance to rectify or improve the situation. I believe that one of the things that was critical to the process in Northern Ireland was that the leaders visited South Africa in the 1990s. Of course, they didn’t return with a recipe for success, just as I don’t think it’s possible to take our agreement as a model to resolve the conflict in Israel. But they came back with hope, and when they started to speak in the language of hope in the public space, civil society, too, gradually started to believe that there might be hope.

In Israel, it’s customary to treat people who express hope for a solution of the conflict as if they’re naive or detached from reality.

I know. I have Israeli friends from every corner of the political map. I also know that the last thing you need is for some character from Belfast to come and lecture you as if he knows everything. I don’t know everything. I don’t even know if what I do know can be of help. I’ll be happy if you use my words in any way you see fit, because I think Israeli society needs – for the sake of your children, for the sake of your children’s children – a narrative of hope. I think you want to know that they will grow up in a space of peace and tranquility. I think that’s what everyone wants – Israelis, Palestinians, Irish, Africans.

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