When I Was A Boy In Belfast

belfast_aerial Many of my posts are responsive. I hear about an event or incident or encounter an argument and I respond on my blog with my thoughts. This is not one of those posts.

This post is a love letter to my favourite city in the world, Belfast.

Sometimes it’s easy to talk about Belfast. And sometimes it’s very hard. There’s much about the city to love. My mother’s family calls Belfast and the surrounding suburbs and villages home, and as a child I would spend days, weeks, sometimes a month or more there at a time. Travelling between my home in the Republic of Ireland and my family’s home in Northern Ireland presented challenges of its own, but I always loved Belfast. I loved the perfume of salt and briny sea mingled with the steel and oil of the Harland and Wolff shipyards. Coloured boats dotting the sea, people yelling with strange tongues wearing stranger clothes, the regal facades of the old municipal buildings, the severity of the church architecture, the life and colour and vibrancy of the gypsy enclaves, and the music, oh the music and the dancing and the laughter and the craic. Belfast was beatha, an baile, an gra.

But none of us ever forget that Belfast is a city defined by conflict. Even today when you walk through the city you walk along the peace lines, walls erected in 1969 to separate the warring Catholic and Protestant factions. The Troubles murals glare down at you, fierce and fresh and plastered in pain and loss. Belfast as a child was life, and it was death. It was pipe bombs and barbed wire. It was empty beds and blood in the gutters, shattered windows and shattered kneecaps. Belfast was Protestant gangs breaking the windows of Catholic boarding schools and throwing in firecrackers and cherry bombs, laughing and hooting at the screams of the young girls inside. Belfast was graffiti spray painted across a door, calling for the death of this tribe or that religion or this political ideology. Belfast was a blast of hot air and shrapnel flying through the streets. It was the cold bead of ice in your stomach when you went to the market for milk and fish and bread and you wondered Am I going to turn a corner and die because someone with a religious-political grudge wants to make a statement?

belfast falls road murals2

Belfast and its people are a seed that fell into the mud from the hands of empire and took root. Trampled and ignored and dismissed until new growth took hold and a strong sapling stood in the soil and the world asked where did that come from?

Belfast is bullet holes and new trees, three hundred years of war and sixteen years of peace.

My life in the city, among the Irish and the British and the Romani, taught me so many lessons, but three of them have stayed with me stronger than the others.

Belfast taught me about Church.

“There’s only two sacraments a Protestant needs,” said a deacon to a relative when I was within earshot. “A bullet in the left knee and a bullet in the right.”

I was seven or eight years old but the lesson stuck with me. I was Catholic. That was good. Protestants are bad. They are the enemy. They are not Us.

ygtz8S0But my mother is a Protestant, I couldn’t help but think. And my sisters, and my grandmum isn’t even Christian. But they were the good kind of Protestants, so I thought. They were in America already. They weren’t the Protestants who marched through the Catholic neighbourhoods with war chants and banners. They were fine.

I hoped.

Red letters were scrawled on the walls with lurid paint as I walked from the bus station to a dance competition. KAT KAT KAT!

Kill All Taigs, Kill All Taigs, Kill All Taigs.

I was a Taig, because a Taig was a Catholic. They wanted to Kill All Taigs and I knew they meant me. The deacon was right. Protestants were bad, and dangerous, and they would kill you if they could.

Then one bright afternoon the bomb went off in Omagh and twenty-nine people were dead in the streets and it was Catholics, it was Catholics who set off the bomb and oh gods there was nowhere to go and we weren’t safe. And some churches were ashamed and some were furious and some ignored it and a few were quietly pleased.

I was ten years old.SONY DSC

Belfast taught me about Church. It taught me that I wasn’t safe.

Belfast taught me about heresy.

Someone I knew as a very young man was raped by a Catholic clergyman. I didn’t find out until years after the fact, when the family was moving away and the victim’s brother whispered to me that there was a counselor in Dublin who would help his brother because someone had done something to him and he was a faggot now. But the person who had…done things had moved. Where to, he didn’t know, but he didn’t go to jail or anything, he said. The family was too ashamed and the parish wouldn’t – couldn’t – didn’t let it get out.

I was thirteen years old.

clonard new facade bright sky 1 mediumI went to someone I trusted. Someone in the church, even though I no longer considered myself to be a part of the church. I told him what I knew. I told him how angry I was. I told him I wanted to do something, I don’t know what, something. Something to make them pay for hurting my friend’s brother, because I knew what it was like and how could they let someone get away with doing that to a fecking kid?

I received a lesson in forgiveness. About why we are called to forgive others. About why it’s best to leave somethings in the past and give forgiveness for transgressions, because when we don’t forgive others we are not forgiven ourselves, and are outside the fold of the Good Shepherd.

I didn’t forgive. I walked straight out of that fold.

And soon after I stood in front of a church building in Belfast much later at night than I was technically allowed to be out. It was late, no one was around, but there were lights inside the building and the stained-glass glowed like so many crystal jewels. The Virgin was staring down at me, her face soft and hands folded and eyes dark like coals. There were angels and apostles too, I think, but I remember her most of all,

In my hand, I held half a brick. I stared, and she stared back, and rage pounded through my temples, and she stayed serene and I raised my fist and hers was already raised.

As I held the brick up, my imagination gave her a voice in my head. Turn the other cheek. Let him who has no sin cast the first stone. Forgive, forgive, forgive.

I threw the brick.

And in my rage and my spite and the dark of the night, I missed. The brick broke apart against the stone wall and the crack echoed through the night and I ran as fast as my legs could carry me back home.

I’ve learned my lesson about vandalism and the willful destruction of property since then. I’ve learned how to turn anger into activism, rage into resolution, But on that cold night, if my emotions were given power, a hundred thousand churches around the world would have been nothing but smoking craters.

And in my darkest, most honest moments…I’m glad I threw the brick.

Belfast taught me that it doesn’t matter who you defend or what you believe. You’re always going to be a heretic to someone.

Belfast taught me about grace.

Grace: n, (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

I recently had two separate conversations with Christian authors Rachel Held Evans and Benjamin Corey. They covered whether or not all sins were equal in Christianity, what made or didn’t make a True Christian, what the definition of Christian even is, and why it matters. They gave me good thoughts, explained some of their Christian doctrine with patience and good humour and I got some varied and quite diverse opinions.

(Except when I quoted a verse from the book of Romans, then was the response was identical literally verbatim, Look at you quoting your Bible!, thank you, thank you, it’s my best parlour trick).

Thinking of the Christians I had grown up with, the best and the worst, I led up to the question ‘Can a person be a Christian and a terrorist?’ After all, if a person can lie, cheat, steal, gossip, covet, and lust while remaining a true, if imperfect, Christian, why does that not apply to the worst of sins -murder, destruction, and terror? In this, Rachel and Ben were both in agreement. There are some things that exclude an individual from being a follower of Jesus, even if they claim otherwise. While I define a true Christian as someone who claims and believes in the label, they were in disagreement.

It didn’t change my opinion, or theirs, but that wasn’t an expectation between any of us. However, as I thought more on the conversation, the question I didn’t ask continued to nag at me.

What if you’re wrong?

What if a terrorist really is a Christian? What if the grace Christians so fervently believe in, the gift they want everyone to receive, is something a terrorist can already possess?

What if grace doesn’t just apply to the blogger who belittles you and insults you online, or the abusive pastor who disdains and degrades women, or the person with a voice and authourity who actively hurts an already wounded community? What if grace means that a person who is so twisted and perverted by his religion and his politics that he leaves children lying in pieces in a bombed out street has received grace? What if he’s already at the table? What if it doesn’t matter?

Does that cheapen grace, if its given to the worst of us even when every synapse in our brain says ‘no, no, not him, anyone but him, look at who he is, look at what he’s DONE!’ Or does it enrich it?

I don’t believe in deities, and that’s not going to change any time soon. I don’t believe in church or Church. I don’t believe in sins or the forgiveness of them, I don’t believe in salvation or the eternal soul or heaven or hell.index

But sometimes I almost think that I believe in grace.

I believe in grace because I love Belfast, and more important I love it’s people. All of them. We are flawed, tribal, broken and healed time and time again and I can’t help them love them.

I believe in grace because I’m still a thirteen year old boy filled with hatred and anger, but there are fingers who are prying the brick out of my hand and some of those fingers belong to the religion I’m so angry at.

Belfast taught me about grace because it showed me grace, and showed me how to give it.

Belfast. Béal Feirste. Mother to a godless, grace-filled heretic, and I couldn’t be more proud of it.

Also we have Game of Thrones, so #winning.


The Spirit of Driscoll Lives On in the Bullying of Others


The Man has fallen.

If you’re at all active in the religious blogospheres, you know who I’m speaking about. In a move that surprised his church elders and absolutely no one else, Mark Driscoll has stepped down from his position as lead pastor of the Mars Hill Church industry. Haunted by a string of accusations ranging from plagairism to spiritual abuse to misappropriation of church funds, Driscoll stated in his resignation letter that he believed that stepping down was for the good of his family and his ministry. Coincidentally, the board that he personally appointed also found that none of his actions excluded him from ministry in the future, so The Return of the Dudebro Pastor might already be in preproduction.

The reactions to Driscoll’s resignation haven’t been a surprise. There are those who are satisfied and relieved by his fall, and those who argue that people shouldn’t be satisfied and relieved. There are those who finally feel like their years of abuse and hurt are vindicated, and those who insist Driscoll’s victims should be working on forgiving him.

But my purpose here isn’t to gloat about Driscoll’s downfall (I did that privately with a few shots of Jameson), or to again reiterate his long list of offences. It’s to focus on whether Driscoll’s departure from Mars Hill Church matters in the long run. Was it a victory? Was it a step forward? Does it really make a difference?

After deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that it does. And it doesn’t.

Which is maddeningly unhelpful, I know.

With a congregation of tens of thousands and a Twitter following of almost half a million, Driscoll was an extremely popular and well-known face of the misogynistic, homophobic, dudebro, Jesus-was-armed-and-dangerous Calvinistic movement. The loss of such a charismatic and dynamic leader (whatever you may think of him, Driscoll was both these things) is a large blow to his brand. But the legacy of Driscoll has hardly disappeared with his face. Driscoll trained pastors. He trained men to be rude like him, crude like him, bully others like him, put people down and shame them like him. This method of ministry has leaked out into the Christian world, and the Spirit of Driscoll is evident every time you watch Christians interact on the internet.

I saw this occur two days ago with a Twitter user who goes by the handle of @kingjimmy1982. He also blogs here. Two days ago, Jimmy was debating the role of patriarchy in Christianity with another individual. Frustrated that his opponent didn’t immediately reverse his position when confronted with the fact that not everyone agreed, Jimmy had this to say.

“it’s gotta stink making a living running your mouth and speaking do ignorantly. Seriously, go get a real job”

Now, of course, it’s not bullying to accuse someone of ignorance, provided that you can back up your claims. It is, however, bullying to put someone down, mock them, or harass them for their chosen occupation. When I pointed out Jimmy’s bullying behaviour and rather sarcastically pointed out that it was completely without the grace and humility that Christians are supposed to act with, Jimmy said – in all seriousness – “I’m proud of my humility. Thanks!”

It was followed by an appeal to the Christian persecution complex when he sarcastically thanked me for not judging him.

It’s a typical Christian attitude. Anything I say is in the Spirit of Christ as long as I personally say it is, in not so many words. And remember, mocking and putting someone down for their career isn’t bullying but calling it out as such is taking the low road and being judgemental

However, the interaction soon leveled up in both aggression and bizarreness when Jimmy proceeded to accuse me of calling him out on bullying solely because the individual he attacked ‘appeared gay.’

This was, of course, very reminiscent of the now infamous Mark Driscoll Facebook post where he called upon his followers to mock effeminate-appearing worship leaders. When I remarked on the homophobic nature of judging people as ‘looking gay,’ Jimmy quickly backpedaled, claiming that it wasn’t that he looked gay, but that he seemed to be gay because he supported LGBT rights. I pointed out that by his logic, 54% of the nation is gay, to which he responded that the individual was more supportive of LGBT rights than most people. So he’s gay.

Or something.

Whether the individual in question was gay, bi, trans, asexual, etc. is entirely beyond the point. The spirit in which Jimmy claimed that my accusations of bullying only reflected the gay way that the individual looked is textbook Christian anti-gay bigotry, and his back-pedalling was just an attempt to put himself in the clear when called out on it. Jimmy went on into a tirade against public speaking as a career, people who stand against bullying LGBT people, how Catholics aren’t ‘real Christians,’ and rounded it off to an appeal of how persecuted Christians feel.

So yes, an interesting and enlightening interaction.

But the sucker-punch has yet to be delivered. As a testament to the power of irony and the sheer audacity of Christian hypocrisy, moments before Jimmy delivered his first insulting and bullying tweet, he was tweeting about Mark Driscoll and how he was no longer above reproach and therefore unfit for ministry.

The disconnect here is just…astonishing. That so many Christians can preach a message of accountability and responsibility and then refuse to live it out themselves. Their judgement, their accusations, their call to accountability is reserved for others, not themselves. The Spirit of Mark Driscoll, the spirit that bullies, mocks, and then attempts to admonish others is alive and well. There’s a common Bible verse about specks and planks that’s almost too cliche to even mention here.

In the end, @KingJimmy1982 is one man on Twitter who has a blog. He has demonstrated himself to be both a bully and anti-gay, but in the end he’s just one man. So again I ask the question: Does it matter?

I say, with complete confidence, that yes it does. It matters because people hear these words. They affect people. They hurt people. They foster a culture of spiritual abuse and no personal accountability. It matters when people call others out on their bullying. It matters when people stand up and say ‘No, I will not let this go unchallenged.’

It matters.

Atheists, it’s important for us to stand up against the abuse and bullying utilised by Christians. But to those Christians who actually care about others and the effect your church has on them, it’s even more important to hear from you. People like Jimmy, like Driscoll, always need to be confronted. They always need to be called out. And Christians have an additional calling to do so because this is your tribe.

It’s time for you to step up and clean house, or you will continue to be understandably perceived as an abusive, uncaring, bullying community.