I stood in the little Elim Pentecostal Church in Darkley, South Armagh, perhaps 15 years after the killing of three of the church’s elders and the wounding of seven of the congregation during the Sunday evening service on November 20, 1983.
There were no bullet pockmarks in the walls for a fine new building was opened in 1994, but it was such a terrible atrocity that even with the smell of fresh paint it was hard not to find myself imagining the mixture of fear and panic and confusion that reigned that otherwise quiet early winter evening.
No one would ever have thought that any terrorist organisation could stoop so low as to attack innocent men, women and children as they prayed and worshipped. Even now, some of the locals suspect that the evil and inept murderous twosome was misled by the name of the place: the Mountain Lodge.‘Perhaps they thought it was an Orange Lodge Hall,’ suggested one survivor.
We saw the same despicable phenomenon last week as nine worshippers were cut down in a black community church in Charleston, South Carolina, when 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire after sitting in the church for nearly an hour as a pseudo worshipper.
What makes people kill those whom they don’t know, people that even they agree are innocent? But do they really believe that the targets of their hatred are innocent? Could it be that they are driven by fear that they might lose something they believe is valuable? Could the young white man be fearful that the black community is somehow threatening his white way of life and that his culture, his beliefs and values will be diluted by a malicious black peril?
I think of a young friend who joined one of the main political parties in Northern Ireland. The leader of the interviewing panel said to him: ‘I have no problem believing that we could live with you, but can you live with us?’
And the young man said this: ‘I could live with you so long as you understand that I have no interest in marching bands, in flags and emblems, and the border to me is unimportant.’ And the reason he could make that statement honestly he summed up in his closing sentence: ‘I take my lead from Jesus, who said: “My kingdom is not of this world.”’
Interestingly, the words of the Master were picked up by none other than Karl Marx when he referred to the root cause of racism as the ‘idiocy of nationalism’.
If we could learn to love one another on this tiny piece of land, to value those with whom we do not necessarily agree, what a powerful message of hope we could send out across the world. But when Jesus said: ‘A new commandment I give you: love your neighbour as yourself’, he revealed a kernel of wisdom that few pick up: if you do not love and respect yourself, then you’re not going to be able to love others.
And how are we supposed to love and respect ourselves? Well, allow me to suggest that if God loves you, how dare you not? Therefore, the first prerequisite to value and loving those around us, to respecting and loving ourselves, is to embrace this simple if incomprehensible statement from the Creator of the universe: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’