No matter who you talk to in the political landscape of Northern Ireland there’s a good chance they’ll tell you Martin Luther King, Jr. would be on their side. Nationalists have long associated themselves with King because of the civil rights movement. In Republican areas murals of King can be found on walls alongside other iconic figures. Interestingly, King’s name has also started to be mentioned by Unionists and Loyalists as an example of someone who used civil disobedience to protest against laws he believed were unjust, albeit in different circumstances. Perhaps they are also aware King was a Protestant minister, and King’s father (known as Martin Luther King, Sr. or ‘Daddy King’) changed both his own name and his son’s name as a tribute to the father of the Protestant reformation. If so, this will add to the appeal.
In 1967, towards the end of his life, King published the last of his three books about the civil rights movement in the U.S.A., entitled, Where do we go from here: chaos or community? In it King writes:
‘We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.’
The first point to make is that we can safely assume that were King alive today he would have used gender inclusive language.
Secondly, it seems to me that after the violence seen on the streets of Belfast in the past week we could do with asking ourselves the same question as King: Where do we go from here: chaos or community?
Chaos is easy. In fact, if all we want is chaos then we don’t really have to do much at all. We can just keep doing what we’re doing year after year after year. My friend Francis Teeney likes to remind me that Einstein once said: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’
If we want community we are going to have to take a different path. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes ‘community’ like this:
‘In here, in the community, we can relax – we are safe, there are no dangers looming in dark corners (to be sure hardly any ‘corner’ here is dark). In a community, we all understand each other well, we may trust what we hear, we are safe most of the time and hardly ever puzzled or taken aback. We are never strangers to each other.’ (2001: 1-2)
If we want to ‘understand each other well’ and be ‘never strangers to each other’, then things are going to have to change. It’s not impossible, but it will take a lot of work. Listen to the testimony of this political ex-prisoner to see what is possible through hard work:
‘We went, I went to a seminar, conference…. you’re talking about maybe three hundred, four hundred people, at a conference for the weekend. INLA, UDA, IRA, UVF, I mean, sitting doing work, classes for the weekend. I mean, first night, after you got your dinner, went into the bar, that was your free night, and to see people from the IRA, UVF, UDA sitting in the bar drinking, talking and telling jokes. It proves to me that things are changing. You know what I mean? People can get on, you know what I mean? And to me that was a big big thing.’
This didn’t happen overnight. It started by people talking to each other. We need leadership from everyone in positions of influence, it’s no good relying on politicians. On last weeks Sunday Sequence William Crawley rightly rebuked religious leaders on both sides for not leading the way in talking to each other. After we start talking we might have to have more talks. And after those talks, we may need more talks. And so on and so on. And if this sounds like too much effort, then there is an alternative: chaos – we can just keep doing what we’ve always done.
Those who think the situation is hopeless are ignoring the many examples where dialogue has happened, and accommodation and compromise has been reached. It’s possible but it won’t be done without hard work. Both the Orange Order in North Belfast and the local residents groups that oppose them need to ask themselves how the Orange Order manages to have marches in the Republic of Ireland every year with no trouble, as well as in Derry/Londonderry and other areas of the North. This does not happen by accident. It is only achieved through dialogue, hard work, and understanding by all involved. This is the side Martin Luther King would be on.