Even when you don’t want to be, you are

Pamela Erwin, June 13, 2012

Seventeen tired and weary travelers sat sporadically throughout the cavernous meeting room perched high up on a cliff overlooking the North Atlantic. The view was breathtaking and consumed our attention. With every crash of the waves against the rocks below, the air in the room grew more tense. No one spoke. No one looked away from the view for fear of looking at someone else; afraid that they might have to confront the issue floating in the electrified air of the room.

We had come to this place to process and debrief three intense weeks of immersion in the sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. A conflict unfathomable to us. How could there be so much hatred between people who both followed Jesus, especially when you couldn’t even tell them a part. Or so we thought.

We began our discussion in that room with hundreds of questions about the whys of it all and why couldn’t things be different. As our host facilitator helped us sort through our questions and emotions, he made a startling comment about the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of reconciliation in Northern Ireland: “sectarianism”, Jeremy said, “bleeds into you here. Even when you don’t want to be, you are.” As he unpacked that statement for us, Jeremy went on to share that when he works with groups of Northern Irish youth across religious boundaries, one of the first things he asks them to do is to acknowledge their sectarianism. He has them repeat, “I am sectarian.” Once everyone makes that move to acknowledge their sectarianism, they can begin to actually talk about the ways they live and think that continue to divide Catholics and Protestants from one another.

As our group pondered this, one student voiced the thought that sectarianism was a lot like racism in the U.S. and that if we acknowledged our own racism, if we were able to say “I am racist” we might be able to have open and honest conversations about racism. A few students quickly reacted, “but I’m not . . . .” And then it grew quiet, a heavy electrified silence.

Racism, it bleeds into you here. Even when you don’t want to be, you are. . . . even when I don’t want to be, I am.