I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. […] All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is part of it. (1 Corinthians 1:10-11, 12:27)
In the middle of the 19th century, one Daniel Keenan emigrated from Ireland to America where he set up his young family in eastern Vermont. Six generations later, his four-times-great-granddaughter said Yes to my proposal, and became my bride. Twenty-plus years on, and we are now in Ireland touring with the kids to show them the place where mom’s family came from, as part of our son’s graduation celebrations from high school.
According to what Mary can find, Daniel hailed from “Greencastle Parish, Belfast, County Antrim.” We made it a point to try to find Greencastle, to see if we could find the church or the town hall and see if there were any more records we could locate about Daniel, because her trail grows cold here: we don’t know his parents, or any other relatives. According to Google, Greencastle Parish is on the north side of Belfast, and this morning we went for a look.
On driving into Northern Ireland from the Republic to the south, one notices almost immediately the plethora of flags and symbols of Northern Ireland’s connection to the UK. But it’s when we got into the neighborhood that things really got intense. Greencastle, in a word, felt intimidating, with its superabundance of Union Jacks and Northern Irish flags, and not least a huge mural (see photo) on the side of a building overlooking the main street: “North Belfast: Prepared for Peace, Ready for War.” It gave every sign of being a neighborhood ripe for sectarian violence, and it appears to be a Protestant neighborhood in some proximity to a Catholic one to the west.
I had really hoped to have avoided this on the visit. I had hoped we could find a pleasant place, where we could find some kindly soul to help us through dusty archives to find more about Daniel. But instead, the apartment blocks glowered with their flags, the mural threatened with its armed figures, and the whole stretch of the place seemed completely, utterly uninviting. We drove the main street, Shore Road, two or three times, looking for anything that could have been helpful. We didn’t find a thing.
On the one hand, it’s disappointing in that my wife wasn’t able to find anything to help in tracing her family roots. All the more, it’s a shame the kids had to see such rawness and intimidation on display. But worst of all, it demonstrates the continuing utter failure of Christ’s people to come together as one.
Paul had had it with the pettiness of the divisions of the young church at Corinth. He wrote passionately in his first letter to them, trying to convince them that there is only one church, and that we are all called to be part of it. Unfortunately, it looks as if two millennia on, we are still wrestling with the shattering divisions that started even then. From our nice, comfy, adjusted perches in the States, we don’t see Greencastle as our reality: we mix well with Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopals, Methodists, and yes, Catholics. Unfortunately, however, Greencastle is real, and seeing it on display this morning deeply disturbed me.
We try to make our divisions a laughing matter. Comedian Emo Phillips tells a wonderful story about coming across a man about to jump off a bridge. Emo talks with the man and as the story goes along, discovers that they share so much of an identity: just as the story climaxes, they are not only Christians, but Protestants, and Baptists, and Northern Baptists, and Northern Conservative Baptists, and Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptists, and Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptists Great Lakes Region. But it’s when the man says he is from the Great Lakes Region Council of 1912, instead of the Council of 1879, that Emo yells “Die, heretic!” and pushes him off the bridge.
We laugh, but as Greencastle shows, it’s really not funny. Christ came for each of us. He came to die for your sins, just as much as mine. He didn’t come to establish a range of religions, he came to preach repentance and that the Kingdom of God is here, now, available to everyone. My heart broke a little today for what his must do each day we go on putting up walls between us, instead of uniting to truly become his hands and feet in the world.
May we find our way, Lord, may we come together and truly be at peace, never ready for war in your name. Amen.