Somewhere over the eastern United States
The adventure that is graduate school has begun. As I fly over the States on my way to Newark, and then on to Belfast, I wanted to begin this blog by introducing myself. Though I have never before visited Ireland or Northern Ireland, I feel as if I am returning to the isle. In a way, it’s as if I’m going home, but to a home I’ve never seen but always felt. The McRay ancestry finds its earliest historical mention in Ireland in 448 A.D., and though it its origin seems to be primarily ecclesiastical, it emerges in Scotland as a surname in the late 14th century. I visited Scotland and England eleven years ago as a boy and immediately felt connected, almost as if something that was missing had now been put back in its place. For as long as I can remember, I have loved Irish/Celtic culture – its music, traditional dress, folklore, speech, and landscapes. To have the opportunity to spend at least a year (more if I stay for a Ph.D.) in the land of my ancient ancestors feels right and good. Of course, saying goodbye to family and friends at home is always very difficult and painful. It is too bad we cannot take our communities with us when we leave, but I suppose that would eliminate the important challenge of stability and rootedness. For myself, I feel I must leave for now, as I believe Belfast can offer some of the most unique training possible in peacebuilding and reconciliation. Evident in Belfast’s recent riots, the tensions of the decades-long Troubles still simmer beneath the surface. Much work in conflict transformation and reconciliation is before the people there. Belfast is a place where protracted violent conflict has been a frequent reality, and the common folk will have much to offer about moving beyond the cycles of retribution to build peace.
Back in Nashville, I am leaving behind a community that is very dear to me. For over two years, several folks – mostly connected through my alma mater Lipscomb University – have participated in contemplative community with men at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI). Drawing inspiration from the Rule of St. Benedict, we visit on Saturday nights, spending a couple of hours discussing group reads, sharing stories, laughing often, exploring theologies and the practices of reconciliation, and participating in common prayer. I count the men at RMSI – and those of us from the free world – as close friends, and I wish I did not need to leave again. (This my second major trip this year, as I left Nashville for three months from January to April when I interned with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in the West Bank city of Hebron. The stories I shared with the people of Palestine and the reflections I explored on faithful discipleship to Jesus are recounted in my upcoming project with Cascade Books, tentatively titled Letters from “Apartheid Street”
My experiences at RMSI – attempting to reconcile the unseen world of incarceration with the free world of “society” – coupled with my numerous visits to Israel and Occupied Palestine, have greatly influenced my understanding of reconciliation’s possibilities and the politics of forgiveness. I have learned that for me, there are essentially two narratives competing for my loyalty: that of the cross and that of the sword. The narrative of the sword shouts oh so loudly in our world. The myths of redemptive violence and the legitimacy of power preach that the way of the sword is the path to freedom, necessary for justice, and a practical avenue to peace. A great number of us believe wholeheartedly in this narrative, and we wave our flags and chant our victory mantras for the entire world to see and hear. We live and die by the narrative of the sword. The narrative of the cross, however, is much quieter, almost like a whisper. It prompts to us to be other, to be true to a Way which is strange, even foolish according to the provincial wisdom of the day. This Way believes that suffering love is the path of truth, that selfless devotion to other is the most whole, the most perfect way we can exist. The narrative of the cross is the narrative of death and resurrection, evoking the belief that we should rather die nonviolently at the hands of those claiming to be our enemies than wield power over them. It is through humility and presence with those that suffer that we find our redemption and salvation. Not by raising ourselves closer to the heavens through mighty acts and lofty speech, but rather by lowering ourselves closer to the earth, to the dirt and the soil. Through dirt and breath humanity was made, and through them we are continually remade.