On Jenny McCartney’s “Re-Mapping Belfast,” Winter 2020: For all of Jenny McCartney’s background of growing up in Belfast as the daughter of a Protestant lawyer, she struggles to describe what is going on there between the culturally Catholic native Irish population and the culturally Protestant descendants of early modern British colonists.
For Belfast’s – and Ireland’s – ascendant bourgeois class, whether culturally Catholic or Protestant, it’s unpleasant to be confronted with the idea that there are values without which human life becomes meaningless and hopeless – values like family, patria, nation, religion. Lip service may be paid to ideas of loving one’s home, place, and native land, but in reality a great loss of memory and identity is occurring amidst the relentless onslaught of ABBA, iPads, Derry Girls, and influxes of foreigners (though the latter in certain respects has hardly been a change from the last eight hundred years). Is it possible that those on the streets – who dare to remind us that all is not well in cloud-cuckoo-land – might be struggling for something other than just “cruelty”?
One is reminded of Brad Gregory’s aphorism in The Unintended Reformation, summing up the sentiments of Europe’s earliest bourgeois classes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and which Irish bourgeois quaintly think they are so current and fashionable for having just recently joined: “We can’t agree on religion, so let’s just go shopping.”
I grew up as a child of English Protestant church planters in the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s and early 90s. Jenny McCartney’s powerful account of Belfast’s stubbornly lingering sectarian divides is one in which I feel a certain autobiographical entanglement.
The “maps” I grew up with in the Republic of Ireland felt different from the ones McCartney describes. The island’s painful history lingered like a vast palimpsest in the geography itself, buried beneath the Anglicized place names that bespoke centuries of English rule. In the 1990s, Ireland’s bold new economic developments promised a future freed from those shadows. But they also forced us to face a different set of challenges. It’s hard to pursue the self-recognition that forms a people when you are promised a prosperous economic future of liberal multicultural individualism – and the price of this future is your community’s memory.
Both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, a healthy peoplehood can only be forged and sustained through a creative yet faithful work of the moral imagination. What must be discovered is a truthful yet liberating way of articulating the stories of peoples – and of a new people sharing a common good. Only through a work of hopeful imagination can there be genuine movement forward, without deracination and erasure, beyond sectarianism and the imprisoning weight of the past.
Jenny McCartney responds: I thank Crimthann O’Chiarraí and Alastair Roberts for their responses. I’m certainly not advocating “the loss of memory” – as O’Chiarraí suggests – but rather a more generous, imaginative form of remembering, which also recognizes the experiences and fears of those on “the other side” in Northern Ireland. To see the entirety of our histories is very important: that is part of what telling the two contrasting personal stories in the article was about. But the trouble with some forms of memorializing in Northern Ireland –particularly paramilitary commemorations – is that they often publicly celebrate individuals and events that caused great and ongoing pain to bereaved families, and thereby make any vision of a shared future more difficult. Also, while it’s true that middle-class areas were more insulated from community intimidation and violence during the Troubles, the range of paramilitary targets – from taxi-drivers to judges – meant that very few sections of society went completely untouched by tragedy.
I don’t recommend shopping as spiritual balm – but if ABBA, Derry Girls, and even iPads bring communities together through laughter, music, or a technological window on a wider world, that can only be a good thing. I agree with Alastair Roberts that we need a “truthful yet liberating way” of articulating stories – but, alongside that, we need the readiness to listen to those of others.
Clubs Are Great, But Don’t Forget Churches
On Clare Coffey’s “City of Clubs,” Winter 2020: After a hunt, I finally found the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, where I was expected for a meeting. I ducked in. Or rather, I tried – what I had taken to be its main entrance was actually its locked side-entrance. I waited for a member to leave and sneaked in before the door could latch.
Greeting me was a sign politely explaining that both my shorts and shirt were inappropriate. I was subsequently assured by a member that, the place being nearly empty, no one would care much about my clothes. The faults were mine, of course; I’d recently moved from the Midwest, and I had no idea elite clubs still existed, let alone what the entrance or appropriate attire should look like. This was not Illinois.
While reading Clare Coffey’s wonderful “City of Clubs,” this memory became a parable: for newcomers, Philadelphia’s system of clubs is hard to get into and alien once you do. I’m generally partial to private associations, which nurture local communities around common loves and loyalties. I’m the target audience of a piece delighting in the glories of Philadelphia’s peculiar small-town take on what it means to be a big city. So why did it miss its mark with me?
Like many transplants to major cities, I moved to Philadelphia with few contacts. But clubs often require recommendations from members for admission – so they’re wonderful for maintaining social bonds, but lousy at forging them.
Churches, though, don’t require recommendations, and they’re everywhere. In Center City, there’s a church every few blocks: Tenth Presbyterian Church is only one block away from Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, two from Liberti Church, and three from the Dominican-run St. Patrick’s Church. The residential neighborhoods are no different. Anyone can move to a new city, show up at a church, and meet people. To be a city of community, Philadelphia must embrace being a city of churches.
On Brandon McGinley’s “Small Acts of Grace: Building Urban Community in Pittsburgh,” Winter 2020: I was encouraged by McGinley’s report from the front lines of building Christian community. I was also a little envious. Like most Americans, I find the structures and demands of daily life often leave me aching for the easy intimacies of genuine neighborliness. Too few of us know for sure how to get it. We have been unlearning ordinary hospitality, never mind Christian fellowship, for a very long time.
This privation is a problem for individuals and families to confront. It is also a problem of politics, both high and low. The beauty of the communal sharing of joys and sorrows that McGinley relates so well is cause for reflection: What are the material conditions and institutions that help or hinder neighborliness? These are matters of the heart, but also of the ways we organize work, education, family life, neighborhoods, architecture. Grace irrupts where it will, but it remains to us to be its instruments, both within the church and without. For me, McGinley’s piece recalled C. S. Lewis’s observation that the everyday bliss of human relationships lies at the center of politics, properly understood. “And unless they are helping to increase and prolong such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.”
There are limits to what can be done through good intentions. The cultural and physical spaces in which we live matter because they will, without our own effort, shape our experience of one another and of the world. There are simple ways of seeing this: for example, our modern practice of the Lenten fast is different than it has been in the past, simply because we all individually choose to fast. The Lenten fast is a burden each of us takes up, rather than something that we enter into collectively.
How, then, do we create the kind of spaces that shape us toward truth? Brandon McGinley’s essay helps to answer that question. He does not propose the end of choosing, a replacement of modern loneliness with coerced “community” in which all our agency is stripped away. But what McGinley and his friends have discovered is this: There is such a thing as making a choice once and then receiving the consequences of that choice, for good and ill. In actualizing their one choice – to share their lives as much as possible with their fellow parishioners – they are creating that space which gives everyday graces of pain and joy: chatting with a friend’s children as you drive down the street, helping to bury another friend’s baby. These experiences are made possible not simply by the desire for community, but by shaping one’s life in such a way that community happens to you. Would that we had more such communities.
Raising small children is a wondrous thing, but it can be lonely. How can we heal this loneliness? Perhaps we do not have community because we do not ask for it. We’re afraid to ask people to sacrifice convenience, neighborhood comforts, or commute time to build the kinds of communities that support those raising children. But I think that many families would happily make the choice to move to wherever they could live next-door to friends, to other Christians walking the same path – if they were told that such a decision is possible.
McGinley’s article points to, but does not directly address, another cause of loneliness: that which arises from the segregation of our communities by age or life circumstance. We assign the elderly to nursing homes, families to the suburbs, singles to city apartments. And to overcome this segregation can be difficult: those who have some form of “disability” – even the “disability” of being young or old – can require something more of their neighbors.
Our society has forgotten that even as these people require more of us, they give more in turn. Communities that exclude the young and the very old are thereby impoverished. But multigenerational living requires support, love, and constancy. Which is why McGinley’s bold example of intentional urban community is so important.
Many Americans are hungry for intentional, multigenerational Christian community – for the consistent presence of people who know and love us, and will pray for us in life’s most difficult moments. McGinley’s article captures this thirst, and gives us the blessed hope that we might find water in the desert.
On Eberhard Arnold’s “Not Just Personal: The Conscience and its Restoration,” Winter 2020: In 1932 Eberhard Arnold wrote, “Today again, there is scarcely any real uneasiness about the injustice of mammon and property – an injustice that in fact kills love in all aspects of life.” The pamphlet in which he wrote this was one such instance of blessed unease. Thankfully, there are stirrings once again, largely on alternative media, which express this “uneasiness” about economic, social, and political injustice. The missing piece in these expressions, however, is the contemplation of the inner source of this uneasiness, the ground upon which the conscience must stand to see the world clearly and find the will to work for a better, more beautiful one. From whence comes the upwelling of the will to love and serve, as opposed to the will to wealth and power? Albert Schweitzer’s answer, which came on the heels of the carnage of the First World War, was unequivocal: “from the spirit that flows forth from Jesus.” But do many of us contemporary Christians even know who Jesus is anymore…. even care? How many of us have become satisfied with a stained glass caricature of Jesus or seek repose in mere intellectual assent to doctrines about him? To paraphrase a bit more of Schweitzer, there is only so much of the genuine in Christianity as there is a burning desire and commitment to bring the kingdom of God to earth.
On Adriano Cirino’s “Up Hill,” Winter 2020: This excellent article on the urban redemption project undertaken in Medellín is good news against a darkening background. First, there’s the rise of megacities in the global South – one estimate puts 80 percent of the world’s population in one of these cities by 2030. Then there’s the projection that one third of all these people will be living in informal settlements: favelas, shantytowns, or slums, as they are variously and prejudicially called. Each of these settlements is its own world, of course, some appearing to thrive amidst deprivation while others are torn by various forms of violence, “urban renewal,” or climate catastrophe.
In 2013 I visited Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. I was astounded to feel the vibrancy of the neighborhood and to hear about its capacity for self-organization. Nowadays, when we praise such projects, many feel compelled to use tech-speak terms like “innovation,”but this jargon is misleading. What’s happening in a place like Rocinha could be better described as “reconnectivity.” Similarly, simply by solving a logistics problem of trash pickup, Medellín accidentally and dramatically enhanced its street life and its intermingling of classes in Comuna 13.
For people of Christian hope – and these are often intensely religious areas – another, human-scale vision of development is already in view.