It was my father’s funeral today. Due to the continuing restrictions imposed by the virus that killed him, I participated online rather than in person. Over the last few days, as we waited for news from the hospital, I had some time to think about my dad and his influence on my own life.
To say that my father was a complex man is a bit of an understatement and I’m not sure anyone really knew him well. The awful events of his early life had a profound effect on him and left deep scars in his soul. He was put into care at the age of three with his five year old brother, after his parents’ divorce, and remained there until he was fifteen. Although he rarely spoke of that time, when he did, it was usually stories of bullying and neglect. He was always grateful to the Matron at ChildHaven, though, as it was she who spotted some musical talent and recommended he join the Royal Marine Band. It still amazes me that he followed her advice and headed to England at the age of fifteen. Sadly, it was only when he got to the Marines that he discovered that his abilities to play any musical instruments was very limited so he ended up with the side drum! After his military service followed a whole litany of jobs in London and the Channel Islands, none of which seemed to last for very long. He acknowledged later in life, with some regret, his own difficulties with sticking with a job for any length of time.
There was a lot about the man I didn’t know and some things I really didn’t like. Even as a teenager, I was sceptical of his negative attitudes towards women and his fondness for the politics of Josef Stalin. Over that time he gradually absented himself from my life and in later years cut himself off entirely from the family. Like many men, our fathers left us an emotional legacy that means we struggle to find a masculinity we can fully embrace.
It was as I began to unpack my memories and feelings about my dad that I remembered his stories about living in London in the 60s. He told me about encountering the signs ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ in the windows of boarding houses and how he struggled to find a room for the night. How he ended up sleeping rough under London’s bridges, only to be woken and harassed by the police. Even how those same police, when they discovered he was Irish, would demand he open his suitcase and then kick the contents over the street. As I think back now, it makes absolute sense how those experiences left him with a profound empathy for the Black and Asian people who were facing the same discrimination - and worse! He simply would not tolerate racist language or opinions in our house at any point.
It was maybe that empathy that also led him to reject sectarianism when he returned to Northern Ireland. I still find it hard to believe that, at a time when the Troubles were about to erupt, dad took a job as caretaker at the local Catholic St Finian’s Primary School. That meant a visit to our house every week by the local parish priest to pay his wages. So many of his friends, including his Best Man, were Catholics and he refused to be drawn into organisations that promoted division and hatred. It is hardly surprising, in retrospect, that so many people thought that we were Catholics ourselves, so untypical of Protestants was our behaviour.
What determination must it have taken to resist calls from family as well as neighbours and friends to sign up to a particular form of tribal, even violent, Protestant identity? I am so grateful for that deep grounding in rejecting the politics of hate, even when it would have meant an easier life if he had gone along with the crowd. When I came to a personal faith as a teenager, one of the disappointments I faced upon entering into the full membership of the Church was the apparent lack of willingness among Church leaders and members to show that same determination. Part of the reason I left Northern Ireland in the early 90s was on the advice of clergy who feared that, because I had imbibed my father’s anti-sectarianism, my outspokenness would put my own, and my family’s lives in danger.
In the era of #Black Lives Matter, when white folk like me are trying to prove our anti-racist credentials to the social-mediated public, I can only be publicly thankful for that positive bit of my father’s legacy. His lack of education and status, his failure to secure a decent job, his lack of opportunities and advancement didn’t lead him to scapegoat a minority in order to feel better about himself. His own lack of power deeply frustrated him, but he chose not to seek the outlet offered by the politics of hate.
All of us can find reasons why we aren’t more courageous when others are being victimised, but it is always a choice. In every community, there are those who are ‘in’, welcomed, included, ‘us’, and others who are, forever, ‘them’. René Girard revealed the urge of human communities to scapegoat, the need for sacrifice to preserve unity. He also showed how Jesus, embracing that part of the human condition, sacrificed himself to reveal the moral bankruptcy of that system, once and for all. For ever after the crucifixion, each experience of rejection or exclusion, each wounding and killing, is a part of the sufferings of Christ, and therefore a rejection of the false unity and peace of our churches and societies. Let’s not kid ourselves, as good citizens or honest Christians, that we can stay neutral or silent - indeed, SILENCE IS VIOLENCE.
My father died alone, cut off from family and loved ones emotionally and physically because of Covid19. Whatever else he might have bequeathed his family, as we lay him to rest today, I pray that his determination to reject the easy path of hate will live on in his children and grandchildren.