In the film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ as King Arthur and his Knights prepare for battle, the Holy hand grenade is held up and Brother Maynard prays “O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits”.

Some Christians will, of course, be offended by what they perceive as disrespecting their faith, but the parody burrows into a challenging issue; how can people who believe in a God of love and peace so willingly embrace the conviction that the same God is on their side in conquests which result in awful massacres?

For centuries, and continuing to the present day, participants in wars across the world are often convinced their purpose is holy so God is with them, yet the brutality they justify seems far from the sacred respect for life they should hold.


In looking back at apartheid South Africa, most of us would be empathetic to the belief of black leaders that God was on the side of the oppressed; but in its time, white leaders believed God was on their side in preserving their Christian nation. And let’s not get started on American white supremacists. Or the religious fanatics of the Taliban.

Everybody who believes in God thinks he is on their side, whether that be in war or socio-religious issues. In Northern Ireland, religious people with dogmatic condemnation of others cause much pain to vulnerable people.

A television documentary this week broadcast with former President Mary McAleese, entitled ‘With God On Our Side’, explored the role of religion in Ireland’s conflict in which two branches of Christianity have killed each other for centuries, and posed the question as to whether in changing times religion could provide a pathway to peace.

Personally I didn’t feel we really got a full answer.

Perhaps there wasn’t enough time in a short film of several elements to explore it in depth.

Arlene Foster

A number of people spoke about their experiences in the Troubles, including Arlene Foster interviewed at the Aghadrumsee church where her father is buried and there were selected snippets of historical context. Mrs. McAleese also spoke about her own background of being a Catholic violently driven out of a Protestant area in Belfast by loyalists.

Her taxi driver on the programme expressed the opinion that our recent Troubles weren’t about religion but about identity, Irish and British.

That seems an oversimplified narrative to me.

The context and progression of the ancient conflict is multi-faceted and nuanced. Identity is certainly part of it, though it is wider issue than the programme portrayed with no mention of Britain’s role in Ireland, (the English Nationalism of post-Brexit is hardly new).


Or the damage of isolation caused along both sides of the Border region by Partition. Or the clash of rich and powerful interests against the poor. But certainly religion played a major part, particularly a century ago when Protestant Unionists used the effective and understandable slogan that ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ and there was a clip of the Rev. Ian Paisley some years ago denouncing “the forces of Popery” in rallying his supporters.

After writing a column last week posing the question “who speaks for Protestants” in which I suggested there is a disconnect between political Unionism and civic Protestantism, there was some debate on Twitter and one person posted: “Why does anyone have to speak for any religious domination?”

An absolutely fair point and one would hope that the day will come when politics will be about bread-and-butter issues and not dominated by which tribe people are in.

But we are where we are, at least for now even if things are thankfully changing rapidly.

I remember asking a friend on one occasion the awkward question “what are you?” and his reply “I’m a Protestant atheist” stumped me for a moment. But it shows how tribal we are and how much religion is a factor in that.

If there was a religious divide before Partition, the setting up of a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people in the new Northern Ireland, separate from the Free State’s special position of the Catholic church deepened that divide as religion on both sides of the Border had a negative effect.

The perception of religion doing harm saddens true people of faith who know that it can often overshadow the many fine things done in their name for the greater good.

Perhaps Arlene Foster, speaking in the McAleese documentary, was right when she said that religion was the excuse for the conflict.

But let us not pretend that religion had nothing to do with it.

The documentary included the quote from Jonathan Swift: “In Ireland we have enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love.”

A very different place

It is important to say that Ireland in 2021 is very different to 1921. In the south, there has been massive social change with the introduction of divorce, abortion and marriage equality.

I recently heard a senior Irish diplomat recently describe his country as “Godless”, not in a pejorative way but to illustrate that the influence of the Church over the country is far removed from De Valera’s day.

The north, too, is a much more secular society than its image would suggest, and younger people especially are among the increasing numbers who do not attend church regularly.

That said, there are numerous people on both sides of the Border who still retain a strong faith, a belief in God and a conviction that as Christians they should live out a life which follows Christ’s principles. Perhaps they don’t have as much trust in the institutions any more, but their faith in a loving God remains resolute.

Question for all faiths

So, the question remains for people of faith, including all faiths; has your religious, or indeed your dogmatic adherence to its rules and institutions, caused more harm than good in this country? And how can people of faith contribute to healing going forward?

To quote again from the television documentary, Methodist Minister the Rev. Harold Good acknowledged that “sadly it took the institutional churches, a long time to understand that they had a very important contribution to make” and he felt they “stood aside from it”.

“I keep saying that if we had not been so silent in the earlier stages and long before the violence broke out, if we had not been so silent about the injustices that we were aware of we could have made such a difference,” he said.

The great American statesman, Abraham Lincoln once said that he wasn’t concerned whether God was on his side. Rather, he said, “my greatest concern is to be on God’s side”.

It’s a great challenge for people of faith, of which I am one. Don’t assume that God is on your side and you can co-opt him or have his approval for whatever you do for your cause.

Be a force for good in making peace with others and creating a better society.