The Rev. Gary Mason is well acquainted with conflict.
Growing up in the 1960s in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he watched countless friends become caught up in decades of brutal sectarian violence.
“I was a child of conflict,” Mason said. “I saw so, so many of my friends make bad decisions. Thankfully, I never did, and I’m grateful to God for that."
|Rev. Mason speaking at Maynooth University.|
That gratitude ultimately led Mason to a lifetime of on-the-ground peacemaking. After becoming a Methodist clergyman, he spent almost 28 years in parish ministry while also playing an integral role in Northern Ireland’s peace process.
“It was just so crucial for me to try to make a difference,” he recalled. “I so, so much believed my faith had to make a difference outside the confines of a church.”
Today Mason shares lessons of that peace process around the world, working through his nonprofit, Rethinking Conflict, which is based in Belfast. In the past few years, he has also worked with many Palestinians and Israelis to help bring about peace in the Middle East.
During a recent visit to the United States—including several churches and universities within the Florida United Methodist Conference—Mason shared about his life’s work. He also offered insights about community transformation and reconciliation light of rising U.S. political and racial tensions.
“I have friends here,” he said. “I’m staying with people who are Republicans, with people who are Democrats. I’m hearing both sides. And it’s not my job to tell people in the United States how to do politics. But we must disagree well.”
Mason is a firm believer that people who claim to follow Jesus can make a positive difference during times of conflict, and that it all starts with their words.
“Sometimes we can use our words as verbal, theological hand grenades to destroy the other and demonize the other,” he said. “The way we address our differences in churches and in the public square can be very, very toxic.”
He saw this firsthand in Northern Ireland, where extreme theology and extreme nationalism combined to form “a very potent cocktail” that exploded into violence. During the peace process, he continuously worked to engage both Loyalists and Republicans, believing that Jesus’ life shows us “engagement was not endorsement.”
That desire to reach out to opponents, rivals and enemies has been a hallmark of Mason’s work.
|Rev. Mason is a Senior Research Fellow at the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention at Maynooth University in Ireland.|
“It’s so easy for clergy in conflicted situations to be what I like to call chaplains to their own tribe,” he adds. “We listen to our own sort. We agree with our own sort. We worship with our own sort. We look after our own sort. But a number of us felt it was important to step outside the box. And I suppose for me, being quite open and honest about it, that very disturbing life of Jesus and the way he lived a life of faith, was the model I used.”
Mason said his hope for the United States is that the country is able to confront its legacy.
“All nations have their legacies,” he said. “(Ireland’s) legacy was the legacy of sectarianism.
“The legacy of slavery is a concept that America still has to come to terms with. If we don’t deal with our legacies, they will continue to haunt us and disturb us. The lessons from the Irish peace process are don’t bury this stuff and pretend it’s not there. It needs to be addressed," he said.
For that to happen, whether in America or Europe, Mason says, people must become less self-absorbed and more willing to engage the outside world.
“Can theology shape the moral framework of society? A number of us believed it could, and that’s why difficult and very uncomfortable conversations had to take place,” he said. “We had more than 100 years of political violence in Ireland, and we had to find a better way to resolve our differences.”
They did, signing the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998—a peace treaty about to mark its 20th anniversary.
“It was not a perfect document,” Mason said. “It created a context where both sides on the ground had a win-win situation, where the other side was not humiliated. … It was about compromise and flexibility.”
Even after the treaty was signed, Northern Ireland was left with the devastation of roughly 16,000 bombings, 47,000 injuries, 36,000 shootings and 22,000 armed robberies and 4,000 deaths.
“We are a traumatized people, and we are still recovering,” Mason said. “I want to argue strongly that the church and people of faith need to be part of that healing process. Our peace process has to be worked out every day. But it’s a process that’s worthwhile.”