There's a particular theological challenge here. Jesus said people would know the genuineness of faith not by its content, or its conformity to some ideal specification, but by its fruits. How could religion bear such bitter fruit?
Dawkins, of course, would say it was religion wot done it. Dawkins has a point. Sometimes, as the Chief Rabbi tactfully puts it, people believe too much. But you don't have to know very much about the troubles to see that religious identity was only a background factor. Sir Edward Carson wasn't a religious leader, as such, nor were those who have driven this strife ever since. It's about far more than religion, and most religious people on all sides tried consistently to ameliorate the worst of it, rather than stoke it up. Anyway, the hypothesis that atheism somehow stops you being violent is ridiculous: most of the great Mass Murderers of the last century — Mao, Stalin, etc. — were, in fact, secularists.
As history begins to emerge from the headlines and slogans, here's one crude tentative hypothesis, overheard on the streets. It states that these nice people were let down catastrophically by their leaders, at all levels, including the highest echelons of the British government. Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments committed their fair share of cock-ups and bad tactical calls, but were essentially carried along by forces beyond their ken, reacting tactically to something they didn't really understand, and couldn't think through strategically.
The shocking, culpable failure came in the late 80's when the UK government pulled up the draw bridge, pursuing illusory military solutions to a non-military problem. Thousands died whilst they sat on their spotty behinds, trying to sound hard for Fleet Street, throwing shedloads of money at increasingly ingenious security measures — anything except the one thing needful.
History awards surprising prizes. I was never keen on the Major government, but they turned things round. Often panned by Fleet Street as weak and vacillating, Major had the imagination and moral courage to see there was no military solution, and the problem wasn't going to go away unless he did something. Far from the line that "you can't talk to people like that" that played to the gallery at home but accomplished nothing, Major (and, eventually, Trimble) came to see that the people they really needed to talk to were the enemy. Until that happened nothing was going to change.
Well there's a tentative historical hypothesis, from which we learn...
- Wars on terrorism are, by definition, exercises in pointlessness and futility because they attack the symptom not the cause. When you win the hearts of people of goodwill, you win. There is no military solution — the lesson the British learnt at great cost in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus, Aden, etc. etc., and Northern Ireland.
- Positive change happened here, and in South Africa, when the two sides sat down together and talked. The role of leaders is to bring people together. Any fool can cheerlead abusive songs from their own camp. It takes courage and real leadership to talk; and until someone develops that courage and leadership you are descending into a deep abyss, from which it will take years to emerge. If you feel the urge to walk out, turn it round now, and get listening, get talking.
- We have to find a more Christlike way of doing Christianity, for God's sake, for the peace and salvation of the world, for our own souls' good.
St Paul's letters to Corinth dealt functionally with the bizarre phenomenon of schism among Christians — the body that rips itself apart for the sake of politics and being right, the Christian who fixes on a leader who comes to matter more than Christ. In Ephesians 2 he hits the heart of the matter — Christ has broken down every dividing wall of hostility that stands between people — race, or identity, or history. Who are we to rebuild them?
Posture and manipulate as much as we will, in the end we have to sit down in peace as children of one heavenly Father. We are all laden with culture, expectation and identity. As we lay down those burdens for what they are, we will be free to discover each other the way God sees us, with perfect understanding and hope, and begin to live a bit of the life of the world to come now. That's how redemption works on the ground.