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In County Antrim, on the north shores of Northern Ireland, lies a pathway into the sea. Thousands of interlocking columns rise from the water, forming hexagonal stepping stones, worn smooth by centuries of salt water waves.

According to legend, the pillars are the remains of a causeway built by a giant. Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn MacCool, was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn accepted the challenge and built a causeway across the North Channel, connecting the two countries so the giants could meet (there are identical basalt columns at Fingal’s cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa). In one version of the story, Finn defeats Benandonner in the fight. In another version he tricks Benandonner into thinking Finn is much larger than he really is, sending Benandonner home in fright. The old giants have since died off, and the causeway been covered over by water, leaving only the sloping steps connecting sea and land as a reminder of the great giant’s work.

According to science, the pillars were formed 50 to 60 million years ago. Volcanic activity caused molten basalt to push up through chalk beds, forming a plateau of lava. As the lava cooled, it contracted, fracturing just like drying mud. These fractures descended, creating hexagonal pillars of hardened basalt rock. While the hexagons aren’t perfect (and some pillars have four, five, seven, or eight sides instead of six), the result is a striking geological and geometrical formation.

In early January I got to walk out on the Giant’s Causeway, carefully stepping from one pillar to another, the looming cliff behind me, the sea before. As I stood facing the water, a colleague standing next to me began to explain the science. We stood in silence for a moment, taking it all in, before he continued, “It’s almost easier to believe the giant story.”

We were in Northern Ireland with a group of pastors, scholars, and musicians. Sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, our goal was to learn about peacemaking and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and to ask, in particular, how worship is influenced by, and is an influencer of, both conflict and peacemaking.

As with most conflict, the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland cannot be easily unpacked or explained. People speak most often of conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but it’s perhaps truer that the conflict lay between unionists – those wishing to remain part of Great Britain – and nationalists – those who desired a united Ireland, free from British rule. Unionists tended to be Protestant. Nationalists tended to be Catholic.

The conflict goes back centuries, to the settlement of Ulster province in the north of Ireland by English and Scottish (and Protestant) settlers, and the defeat of the Catholic King James by the Protestant King William of Orange in 1690. In 1916, a group of Republicans seized buildings in Dublin, declaring an Irish republic, free from British rule. After a week of gun battles and bombings, the rebels were defeated, and their leaders executed, igniting a groundswell of anti-British sentiment and support for the rebel’s cause. In 1920, the island of Ireland was partitioned along gerrymandered lines, creating a predominantly Catholic, republican South, and a predominantly Protestant, unionist North.

In the late 1960s, the Catholics living in Northern Ireland began campaigning for civil rights. For decades Catholics had experienced discrimination in terms of housing, hiring policies, voting rights, and police brutality. Inspired by what they saw in the United States, young people took to the streets in non-violent marches, only to be met by violence from loyalists, the police, and eventually the British Army.

In the meantime, paramilitary groups had sprung up and gained followers in both unionist and nationalist neighborhoods. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) had been in existence for decades already, and quickly became the predominant paramilitary organization for nationalists, eventually splintering into the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA. For the unionists, the Ulster Defense Association, Ulster Volunteer Force, and Ulster Resistance were organized.

For four decades, Northern Ireland was the home of a deep and violent conflict, named, rather euphemistically, “The Troubles.” People were shot, kidnapped, and disappeared. Bombs destroyed homes, workplaces, and took many lives. Thousands were forced to flee their neighborhoods. Kids learned to throw stones and destroy property. In all, more than 3,500 people died between 1969 and 2010. The majority were civilians.

One would think it would take a giant to bring some kind of resolution to the decades-old division and violence. And indeed, when thinking about peace in Northern Ireland, there are certain individuals who played a larger role than others, who we might think of as the “giants” of the peacemaking process. U.S. Senator George Mitchell was instrumental in the peace-process. David Trimble and John Hume won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the Good Friday Agreement. Father Alec Reid and Reverend Ken Newell worked tirelessly within their respective religious communities to shepherd people towards peace.

It is, perhaps, the easier story to believe…the story of giants, of a few people with monumental passion and influence and work ethic, who can do what ordinary citizens could not.

It is, perhaps, the story we want to be true. So that we who are not giants are free of obligation.

But this is not the story the giants themselves would tell you.

On a cold, dark evening midway through our trip, we gathered in the cozy atrium of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast. We were joined by Ken Newell, former pastor of Fitzroy, and Lady Daphne Trimble, wife of the late Sir David Trimble. They told us what it was like, working in their communities, religious and political, trying to broker peace. These were, by all accounts, giants of the peacemaking process, instrumental in creating the Good Friday Agreement, which eventually led to the cessation of violence in Northern Ireland.

But as they told us their stories, Reverend Newell remarked, “The Good Friday Agreement only worked because there was a growing desire for peace…A wave was coming through at a grassroots level, and you need a wave to ride, no matter if you have a surfboard or not.” In other words, policies can only go so far if there isn’t broad support to carry them. And the key to that wave, said Newell, was dialogue and connection.

Northern Ireland had, for years, experienced only enforcement. Laws passed by politicians who themselves didn’t live in Ireland. Order maintained by military force. Allegiance dictated by the threat of violence from paramilitary groups.

But enforcement tends to exacerbate conflict. It’s worth noting that in both the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, the general public wasn’t totally behind the rebels or the marchers. It was the heavy-handed response from the British army that sparked a full-fledged movement, creating a wave of resentment and hostility. When the mighty foot of the giant comes down hard upon the sea, the force will cause the water to rise up in response.

But such waves are but a fleeting reaction, a splash with nowhere to go. A wave that will take a surfer to shore, however, is formed when different factors come together – wind, water depth, gravity – all creating an energy that carries the water somewhere new. When it came to the Good Friday Agreement, Newell knew what those wave-creating factors were.

“When you have dialogue and connection,” said Newell, “without enforcement, you have the possibility for change.”

In the foreword to Diana Butler Bass’s The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church, Loren Mead, founder of the Alban Institute, reflects on the teaching of Speed Leas, a consultant for churches in conflict:

He always told me that the most important thing in working in a hot fight is to recognize that everybody wants to simplify the issues so you have clear reasons for killing each other (spiritually, of course, in most church conflicts). He said that the most important thing one can do is to “complexify things.” What he meant, I think, is that only when you begin to see new dimensions of what is going on are you able to get beyond dead ends. When you see all ten sides of the issue you’d mistakenly thought had only two, only then can you begin working out of the polarization.[1]

The Troubles was a political conflict…but it was also a religious conflict. Churches could exacerbate the conflict, and many did, condemning the “other” in sermons and prayers, preaching what their tribe wanted to hear. In his recently published book, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America, Russel Moore states that for politicians, radio talk-show hosts, and preachers, “The easiest way to success is to erase nuance, to seem to be leading the crowds while actually following them.” Become extreme and outrageous in your pronouncements, and “it will sound like conviction.”[2] Firebrands like Ian Paisley, protestant minister and loyalist politician, capitalized on this “wisdom” in Northern Ireland.

But the church could also complexify things, could help move people toward dialogue and connection, by creating space, both physical and emotional, for people to encounter the other. In the 1980s, Father Alec Reid brought together Gerry Adams, leader of the nationalist party Sinn Fein, and Labour Party leader John Hume for secret peace talks in a small room in Clonard Monastery. We attended a Saturday evening service at Clonard, followed by a Sunday morning service at Fitzroy Presbyterian. In both services, prayers were spoken for the unity and reconciliation of the Church, and for the wellbeing of sister churches across Catholic/Protestant lines.

To pray for someone on the other side of a conflict is to greatly complexify things.

To confess our own complicity, our own self-righteousness, our own bitterness, is to complexify things.

To preach sermons that we need to hear, not just sermons we think those people should hear, is to complexify things.

To examine who the “enemy” is when we read imprecatory psalms or sing songs in which God “fights for us” is to complexify things.

Liturgy has commonly been known as “the work of the people.” Etymologically, it is in fact work done “on behalf” of the people, a work done “for” the people. I think both understandings are helpful. And in both cases, liturgy is work. It is an effort, it is involved. Liturgy is rarely flashy. More often than not it is simple, predictable, reliable. But in its slow, steady movements, it is slowly and steadily forming us, a wave of molten lava pushing up through the rock.

What those liturgies involve will determine what we will look like when the lava cools.

Will we be a battleground for giants?

Or will we be a causeway connecting our island with another, that we might visit one another across the sea?

[1] Loren Mead, foreword to The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church, by Diana Butler Bass (Herndon, Va.: Alban Institute, 2004), x.

[2] Russel Moore, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (New York: Sentinel, 2023), 39-40.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • Laura, thank you for this. As I come from Irish heritage I really resonate with this. Your writing is, indeed, a Lenten blessing.

  • Alfred Jackson says:

    Complexify is not a term I have used in the past, but in reading your essay it comes alive in my mind as a way to understand the desire of many to live in a black and white world, when in fact most issues today cause one to deal with grayness. Gray is messy and complex. Laziness, perhaps, leads to black and white. We in the United States need citizens and souls willing to do the hard work of complexifying the difficult issues. Let’s not pretend it’s all just black and white. For example, when was the last time you heard a political ad or speech try to complexify an issue facing our country?

  • John Tiemstra says:

    My Irish Protestant maternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. I think they came mostly for economic reasons rather than political or religious ones. They never seemed to be very political. Maybe that was because they were Protestants from the north, so they had the upper hand. (I should say that I knew my grandmother well, but not grandfather. He died when I was three years old, but she lived until I was in my twenties.) That whole history is a lesson in why it is so important to keep religious organizations and their issues at a distance from politics. Our faith certainly plays a role in our decisions about political opinions and identification, but the church as an organization should stay out of it.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Poetic tying of the Troubles to our troubles and to liturgy and it’s slow creep into our souls. Living in complexity is hard work, but isn’t that what we are called to do? It’s just so incredibly difficult when in a time such as ours. Thank you for popping up again so soon on the string!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Love this.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Laura, I grew up as a Catholic person who is half Irish. My husband and I took a trip to Ireland in 2007 and saw the English guns coming down. These were on the border between North Ireland and Ireland. I also know of the English custom of taking over countries (U.S., Ireland and India for example) and trying to make them behave as the English wants. But in each case the English were bullies. They continued with the Bloody Sunday execution of weaponless people from Ireland. I am only stating this event because it is so popular with the U2’s song Bloody Sunday. The English have been very brutal in their treatment of others. Being Catholic was part of the dislike. I am glad you have that correct.