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Bonfires aren't sinful in themselves, but if they are hijacked to spread triumphalism and fear, that is sinful

Presbyterian Moderator Frank Sellar elaborates on his recent comments and encourages more people to join the debate

We all like to remember and celebrate events that are important to us - occasions that are meaningful, not only in our own personal lives, but events that reach beyond the home that have shaped us and our communities.

My identity, first and foremost is in Christ. I am a disciple of Jesus, but I am also a husband and a father, an ordained minister who has served in both parts of our island; someone who values the civil and religious liberty won long ago so that I can call myself a Presbyterian - and be able to practice my faith freely. Our identity is multifaceted.

A bonfire with election posters and flags
A bonfire with election posters and flags

For generations our communities have commemorated key events with bonfires - part and parcel of identity and culture. Bonfires are neither good nor bad in themselves but like, say a motorcar, they can be either used or abused.

My comments on bonfires on both sides of the community made up a small paragraph of a very broad lecture that I gave at Ulster University on Thursday evening.

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It was part of a week-long visit I have been making to our Presbytery of north Belfast and the annual Chaplaincy Lecture, which was about hope, leadership and compassion in the city, was part of that. While there are still some bonfires that are contentious, many people across Belfast and beyond have shown considerable local leadership, working hard to turn bonfires into more community orientated events so that they are neither dangerous nor belligerent.

I commend that progress and want to acknowledge their hard work. I appreciate that there is still some way to go in this area, as it does remain unfinished business.

Bonfires in themselves are not sinful. But they can become sinful when instead of positively celebrating culture they are hijacked to inculcate triumphalism and fear. When negativity is passed on from one generation to the next that is wrong, because sectarianism is sinful - a cancer that eats away at the very core of our hearts. When bonfires cause pressure on an overstretched PSNI, or bring potential risk to the Fire Service's life and limb, damage property, local people's health or the environment, then it is something that we need to call wrong and find a better way.

In talking about hope, leadership and compassion in the city, I made the point that human flourishing and true happiness is when our hearts are captured by an affection beyond ourselves to loving God and loving our neighbours more than anything else.

Jesus, I believe is the light of the world who places a fire of love within our restless souls so that instead of having to assert ourselves at the expense of others we can be secure in his love that expressed itself at the cross.

My comments have sparked considerable discussion. It is good to have that now, before we get to the spring and summer. I encourage everyone to continue the conversations about the future and I pray for everyone working so hard so that together we can all flourish in a city of hope.

An 11th Night bonfire at Edgarstown, Portadown, covered in at leat 30 Sinn Fein and SDLP election posters. This follows a complaint to police about another bonfire in Portadown's Corcrain Estate as a hate crime by Sinn Fein.
An 11th Night bonfire at Edgarstown, Portadown, covered in at leat 30 Sinn Fein and SDLP election posters. This follows a complaint to police about another bonfire in Portadown's Corcrain Estate as a hate crime by Sinn Fein.
Election posters of Alliance member Anna Lo on the Bonfire in Carrickfergus ahead of the 12th of July annual Orange celebrations Pacemaker Press 7/7/2014
Election posters of Alliance member Anna Lo on the Bonfire in Carrickfergus ahead of the 12th of July annual Orange celebrations Pacemaker Press 7/7/2014
Election posters of Alliance MLA Anna Lo and Sinn Fein's MEP Martina Anderson were placed on a bonfire in the Bloomfield estate in Bangor
Election posters of Alliance MLA Anna Lo and Sinn Fein's MEP Martina Anderson were placed on a bonfire in the Bloomfield estate in Bangor

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