Alistair Little and Ruth Scott
Published 2009 by Darton, Longman and Todd
Imagine being part of a community that leads you to believe God is on your side and sanctions your path into violence. Imagine having a faith that enables you to justify killing another human being. Imagine sitting in prison, convicted of murder, and slowly coming to question that belief and that faith. How can a man committed to doing the right thing live with the realisation he has done great wrong? How can he come to terms with the devastating impact his actions have had not only upon the family of his victim, but also upon his own beloved family? When he discovers his enemy has a human face, how can he face his own inhumanity?
In Northern Ireland in1975, Alistair Little, then aged 17 and a member of a Loyalist paramilitary group, the UVF, shot dead a Catholic man in a revenge attack. Shortly afterwards he was caught, tried and sent to prison at the Secretary of State’s Pleasure. As a juvenile he was given no specified minimum sentence as would be the case if he’d been an adult. When the prison gates clanged shut behind him he had no idea how long it would be before he saw the outside world again.
In retrospect Alistair recognises that while the Maze Prison took away his freedom it paradoxically opened up his life. For the first time since the violence of Northern Ireland had exploded into his experience in the late 1960’s, he had the time and space to reflect on his story instead of reacting constantly to the violence erupting around him on a daily basis. He began to explore the history of other conflicts and, through that, to ask questions about his own beliefs and practice. Through long traumatic years of change, with the support of key individuals and an integrity that became rigorous, even ruthless, in trying to get to the truth of things, Alistair slowly re-humanised himself. It is a daily task that will never be completed. Today he works internationally with the victims and perpetrators of political conflict.
What turns an ordinary boy from a loving Christian family into a teenager who would plan to highjack a bus when its only passengers were Catholic, and to shoot them all? What enables such a young man to turn his back on violence and to engage in the much tougher tasks of peace-building and the healing of traumatised people?
These were the key questions that prompted me, with Alistair, to write his story. It wasn’t an easy process for either of us. I flew to Belfast for a few days every month, staying with Alistair and his lovely wife, Louise, meeting members of both communities with whom Alistair worked, and recording interviews with him.
Our conversations always triggered the post-traumatic stress symptoms with which the conflict has left him. For me it wasn’t always easy to think and feel my way into a life which seemed so alien to my own. Part of the journey was recognising that although Alistair’s experiences were extreme, we shared the same human responses. I was brought face to face with my own potential for violence, my lack of understanding about words I use so glibly, like ‘forgiveness’, ‘peace and justice’, ‘unconditional love.’ I was invited, in so far as it is possible, to see things from the inside, instead of judging from the outside. I want to know now what people mean when they talk about ‘forgiveness’. I realise our interpretations are all different, and those who speak so easily about it rarely understand the cost and challenge of living a forgiving life. I see now that there are times when individuals and communities are emerging out of conflict when peace and justice can’t go hand in hand, and justice may need to be put on hold for a while in order to build a firmer foundation for peace. Intellectually that position doesn’t make sense, but experientially it’s how things work.
And what about this concept of unconditional love that is so crucial to me? What does that mean when a person consistently and intentionally destroys the lives of others? What qualifications might we add to the term ‘unconditional’? I realise there’s a lot of superficial lip service paid to peace-building because if we’re really serious about it, it means stripping away so much of what we cling on to for security in terms of our understanding. Most people talk of peace but few realise the cost of making it. Things are rarely black and white. As a priest for the whom the picture of an unconditionally loving God is central, I had to acknowledge that for an angry young man who had lost sight of his own humanity and couldn’t give a damn about other human beings, it was only the belief in an angry God who would one day call him to account, that enabled him to turn his life around. Such an image goes against all I believe, but it helped to save Alistair from his own capacity for destruction. Exploring Alistair’s story constantly challenged my perceptions about my own humanity and faith.
Many times as I listened to Alistair telling his story or watched him at work with traumatised individuals I was reminded of great biblical themes: the desire for knowledge and loss of innocence that turns us out of paradisal security into a barren world where we constantly seek to disguise our vulnerability in violent acts and the desire to dominate; the attraction of idolatry that keeps us in a ‘safe’ place of ignorance and ‘protects’ us from the harsh realities of life; the need to step out in faith, face the truth and live courageously with it; the discovery that real strength is to be found in the service of others, and that this is the way of salvation; the profound wisdom that redemption, resurrection to new life, call it what you will, is a crucifying experience in a broken world, and that for real and lasting change you cannot take the Calvary by-pass; the moments of gift when one is surprised by joy and knows life in all its fulness.
Give a Boy a Gun is written in an accessible way, but the story it tells is not an easy one to hear. It was not written for the religious book market, but it has much to say about our shared humanity and inhumanity. More than anything else it’s a reminder that those we consider in our arrogance to be worthy of hell, in God’s eyes have the Kingdom of Heaven within them and with a ‘love stronger than death’ can come to discover it and live its reality in the here and now.Last modified on