In conversation with Julian Hamilton

Trinity’s Methodist Chaplain discusses the difficulties of understanding in dangerous situations

“Preacher, pastor, connoisseur of fun dining” reads the tagline of Rev. Dr. Julian Hamilton’s blog; a well-known figure on campus, and in Trinity Hall where he is an assistant warden, Hamilton’s work as the Methodist chaplain has made him a friendly, familiar face for many who have passed through the Chaplaincy during their time in college.   

Eagerly welcomed into his office, Hamilton tells me his approach to his work as Methodist chaplain. “Let’s do some of the stuff that’s needed around the place because the religious aspect is so well catered for.” The Anglican chaplain organises a morning prayer every day, while the Catholic chaplains hold Catholic Mass every lunchtime, so Hamilton provides something a bit different.

Room to think

A prime example is the initiative “Conversations That Matter”. Held in Antrim over three weekends during the year, Hamilton in conjunction with the Corrymeela community, facilitates a dialogue to “talk about what’s happening on this island”. Students travel to a retreat centre by the coast in Corrymeela —   which Hamilton describes as “the most glorious part of the island” —  to talk and plan three residentials focused on issues students are most worried about.

The clean ocean breeze and and tranquil environment helps foster discussion around these questions. “You just walk outside and there’s the cliffs, and there’s Rathlin Island and there’s the sea and there’s Scotland, and there’s the sun going down at half five at this time of year, and it’s just absolutely beautiful; and so you’re surrounded by peace and quiet and fresh air.” But it’s not just talk: it’s designed to allow the students to work towards solutions to problems. Hamilton highlights the work last year by students to focus on the environmental impact of meat production.

“Conversations That Matter” seems a natural extension of Hamilton’s Methodism. With only 50,000 Methodists in Ireland, “the church has the advantage of having to ask them the deeper questions first”. And that’s exactly what “Conversations That Matter” aims to do. “I hold my Methodist theology quite gratefully actually,” he tells me. He explains the social action component of Methodism is vital to his faith. “There’s no point in saying that the poor and the marginalised matter if you don’t actually do something to look after them.”

Indeed Hamilton says religious practice in isolation is a vacuous pursuit. “It’s just a practice, it’s a habit,” he says, “To me faith is about identity, meaning and purpose, which is why I love hanging around students which is the most natural time that people ask questions of meaning, what is life about?”

Space to Breath

This commitment to social compassion manifests itself most clearly in “Space to Breathe,” a program Hamilton devised which allows young people from Ireland, Palestine, and Israel to come together and create a dialogue. “Over the last few years the most interesting part of my journey here in Trinity and internationally”.

The program is direct in its aim: he describes it as “a human engagement process for peace building; it’s that straight-forward”. Initially, Hamilton brought students to the West Bank without “engaging with the Israeli narrative,” but later he designed the program to incorporate the Israeli perspective; something which he said has lead to accusations of “normalising”.

Normalisation is a term used to criticise initiatives which focus on the conflict but do not highlight oppressive measures, thus normalising the oppression of the Palestinian people.

But Hamilton is not one to dismiss his critics. “I completely understand the accusation of normalisation. Of course it’s difficult to sit with your enemy or the other – especially in the case of Israel where it really is David and Goliath. Israel really has all the power, has the might, and has the bigger guns”

However, Hamilton’s experience growing up in Belfast has dissuaded him from excluding Israeli voices, despite the power dynamic of the conflict. “What happened up north has primarily been because normal people have stepped over barricades, and through doors, towards each other.”

Establishing empathy

It follows then, that Hamilton emphasises empathy as a crucial component in reconciliation. When I ask him what happens when people open a dialogue but still don’t agree during “Conversations That Matter,” Hamilton says that “the assumption isn’t that we get everyone to agree. The assumption is we get people together. And one of the things you can do when you get people together is to see why people disagree and what really matters and what doesn’t.”

This process isn’t easy, as Hamilton explains: “To really have empathy is a threatening and dangerous thing because you have to give something of yourself. So actually to try to be empathetic with someone who is living under oppression, if you’re the oppressor, actually means you have to go to somewhere within yourself where you try to understand what it’s like to live under oppression.”

To illustrate the value of empathy, Hamilton tells the story of the Elias Chacour, a Palestinian, and a retired archbishop of the Greek Melkite church. Chacour, Hamilton says, “more than any human I’ve met, he has a right to hate his enemy, to hate Israelis”.

“Whenever he was a young boy of five or six years old, his family and his whole village, were thrown out of the village by an invading European Zionist army. They were kept out of the village for two years having to set up camp somewhere else. And then whenever they were allowed back, they were walking towards their village and then the army bombed it in front of them.”

The last thing Chacour says to those he speaks to is: “If you leave me and if you leave this room being anti-Israel, then I don’t want your solidarity.”

This experience proved formative for Hamilton. “And so to hear a man like that tell me that actually he needs me to stretch out my understanding towards the other, that would be one of the main elements behind how we came up with the program Space to Breathe.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is commonly referred to as intractable, but Hamilton is adamant that social compassion is the tool to at least begin the journey. “It’s difficult and it’s intense and it’s emotional but it’s also phenomenal.”

Hamilton’s day-to-day work is abnormal in the sense that he deals with topics and problems that only occasionally graze the daily-life of most people, he is immersed in profound questions of conflict, faith, and the nature of the metaphysical but also he offers emotional and spiritual support to anyone who walks into the Chaplaincy. “I’ve had the best of craic and I’ve also been up in the middle of the night with students who are trying to cause themselves serious harm, and everything in between.”

But crucially, Hamilton finds his work enlivening. He tells me he will attend a bereavement group later on, something he is delighted to be part of. “And amazingly, even with all of the nights out I’ve had with students, with all the wine receptions, with all the Christmas carol service and all the beautiful fun life-giving things that I seek God in here; actually sitting with a bunch of people talking about loss and love is one of my favourite things every year.”