“No matter how far you go, you never forget where you came from.” In the 2021 film Belfast, British director and actor Kenneth Branagh tells the poignant, semi-autobiographical story of an Irish Protestant family suddenly caught in the middle of a violent sectarian upheaval called “the Troubles,” which began in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. The ensuing conflict—destruction to their beloved neighborhood, perpetual friction on the streets, and ultimately fear for their lives—threatens to undo all that this family holds dear. As the film powerfully depicts, for conflict to be resolved, and thus peace found, blood must be spilled—sometimes literally, more often figuratively. Ultimately, someone or something must pay to bring things to rights.

We don’t have to look far to find conflict. The world is broken; we see evidence of this every day. It is part of the human experience. Conflict is so pervasive, in fact, that we almost forget it didn’t used to be this way. The original creation was completely untouched by brokenness. But when Adam and Eve chose to do life on their own, everything changed. The consequences were disastrous then, and they are disastrous today. When we see how conflict affects our relationship with the world, with others, and with ourselves, we are witnessing the legacy of our first parents.

The World

It’s not difficult to understand why Belfast is so compelling for all of us who did not grow up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Every one of us has an intimate connection to profound experiences of loss, fear, anger, and loneliness—that is what binds us as creatures in a fallen world.

Ever since Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:23–24), political and religious violence have been key players on the world stage. The Troubles, a devastating time in Northern Ireland’s history, is an unfortunate part of this narrative. A deadly, thirty-year period of violence between Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists, the Troubles was deeply rooted in centuries-old conflict between Catholic Ireland and Protestant England. When it first broke out, as we see in Belfast, loyalist Protestants began by targeting the homes and businesses of Catholics.

As the film opens on August 15, 1969, viewers are presented with an undeniably warm scene: a bustling street replete with children of all ages laughing and shouting, racing, playing hopscotch, kicking balls. Neighbors are having friendly chats on the sidewalks. Van Morrison’s “Down to Joy” plays in the background. In the midst of this charming setting, nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) is being summoned home by his “Ma” (Caitriona Balfe). “Buu-ddy! Buuuuuu-ddy!” she yells loudly from outside their front door. Adults and children alike pass the message down the lively street and around the corner, telephone-style—“Buddy!”—where it finally reaches Buddy, who is sword fighting with a neighbor: “Hey Buddy! Your Ma’s calling you, your tea’s ready!” With a smile on his face, Buddy heads for home, wooden sword in hand, greeting adults along the way.

“Hi-ya, Buddy.”

“Hello, Mrs. Ford.”

“Have you been fighting any dragons?”

“Only a couple.”

“I’ve got a couple in my house,” says another neighbor.

“Is that right, Mr. West?”

“Aye, and can you lend us a shield?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” replies Buddy.

The neighborhood oozes warmth and vitality. It’s a place where everybody knows one another, where everybody looks out for each other and each other’s kids. It’s a kind of extended family.

But we also get the premonition that Branagh is setting the stage. The tranquility is too good to last. Something is coming.

As Buddy nears his home, he notices a large crowd of angry, shouting people holding clubs gathering at the opposite end of his street. He stops and stares, dumbfounded. “Get the kids inside!” someone screams. Suddenly, there is a deafening explosion in front of him. Fire breaks out all around. The mob starts barreling down the street toward him, hurtling rocks. One menacing man swings a heavy chain; others are shattering windows. Buddy, frozen in place, is yanked up and carried inside by Ma, her calls for him having become frantic screams. The opening picture of a peaceful neighborhood has been shattered. Terror has entered the scene.

Years ago, at the tail end of the Troubles but during a particularly heightened time of tension, my family participated in a program called the Ulster Project. The Ulster Project was founded by an Irish Anglican priest who had visited the United States and was struck by watching kids of differing church affiliations playing happily together. His program was meant to be a tangible experience for the Irish to interact peacefully with others from different political and religious backgrounds. That summer of 1990, ten Catholic and ten Protestant teens from Northern Ireland traveled all the way to Nashville, Tennessee, to live for a month with American families. Their time was spent in regular social interaction with one another. They became friends. The hope was that they would take from their time a vision of working together and enjoying each other, something they did not usually see exemplified at home.

Buddy’s street is unique though: it is a mixture of working-class Protestants and Catholics, who are supposed to hate each other. But these neighbors are not enemies; they are friends. They don’t ask to be a part of the religious conflict. Even so, their more radical counterparts are having none of it. Someone has to pay for the societal ills. Blood must be spilled before peace will be found. As religious hatred begins poisoning the streets of Belfast, the neighborhood where Pa, Ma, Buddy, and Buddy’s older brother, Will, live becomes an innocent casualty.


In the midst of a city coming apart at the seams, Branagh gives us a picture of something good: Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma’s marriage. Their beautifully tumultuous relationship is seamlessly portrayed in Belfast through laughter, dancing, and affection, as well as heated arguments, slammed phones, and thrown dishes. Their love for each other is unquestionable but not invincible. The more the danger escalates in Belfast, the more tenuous their marriage becomes. Pa especially is under increasing pressure from fanatic loyalist Billy Clanton, who believes that those who are not a part of “the cause” are the enemy.

Pa and Ma have to come to terms with the fact that their beloved neighborhood—where they are surrounded by friends and family—is no longer a safe place to raise their boys. “This is the time to think about making a new start,” says Pa, “We’re living in a civil war.” For Pa, protection of his family is priority. He already commutes to England regularly for his work as a joiner, but when he begins suggesting the family relocate there, Ma isn’t having it. She knows “nothing else but Belfast.” This is their home, their family. These are their roots.

In one pivotal scene, Pa and Ma sit together on a bus before Pa leaves for another two-week stint of work. Distressed, Ma says: “You and me, we’ve known each other since we were toddlers. We’ve known this street and every street around it all our lives. And every man, woman, and child that lives in every bloody house, whether we like it or not. I like it. And you say we’d have a wee garden for the boys. But, here, they can play wherever the hell they like because everybody knows them, everybody likes them, and everybody looks after them.” Their neighborhood is their family. She knows what leaving it will cost them.

Though fraught with conflict, Pa and Ma’s relationship is innately appealing. There is beauty in the brokenness. Their struggling relationship gives us a tangible image of what humans long for: fierce loyalty, raw emotion, brutal honesty, deep love. But as the film so aptly reveals, not even these ingredients are enough to make a marriage last. As the violence increases and people are killed, Pa and Ma still can’t agree on whether or not to leave Belfast. You wonder if they are going to make it. They wonder if they are going to make it. When Ma wants to put their decision off yet again until Easter, Pa replies: “I don’t think you and me have got ’til Easter.” They are at an impasse.

The complexity of Pa and Ma’s marriage resonates with many of us. Our relationships—especially close relationships—are broken. After all, relationship is where Self and Other intersect—and we are experts on Self but rarely on the Other. But sacrifice is necessary for any relationship to thrive. And sacrifice and Self don’t get along very well.

Relational conflict, however, can be a singular opportunity for growth if we learn how to attune to one another. Picture the somewhat-archaic image of trying to find a station on a radio dial: first you turn the knob a little to the left, then a little to the right, in an attempt to find the clearest, most static-free signal. Relational attunement is similar; it’s the willingness to “dial in” to another person’s needs. It not only requires patience and careful attention, but also humility. C.S. Lewis once defined humility as the act of “not thinking less of yourself [but] thinking of yourself less.” Relational attunement is the subtle ability to differentiate between your needs and those of another, and to risk moving toward that person even when you don’t feel like it or know the outcome. This is not easy or natural and can, at times, feel like a sort of “blood spilling.”

Toward the end of Belfast, Ma finally changes her mind about leaving, though it takes a brush with death to cause her to attune to her family’s needs. When she and Buddy are taken hostage in a final stand-off with Billy Clanton, she wakes up and realizes she is holding on to a pipe dream. Her comfort and familiarity must be sacrificed for the sake of her family’s peace and safety.


After the initial attack on Buddy’s street, imposing barricades are erected at the end of the road and guarded by troops around the clock. Official papers must be shown in order to pass. One of the film’s more haunting images is the morose-faced men who patrol the street nightly with torches, while spotlights search back and forth. Life as Buddy knows it has changed.

When the Protestant minister preaches a heated, heavy-handed sermon about how everyone must choose the right “fork in the road,” Buddy can’t stop thinking about it. He draws a picture of this “road,” then stays awake at night obsessing over it. Which way is he supposed to go—left or right? His fixation on the sermon’s imagery is telling, revealing the inner turmoil of a nine-year-old boy who is deeply confused. A little boy whose safe, innocent world is crumbling around him, and he can’t make sense of it.

Amidst this inner chaos, Buddy is able to find respite and joy in two constants: his grandparents and entertainment. Buddy’s close relationship with his grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds), is an endearing thread woven throughout Belfast. In their steady love and care for Buddy, they prove to be the incarnation of relational attunement. They know what he needs emotionally because they are paying attention. As Pop helps him with his homework, Buddy confides to him about the girl he likes in school, asking for advice. He even shares his fears about the possibility of leaving Belfast. In particular, he worries people in England won’t be able to understand the way he talks. Pop replies, in his wonderfully thick Irish accent: “If they can’t understand you, then they’re not listening, and that’s their problem.” As life becomes increasingly unpredictable, Pop reminds Buddy: “You know who you are, don’t ya?… You’re Buddy, from Belfast… where everybody knows ya.” Granny and Pop are an invaluable source of both rootedness and connection for Buddy as he navigates the turbulent waters.

Another constant for Buddy is the world of entertainment: television, movies, and plays such as old westerns, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and A Christmas Carol. The cinema is a place of comfort for Buddy. It is where the whole family can go and laugh together, where Buddy can get lost in other people’s stories, in other worlds. It is a place where, for a couple of hours, they can all forget the hate, the explosions, and the palpable threat of violence looming all around them.

As Buddy struggles with his changing world, he directly encounters the “fork in the road” when his cousin Moira wants him to join her gang. He is hesitant, but naive. He lacks the self-awareness to say no. Consequently, stealing a piece of chocolate from Mr. Singh’s store one day turns into unwittingly being a part of raiding and pillaging a supermarket—and then being taken hostage—on another day. Buddy has gotten in way over his head. And in the process, there has been a loss of innocence for him. He can’t go back; he’s seen too much evil. This loss is further exacerbated by his beloved Pop’s steady decline and eventual death.

We don’t have ardent nationalists storming our streets, but life can still bring us to a crossroad with ourselves. Conflict comes in every shape and size, whether that be emotional, psychological, spiritual, or physical. Our world is broken. Several years ago, a close friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. For that one heart-wrenching year, we watched the conflict she faced with her own body: surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. But the real battle was fought on a psychological, emotional, and spiritual level. She wrestled openly and honestly with how her body could turn on her in her late thirties, with young children. Her questions were desperate and searching; her grief was raw. Her body had to pay the price for a havoc-wreaking disease. How could such ugliness have such power? Where was the redemption? Many questions were left unanswered, then and now.

Costly Peace

At the end of Belfast, Pa, Ma, Buddy, and Will do manage to find a sort of peace, and this without their own blood actually spilling (although they come harrowingly close). But what is the price? As Branagh shows his viewers, peacemaking doesn’t mean the absence of heartache. Peace exacts a price from everyone in the family. For Ma and Pa, there is a loss of identity, as they leave the only community they have ever known. For Will and Buddy, they lose the only context they’ve ever known, troubled though it is. Buddy also leaves behind something of his innocence. Meanwhile, Granny faces a double loss: Pop is gone and the rest of her family departs for England, leaving her all alone. And all of this heartache for a form of peace.

It’s not difficult to understand why Belfast is so compelling for all of us who did not grow up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Every one of us has an intimate connection to profound experiences of loss, fear, anger, and loneliness—that is what binds us as creatures in a fallen world. The beauty of Genesis 3 is embedded in the promise God makes to Eve: her offspring will crush the head of evil. God essentially says, “Something has gone terribly wrong, and in order for us to be together I must shed blood. My blood.” We do not have to have lived through the Troubles to know in a deeply existential way the longing for all things to be made new and to have our neighborhood restored to peace.

“We all have a story to tell,” says Granny, “but what makes each one different is not how the story ends, but rather, the place where it begins.” For Buddy, the story begins in Belfast. For us, it begins in Eden. And just as Belfast is a tale of triumph and survival in the darkest of circumstances, the story of the Christian is the hope that our need for peace, community, and belonging will be fulfilled.