Irish Identity (8) Evolving Irishness

In this post I’ll begin to consider changes to Classic Irish Nationalism. In other words, how has the narrative of Irish Nationalism continued to unfold and develop since its ‘Classic’ period under Eamon de Valera?

What would you say are the biggest shifts?

A nation’s particular narrative does not come to an end with the successful attainment of independence and the implementation of relevant state institutions. An important chapter may have concluded, but the story continues. Circumstances change and so nation building is a ‘recurrent activity’.

Such updating of national identity does not occur in a vacuum, ‘each generation must re-fashion national institutions and stratification systems in the light of the myths, memories, values and symbols of the “past”, which will best suit contemporary needs.’[1] Thus, new facets of national identity will develop within very definite traditions.

Although new generations may come to question and even repudiate the values and myths of their fathers, such revisionism will usually operate within the confines of the accepted ‘historical heritage’ of the nation. This is because this common sense of history has been the glue that bonded the members of the imagined community together.

Irish national identity has changed radically from de Valera’s generation. However it has not metamorphosed beyond all recognition. In a sense, the myths of that period have done their work. They still exert a considerable but generally waning influence in modern Ireland, but for good or ill they helped shape the nation and direct its future. At one level therefore, attempts to ‘explode the myths’ of Irish Nationalism miss the point.[2]

Clifford Geertz identified four stages of nationalism; formation, triumph, organisation and stability.[3] While this can too neatly suggest that all nationalisms follow a clearly defined progression, it does, I think, helpfully describe Ireland’s trajectory (except that today we seem to have moved from stability to an instability that threatens the sustainability of the state once more!).

The most dramatic and public of these stages tend to be the second and third – in Ireland it was de Valera who was intimately involved in both and a major influence on the fourth. His nationalism was characterised by an obsession with sovereignty, freedom, language, ethnicity, religion and common myths of descent. However, Irish identity has slowly developed beyond such narrow and exclusive categories to a greater emphasis on defining the nation in more open and pluralist terms. Has Ireland, in A. D. Smith’s terms, moved on, or is moving, from being an ethnic community to a civic type of political unit?[4]

My last posts on Irish identity will look briefly at changing perceptions of the three strands of Irish identity – sacral, historical and territorial – discussed in earlier posts. And we’ll discuss some of the missional implications of these developments as we go.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


[1] Smith. Ethnic Origins, 206.

[2] For example Roche and Barton, Myth and Reality. The stated aim of the book ‘is to substitute analysis for myth’. (See p. vii.) While valuable in attacking Nationalist myths that continue to foster conflict in Northern Ireland, such an enterprise is striking in its failure to recognise profound changes in Nationalist identity since Partition.

[3] Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 238.

[4] Smith, Ethnic Origins, 209.

Transforming the World Series (10) Evangelicals and Society: an on-off relationship

This is the last post of a series that I’ve been doing over at Jesus Creed on what is, I think, an important, and thought provoking, book. I’ve come away from this series with a deepened awareness that we need Christians who ‘know’ how money and modern economic systems work and can also critique them from a biblical and theological perspective for the wider church. See by coincidence Vinoth Ramachandra making a very similar point in a recent post. Anyway, to the post ….

Our final post on Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is on a chapter by David Smith, ‘Evangelicals and Society: the story of an on-off relationship’.

David, recently retired from International Christian College, is an adjunct teacher at Irish Bible Institute on our MA programme, has written extensively about evangelicalism and mission and is an all round good guy – this is a fascinating chapter.

Is one way to see the tensions surrounding emerging & missional church debates between an emphasis on a ‘world transformative’ gospel versus a more ‘spiritual gospel’? One stresses the social and ethical impact of the gospel to change a broken world. The other stresses the importance of evangelism, church planting and individual transformation. Are they not so much in contradiction as focusing on different aspects of the one gospel?

Anyway, one thing David Smith does very well in this chapter is to show that this sort of tension is not new.

Writing from Glasgow, he takes a nearby statue of John Knox as a starting point to root the discussion of evangelical social responsibility in its historical Reformation roots. Calvin’s preoccupation with glorifying God in the ‘here and now’ meant that he had a passionate concern for a world transformative Christianity, characterised by justice and the grace of God, and which served as a measure by which to reform unjust societal structures.

Following Calvin’s lead, in Scotland, John Knox had ‘a utopian vision of the transformation that the gospel might bring’.  Similar forms of ‘world transformative’ Christianity can be traced in Jan Hus and the later Puritans.

The revolutionary idea at work here was that social structures are not fixed by God (the medieval divine right of kings for example), but are imperfect human constructions ‘requiring modification and reform in the light of the revelation of the will of God given through the gospel of Jesus Christ.’

This was the soil in which evangelicalism emerged in the 18th century and the rest of the chapter traces the nature of the ‘on – off’ relationship evangelicals have had in terms of ‘transforming the world’. This Smith does well and I’m sketching his big points here:

The emergence of an 18th Century world transformative evangelicalism – fostered by a strongly optimistic eschatology that the triumph of the gospel would affect far-reaching social transformation. Think Jonathan Edwards and the optimistic ‘Puritan Hope’.

Then, during the 19th Century, this form of world transformative Christianity gradually gave way to what Smith calls an avertive type of evangelical faith. By avertive he means another-worldly and dualistic religion.

  • Growing social conservatism, partly inspired by fear of anarchy and chaos the French Revolution.
  • Increasing class divisions and social tensions within an industrialising and modernizing society. Evangelicals increasingly came to see their faith in terms of personal conversion ‘while refusing to entertain debate about socio-political change.’ p.253.

And the champion of the anti-slavery movement, William Wilberforce comes into the story here basically exhorting Christians in the upper classes to behave morally and so promote true religion. There was little or no emphasis on the Bible’s teaching on justice by the Clapham Society. Aristocratic philanthropists like Hannah Moore exemplified this new avertive form of evangelicalism. In her advice to the rural poor suffering from extreme poverty and even starvation, she simply stressed the sanctity of the class system and pointed to the comforts of heaven.

But there were increasing internal challenges to this sort of status quo evangelicalism, especially among non-conformist preachers working in inner city areas of extreme deprivation:

Famous names like Charles Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, William Booth, George Cadbury and many other not so famous but still significant figures.

And the 20th century continued to see this tension between world transformative and avertive forms of evangelicalism played out.

– Where ‘middle class evangelicalism’ turned inward into a search for the victorious spiritual life (early Keswick Convention in England).

– Where, especially in the USA, under the shadow of a developing fundamentalism, there was an increasing loss of a social conscience in the first half of the 20th century.

– Where many saw world transformative Christianity as a ‘Trojan horse’ for liberal theology, with subsequent inward focus on mission, evangelism and church planting and little to say about violence, injustice, exploitation, and global issues.

And so Smith gets briefly to the familiar territory of Lausanne 1974 and the recovery of an evangelical social conscience, reaffirmed and rearticulated in the 2010 Cape Town Commitment that Scot is posting his way through at the moment.

And Smith suggests that perhaps the biggest world transformative issue facing Christianity in the 21st century is that of global capitalism. What do you make of this closing quote?

“.. the cancerous growth of the ideology of the market might suggest that Christians today are facing the biggest challenge to faithfulness and obedience that our world has seen since John of Patmos caught sight of the Christ who rules over death and Hades (Rev 1:18). The social and economic polarizations which occurred in an industrialised society in nineteenth-century Britain are now writ large on a global scale with consequences in the lives of billions of people which almost defy analysis and comprehension. The world’s dismal shanty towns now house (if that word is adequate) a billion people and a staggering 72.8% of the urban populations in the cities of the Global South now live in such contexts. Statistics like these serve to highlight … that the economic system that now rules the world has become a form of ideology, even a culture in its own right, which must be challenged by the gospel which names Christ as Lord.” p.266-67

Are we blind to the big issues – as even Wilberforce was blind – living comfortably with the status quo of global capitalism? And what’s a gospel response look like?

Transforming the World series (9) Eschatology and world transformation

This is a re-post from a series I’ve kindly been asked to do over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed.

The next chapter of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is by Tim Chester, ‘Eschatology and the Transformation of the World: contradiction, continuity, conflation and the endurance of hope’

Here’s a key question : how does hope of the new creation (eschatology) shape and motivate Christian work for the transformation of this world?

Or to put it another way, what is your motive for getting engaged in work to make this world a better place?

This essay is based on Chester’s PhD published here and which I have reviewed here. As the chapter title suggests, he looks at three ways of framing the relationship between future hope and present world transformation – ‘contradiction’, ‘continuity’ and ‘conflation’.

For reasons of space I’m going to skip over Chester’s discussion of how Jürgen Moltmann sets the two in ‘contradiction’ to each other and Nicholas Wolsterstoff’s alleged ‘conflation’ of present and future hope. Rather, I want to focus on ‘continuity’.

I find this interesting territory, especially given the popularity among evangelicals and others of what Chester calls an ’ontological continuity’ between this world and the next as a motive for social responsibility in the here and now. Chester gives examples of Bryan Walsh, Vinay Samuel & Chris Sugden, the significant ‘Grand Rapids Report’ of 1982, Miroslav Volf and so on. I’d add in N. T. Wright, Rob Bell, Chris Wright and, to a degree I think, a certain Scot McKnight.

Obviously, their theologies are not identical (!), but on this issue there is overlap. And there is a concern to repair the damage done by popular evangelical schemes of radical discontinuity that imagine the total destruction of this world and where Christian hope becomes more or less as ‘a ticket to get the hell out of here’ (my words not Chester’s.)

Here’s how Chester describes the continuity case:

“If salvation is cosmic in scope, they have argued, then work done in the world will be redeemed along with creation. This continuity gives our actions eternal significance  – our mission work, our attempts to foster a distinctively Christian culture, will have value not only for this world but even for the world to come.” (233)

That there is some sort of continuity is undisputed. Texts like 1 Cor 3:10-15, Rev 14:13; 21:24, 26 all point to it. Jesus’ physical resurrection also suggests a type of continuity between present physical bodies and resurrected spiritual bodies fitted for the New Creation (1 Cor. 15).

But those arguing for some form of ‘ontological continuity’ take this a step further. For example, Miroslav Volf suggests that our work represents cooperation with God in the transformation of creation, not just its current preservation.

Chester cites the work of Stephen Williams in questioning this sort of ontological continuity. It’s important to be clear what Williams is not saying.

– he is not denying some form of continuity between this world and the next;

– he isn’t denying the importance of social action;

– nor is he denying that future hope should and does impact how Christians live in the here and now.

But he is questioning the usefulness of eschatological continuity as a motive for social action.

– he says that the primary biblical motive for seeking justice and caring for the vulnerable is love, regardless of one’s precise understanding of eschatology.

– Williams also questions how meaningful it is to talk of human achievements continuing into the new creation. The more concrete questions we ask the more obvious it becomes that we simply don’t know. Vague possibility isn’t the same as hope in the NT sense.

So, concludes Chester, continuity is at best ambiguous as a motive for social action. At worst it can turn into an ‘eschatology of glory’ which seeks the victory of the resurrection by by-passing the cross. A theology of the cross will see glory and victory as present now, but in a hidden form, in the midst of shame, weakness and suffering. ‘This is true for personal discipleship and it is true of world transformation.’ (244)

This raises a question: evangelicals [dare I say particularly Americans? ;)] are not exactly known for their lack of confidence in being able to ‘change the world’. Sometimes that confidence can be astonishing. But is such evangelical overconfidence actually a symptom of a ‘theology of glory’ that leaves little room for a ‘theology of the cross’?

And if evangelicals were more profoundly marked by the cross what implications might this have for how they deal with suffering, marginalisation and weakness?

Transforming the World Series (8) The atonement and world transformation

This is a re-post from a series that I’ve kindly been asked to contribute over at Jesus Creed

The next chapter of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is by Anna Robbins, ‘Public Execution: the atonement and world transformation’

Anna Robbins is senior lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture in London School of Theology (my alma mater).

There are lots of ideas in this chapter. And I like how she roots the call to justice in God’s character. But we’ll come back to that at the end of this post.

She begins by welcoming a growing concern among many evangelicals for social and political activism but adds a cautioning historical note – when ethics drive the gospel, rather than the other way around, over time there became little lasting theological motivation to be socially involved.

So this chapter attempts to lay out a theology of social action. And Robbins makes the case that any evangelical Christian social ethic needs to be shaped by the cross:

“If social ethics are neglected in our churches, it is perhaps because we have a misshapen understanding of the cross. If our social ethics take the place in our faith that the cross alone should hold, then again, perhaps we have lost a grasp of the centrality of the cross to our faith, and failed to understand the transformative implications it has for the whole of life.”

And so this chapter is an exploration of the implications of the atonement for social ethics.

I’ll have to summarise hard here and would recommend you read the whole thing for yourself.

To begin she asks not so much what the atonement means ‘for us’, but what does the cross mean ‘for God?’

To answer this she explores the atonement through the lens of reconciliation and God’s satisfaction. God’s holiness is satisfied at the cross through a judgement on evil and sin. They are put to death (Rom. 6:23). Reconciliation is made possible through God’s grace in the perfect one, Jesus Christ, offered in our place (2 Cor 5:21). Now reconciled, we are deemed righteous before God. And we are called to “live out our righteous status before God, in our context, in our world, we become agents of transforming justice, seeking right relation between ourselves and others and God.” This is the basis for a biblical social ethic.

Robbins draws out some implications for social action from this theology of the cross – and I’ll use her comments as a basis for some discussion questions.

God’s satisfaction in a consumer culture: to be reconciled to a God who is satisfied is to be a people who are satisfied.  What implications follow for those living in a culture of manufactured discontent?

Gratitude: how does a response of thankfulness for the cross motivate a Christian social ethic?

Humility and justice: If the cross is God doing what humans could not do (satisfy his perfect justice) what implications does this have for the place of humility in Christian social and political involvement?

“We must make judgements as we strive for justice, but we overcome those judgements with the furious love of Christ. Love is what God’s justice looks like.” (216)

Holistic holiness: If the cross is a cosmic work of reconciliation, what are the implications for understanding Christian social responsibility as being bigger than only personal ethics to including social and political involvement?

If offences such as abortion, sexual immorality and blasphemy outrage us, so should the AIDS epidemic , environmental degradation and crippling poverty not only  break our hearts but challenge us to work against them in the name of God’s holiness. (217)

And if the cross and resurrection leads to regeneration and new creation, where God’s people are empowered by the Spirit, given the victory in Christ (Christus Victor), set free from the power of sin and Satan (ransom), there is now “the possibility that at least some of God’s expectations actually might be met through our efforts” as Christ’s new covenant community is empowered for and called now to do good works and seek justice for those who can’t seek it for themselves.

In other words, the church is called to participate in God’s mission of world transformation which ‘reflects the work and heart of God’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Transforming the World Series (7) The biblical basis for social ethics

This is a repost from a series that I’ve kindly been asked to contribute over at Jesus Creed.

The next chapter of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is by René Padilla, ‘The Biblical Basis for Social Ethics’

Padilla is Latin American and a senior figure within global evangelicalism. His passionate plea as a citizen of the Majority World is one to you and to me – Christians in the wealthy West. (I’m assuming here that those who have the time, education and technology to be reading and participating in Jesus Creed qualify!)

His plea is that such Christians listen to what God requires of them and he frames this in terms of Micah 6:8 – to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God.

Theology’s raison d’être is to discern the meaning of Micah’s ethical injunction; to live up to it in concrete situations, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of God.

The key question of social ethics today is how do Christians respond to the grossly unequal world in which they live?

– 1200 million people have no access to a public water supply

– 1000 million lack adequate housing

– 840 million are undernourished (200 million of them children)

– 880 million have no access to basic health care

– 35,000 children die of hunger every day

– Between 1990 and 2000, the investment of wealthy countries in development aid dropped by 50%

Padilla has strong words for Western theology (in which he was trained) saying it has been held captive to individualistic and privatized religion that ‘left aside the social dimensions of the gospel and, consequently emaciated Christian discipleship.’

This has meant that the church is too often oblivious to social ethics and is too easily co-opted to ideologies of the wider culture. Here’s a sentence to get you Americans going;

“given the detachment of faith from social ethics we should not be surprised by the way in which the large majority of Christians in the United States have been co-opted by the nationalist ideology of the Republican Party to support a war waged on the basis of lies – the war in Iraq.” (191)

A church without a robust theology of social ethics will:

–  Have little to say to the great problems that affect mankind

– Retreat into a private morality and remain ‘indifferent to the plight of the poor and the rape of God’s creation.’

– Fail to recognise its own captivity to ideology-culture of consumerism

– Be used by the powerful to provide religious legitimization of unjust political and socioeconomic systems.

When it comes to hermeneutics, Padilla proposes that while he affirms and appreciates the historical-grammatical approach to Scripture, it does not go far enough.

– It assumes we can separate ourselves from our culture and context to read the text objectively.

– It assumes our Western context is the norm, our interpretation being equally valid everywhere

– It fails to connect the biblical concern for the impact of the text in living a life worthy of the gospel

The whole thrust of the biblical narrative is to encourage and enable God’s people to live in light of the story in which they belong. What this means is going beyond a merely grammatical / historical hermeneutic, to ‘hear’ how the Bible confronted and subverted economic and political power structures of the ancient world in light of God’s purposes and how it continues to do so today.

Such a reading is faithful, says Padilla for it takes seriously the original meaning and context, but is also ‘relevant in that it addresses the questions arising from the contemporary socioeconomic and political context in light of the moral vision of Scripture.’

And then he spends some time supporting this by unpacking the personal and social dimensions of Jesus’ mission and the impossibility of reading a ‘depoliticized Jesus’ in light of his subversive announcement of the good news of the kingdom of God.

“It meant opting for the power of love instead of the love of power, opting for hunger and thirst for justice instead of love of money, opting for pleasing God instead of the approval of one’s neighbour.”

The cross does “not only point to the way in which ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8), but also represents the cost of faithfulness to God’s call to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly before God.” (199)

The church’s identity and mission as God’s people is to live for the cause of Jesus Christ, the Lord of all creation. And to live by and for this story will necessarily be deeply subversive – politically, socially, economically, spiritually.

And it’s no surprise here that at the end Padilla goes for Walsh and Keesmaat’s Colossians Re:Mixed as an example of how to develop a biblical social ethic that challenges and subverts the lies and injustices of modern day empires.

And all this raises a question I’ve been mulling over for quite a while:

What then does it mean to be a radically subversive follower of Jesus within Western culture? What might this look like in practice?

Transforming the World Series (6) ‘Understanding and Overcoming Poverty’

This is s repost from a series I’ve kindly been asked to do over at Jesus Creed.

Dewi Hughes, theological advisor to Tearfund UK, isn’t afraid of controversy.

Some of his opening points in his chapter ‘Understanding and Overcoming Poverty’

– God does not approve of poverty or of the exploitation of the poor

– There are about 1 billion people living today on less than $1 a day which equates to absolute poverty: inadequate nutrition, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education.

– Being in the kingdom of God means that care for the poor must be one of our priorities.

– But to bring about lasting social transformation, we need a proper understanding of poverty: its causes and strategies for its alleviation.

– The average wage in the UK is about 100 times greater than the average earnings in many African countries (anyone know of the stats in the US?)

– 300 billionaires possess more assets than 2.5 billion of the world’s population.

While there are many complex reasons for the vast differential between the rich industrial nations and poor Majority World countries, Hughes focuses on the spiritual reasons for why inequality is so deeply embedded in the spirit and psyche of mankind.

What do you think of his analysis?

He sketches developments in Genesis 1-11 that include:

– Alienation from God

– Fallen humanity acting in independence of God

– Preoccupation with the self

– Lack of guilt

– Insecurity and the search for power, superiority over others and the quest for material resources

So while we have not lost our social and relational nature – we still value marriage, family, clan, tribal and ethnic identities – we take our insecurity and self-centredness into all our social relations. We are prone to dominate and be dominated. (174)

“The world has always been, and still is, full of empire-builders, big and small, and the poor are still victims of their violence.” (175)

Hughes moves on the biblical narrative. It is God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel which forms the key strategy for overcoming poverty and establishing justice.

Empires founded on the basis of alienation from God, and framed by the powerful protecting themselves from insecurity, will be oppressive by definition (think Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans for example).  Such empires develop into powers whose well-being and prosperity of the included is built on the oppression and exploitation of the excluded. They also frequently use divinely sanctioned violence against those who are seen as ‘hindering the spread of the blessings of the “empire”.’

In contrast, Israel was to be a society built on righteousness and justice.

The point Hughes makes well here is that obeying God’s laws required faith and trust because it was costly and risky to do so.

“It was a lack of faith in God that led Israel to adopt economic models that bred inequality and oppression of the poor and resulted in their expulsion from the land.” (176).

So how does this translate to the NT and the modern church?

Jesus’ new covenant kingdom vision called his followers to commit to what amounted to a spiritual and economic fulfilment of the old covenant.

It takes a lot of faith and trust in God NOT to find security and identity in riches and possessions. Disciples, Jesus says, cannot serve both God and mammon. They are to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth. They are to show mercy – which finds expression giving alms to the poor. They are not to worry about things like food and clothing and resources to sustain physical life because they are to trust in God.

I think he’s spot on here – and it would be good to hear of some stories around this call to counter-cultural faith.

And what do you think of Hughes’ hermeneutical move here? – In our Western context, the empire in which we live is “globalized free-market capitalism with its economic and military heart in the USA. The ideology it espouses is ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ but it is freedom to worship Mammon and the religious express of this worship is consumerism.” (180)

What then does it mean not to ‘trust’ in the empire of modern capitalism?

And sounding very Ron Sider-like, this leads Hughes to two proposals for Christians in overcoming poverty:

1.       Rejecting Consumerism

Evangelicals are richer than ever but give less of their wealth away than they used to. And like Ron Sider and others who followed him, Hughes urges

–  sustained theological reflection and writing on consumerism

– a renewed call for generosity and justice

– living simply

2.       The local church and justice

Hughes notes that too much ecclesiology tends to be focused on the survival of the church in a post-Christendom context. Rather than being self-interested, he urges more reflection how can local churches be engaged in transforming societies for the better? Yet too often the local church plays little or no role in transforming the society in which it exists.

And it would interesting to hear some stories here on your church’s vision locally for engaging with issues of poverty and injustice.

Wow

For those readers of this blog with a scintilla of interest in that greatest of all games (golf of course), this is simply the place to register CONGRATULATIONS to Rory McIlroy on not only winning the US Open but making it look so ridiculously easy.That performance will be etched in the minds of all who saw it. Done with style on and off the course – a joy to watch.

I was playing in a fourball at Holywood with his dad Gerry last Saturday before he flew out to Congressional. He said Rory was playing well. I think that now looks like just a wee bit like an understatement.