Making whiteness strange

Wikipedia

Raging protests across America (and many other nations), raging debates, and sheer outrage (see the close of this John Oliver Last Week Tonight show) – the lid has been blown off the pressure cooker of systemic racial inequality going back centuries.

There are multiple factors at play – not least colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, massive economic and social inequality, a reckless sociopath as President, and the militarisation of policing to a point where moderate white American professors of theology in their late 60s have concluded that America has become a police state.

In the last post I finished with a series of self-critical questions for predominantly white churches / Christians. In this post I’d like to push a bit further.

The questions in the last post focused on the church being an alternative community of justice to the world, not mirroring the world but being a unique place of equality for all in Christ – regardless of ethnicity, race or any other marker of difference. They also called for listening hard and well to black brothers and sisters.

But there is more to engaging with the realities of systemic racism and inequality than asking – and acting on – hard questions about our own attitudes and behaviour.

They should also provoke us to consider the issue of ‘whiteness’ itself.

I mean by this what’s been called the ‘invisibility of whiteness’. In other words, those who are white tend to think little about what it means to be white. I’ll put my hand up here and say I’m in my 50s and have rarely, if ever, thought seriously about the colour of my skin.

By ‘seriously’ I mean in thinking about how my racial identity shapes what I do, think, see, ask, and do not ask.

Yes, of course, in certain circumstances you are very aware of being white. Two examples stick in my mind. One in the south-west USA travelling through Navajo territory. The other in the Australian outback and camping in a predominantly Aboriginal town. The parallel in both was of a native population decimated and demoralised by Western appropriation of land, culture and identity.

[While America is (rightly) in the news, the Australian story of race is beyond terrible in its brutal history of extermination and and everyday contemporary racism].

The point though is that my whiteness only becomes ‘visible’ to me in exceptional circumstances – when faced with an experience of suffering and deprivation caused by white colonialism (i.e., invasion, massacre and discrimination in the case of the Navajo and Aboriginal populations.) In normal circumstances here in Ireland it’s the default – and you don’t think about the default, you take it for granted as the norm.

And Ireland does pretty well thank you on racism as well.

But of course if you are African-American or Aboriginal or one of multiple other non-white identities, you don’t have that luxury: you are forced to think about your skin colour relentlessly – everytime you experience different treatment because of your ethnicity. This from Tobi Lawal, speaking to white people in Ireland:

“Show that you can understand the struggle and understand your privilege, in the sense that you get up every day and go out; you don’t have to think about whether you’re going to get refused from somewhere, whether when you go to work you’re going to have to fight to get a new position; you don’t have to think about whether you go to a nightclub and someone is going to say something to you about your hair or your colour.”

Tobi Lawal

Since this is a theology / biblical blog let’s look at this dynamic in biblical studies. David Horrell from Exeter University, and who comes to NT studies via a social-scientific angle, is one of the very few white NT scholars to broach this subject.

He did so via a plenary paper called ‘Paul, Inclusion, and Whiteness: Particularlising Interpretation’ at the British NT Conference in 2017 which happened to be held in Maynooth, the town where I live in Ireland. So I heard him give the paper. It was published in JSNT and a book will soon be published by Eerdmans called Ethnicity and Inclusion Religion, Race, and Whiteness in Constructions of Jewish and Christian Identities.

To cut to the chase, he argues that how you read the Bible is deeply influenced not only by your culture and personality, but by your whiteness.

And in biblical studies there has generally been a failure by scholars to recognise how their interpretation of the Bible has been shaped by their context of the white Christian West.

This isn’t to say that such white readings are without merit. It is to say that they, like any other readings, need to be understood as a particular reading, not as the obviously correct and normal reading.

He looks at the example of Galatians 3:28

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

He covers a lot of ground (and you can download the full paper here) and I hope to return to his arguments in other blog posts. Here is his conclusion, shaped in the form of a question – one well worth reflecting on.

“Can we possibly imagine that our own reconstructions of the earliest Christian communities and exegesis of the Pauline letters are not shaped, inflected, by our contemporary social, political, religious and racial location? And though it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge it, is not our racialised identity one significant part of that complex intersection of facets of identity to which we should – indeed must – pay attention? Part of the force of whiteness studies is to insist that if we find it reasonable to think that, say, African-American interpreters, or other interpreters raced as nonwhite, might find their identity and experience relevant in shaping their reading of the New Testament, so too those of us raced as white should equally expect that our ethnic or racial identity constitutes part of the package of factors that shapes our reading. I may well be wrong in the way I have tried to identify some of the respects in which interpretation of Paul – and of Gal 3.28 in particular – remains enmeshed in the ideological particularity of the white, Christian West. But I would challenge those who think so to propose their own critical analysis of how this particularity becomes visible in our exegesis. Assuming that our interpretation is uncontextualised – unmarked, unlocated, unraced– is, I would suggest, no longer a feasible option.” (my emphasis)

And if this is the case, the point of ‘making whiteness strange’ is to become far more aware of the limitations and provisionality of our own perspective.

Once we get to that point, then we are at least open to the necessity of listening to voices other than our own in order to more accurately hear what the Bible is saying to us all today.

And if that is all rather technical and academic, here’s a picture that says it all:

It was painted by Chicago-based Warner Sallman in 1940 and became one of the most influential images of Jesus in American Protestantism, selling over 500 million copies. This was one of the first times that ‘Jesus went commercial’. Mass production and clever marketing made this image synonymous with who Jesus was in popular imagination.

How do you ‘read’ this image? For me it is white, polite, Western and non-Jewish. Very much like the Jesus of 19th century liberalism and not at all like the Jesus of the Gospels.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Some Reflections on the Killing of George Floyd, Racism, Sin and Christian Witness

[This article is also on the Jesus Creed blog on Christianity Today]

The death of George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police responding to an alleged minor breach of the law, has revealed, once again, the deep racial fractures that divide America. Cities are under curfew and the police, equipped like an army, look like they are prepared for war with their fellow citizens.

Sin tends to be trivialised and individualised in ‘advanced’ Western culture. It’s a naughty desire that you secretly deserve to have fulfilled; it’s the self-indulgence of having too much cream with your strawberries; or, getting more serious, it’s using privilege and power to shame opponents on Twitter.

Christian theology has a lot to say about sin and its seriousness – and that’s why Christian theology also has a lot to say about racism and violence.

What follows are some theological reflections on what has been happening over the last week. I’m talking about America not because the US somehow has a corner on sin (we are all pretty good at being ‘original sinners’) or out of some crude anti-Americanism, but because of the events unfolding there raise theological questions for Christians everywhere. I’ve travelled quite extensively in the US, have many American friends and keep up to date with American politics – but I don’t naively claim that I, an outsider from Ireland, can arrogantly pronounce judgments (or solutions) from a distance.

1. Sin is a virus that God will eradicate

If you’ve seen previous posts you will have noticed I’m reading Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. Chapter 5 is ‘Resurrection and Death’, and in it he says some remarkably relevant things to what is unfolding in the States – on both systemic racism and coronavirus.

From Genesis 3 on, death is inextricably connected to sin. One way of looking at this is death as ‘God’s solution to sin’ (102). In other words, sin is so toxic that God will not allow it to survive. It has a death-by date. Sin has no future, it will be destroyed for good and the new creation is virtually unimaginable to us because it is pretty well impossible to imagine a world without sin and death.

God is a trinity of love and justice, the author of love and peace and joy. Sin – hatred, violence, injustice, exploitation, selfishness, greed and so on – is antithetical to God’s being and good purposes. The two co-exist in the present, but only on a temporary basis. This is the fundamental shape of Christian eschatological hope.

In Galatians 5, this antithesis is pictured as the conflict between the flesh (see ‘the present evil age’ 1:4) and the age of the Spirit. They are utterly opposed to one another. Those who belong to the realm of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So Campbell says this

“God absolutely refuses to give life to a cosmos that is contaminated with sin. Its existence must end. Death is God’s judgment on things that have been contaminated by sin. It is the refusal to give life to those things that have turned from life to evil …” 103.

Paul’s Jewish understanding of sin took seriously its deadly effects. Sin contaminates and much temple ritual is about purity and cleansing offending pollution. It is not to be allowed to spread. It must be atoned for and repented from.

We moderns who laugh at the outdated notion of sin should take pause. The Covid-19 crisis is a graphic picture of how sin works. God’s response to sin is like human response to a deadly virus (Campbell wrote this before Covid-19 – talk about a prescient illustration). Drastic measures are needed to contain it – and one day eradicate it from the world.

And in just this sense, God is implacably committed to the containment of sin within this world and this age, and to its ultimate termination, in death. The crippling and deadly virus of sin cannot be allowed to spread. Indeed, we are fortunate that God is so resolute in this opposition to something that we tend to treat rather too lightly. (103)

2. We are all under the power of sin – and all of us face death

One of the many myths of modern capitalism is that individuals can exist in a nice consumer bubble, having their dreams and wishes fulfilled with no cost to the planet and in complete detachment from the anonymous and distant people who made those designer jeans somewhere far away and who may, or may not, be working in a sweatshop.

Likewise, some myths about sin insulate us from its reality in a comforting cocoon of private piety.

(i) it does not exist

(ii) if it does exist, it is little more than a euphemism for a poor personal choice that we will regret

(iii) or perhaps if you are a Christian, sin is a wrong action or attitude for which we need confess to God and repent from.   

While (iii) is partially true, it fails to take seriously the power and systemic reach of sin. Every one of us is implicated in it. Every one of us is under its power. Every one of us faces death as a result.

What is happening in America shows that sin is real, powerful, destructive and deadly. It is not a myth or a primitive outdated idea. People who experience systemic injustice on an everyday basis know this first-hand.

And those who don’t have this everyday experience (generally those with White privilege) tend to resist systemic analysis of sin – they tend to limit sin to the individual sphere.

In contrast to this, listen to what Campbell says about sin – and I agree with him completely

Sin extends all the way across and all the way down. We are saturated with it – soaked in it. (104)

3. Racism is one form of sin: it has a long history in America and has spread for generations, deeply contaminating American public life

The diagnosis of sin as a virus reminds us that it’s highly infectious; it spreads death and once unleashed, it can’t easily be reined-in again.

Racism is inextricably connected to slavery; it is in other words a sin with a long history. It’s one of the great sins of the modern era, perpetrated by White colonial powers to prop up their expanding global economies.

You don’t need to be an expert on the history of slavery and race relations in the US (and I make no claim to be) to know that this original ‘great sin’ has shaped American history in all sorts of destructive ways and poisoned public life. (Again, this is not limited to America but takes a very particular form in the US).

4. The calling of the church of Jesus Christ is to bear witness to ‘death of sin’ in the present

The only ‘solution’ to the problem of sin for each one of us is to die – and somehow come out the other side of death, free of the power of sin. This is precisely what the good news of the gospel announces has happened. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has atoned for sin and defeated death.  In this sense, sin has been quarantined – dealt with for good.

But here is one of the New Testament’s most surprising twists – this quarantining of sin and death is not only in the future. The future has already arrived. Believers are already ‘raised’ to new life through the Spirit; they are already ‘new creations’. This is technically called ‘inaugurated eschatology’ and is everywhere in Paul and the other writers of the NT.

If those ‘in Christ’ share in his resurrection life now, then the mission of the church is to bear witness to this reality. By its life, words and deeds, the church is to embody an alternative politics to that of the world. A politics of peace; justice; love; joy; of a self-giving community, transcending all racial and ethnic distinctions; of sharing burdens and resources; of together being conformed to the image of her Lord.

All while awaiting in hope the ‘Day of the Lord’, God’s final defeat of sin, death and all powers that oppose his good purposes, resurrection and the launch of his new creation.

5. Particular challenges for the church in America

If the above is the case – and I think this is a fair description of what orthodox Christianity believes – then this means at least three things for brothers and sisters in America, particularly predominantly White churches.

Again I offer these as observations, simply as a Christian looking on with grief at the suffering, pain and injustice experienced by so many black men and women – many of them brothers and sisters in Christ.

They are not meant to imply that the sorts of things below aren’t going on – I’m sure there are countless examples of where they are. The same sorts of questions could be asked of any church in its own national context of ethnic or racial division. [And some of this relates back to a book I wrote back in 2003 on how evangelicals in Northern Ireland responded politically and theologically within a violent conflict over national identity].

1. The primary calling for brothers and sisters in America is to embody a different story to the story of racial division, hatred, violence, suspicion and fear that is tearing the country apart. The church is to be a ‘window’ into God’s new creation, not a mirror reflecting back the sins of the world.

2. The first response then is not ‘outward’, locating fault in others, it is inward, involving difficult and searching self-critical reflection:

– How in our own contexts, can we actively seek to be agents of love, hope, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation in a broken and divided world?  

– Where do we need to acknowledge our failures to act – especially where our ‘Whiteness’ has insulated us from the realities of the sin of racism?

– Where have we mirrored the world?

– Where have we failed to be communities where all are one in Christ, of equal worth and standing in God’s kingdom – regardless of skin colour, qualifications, nationality, gender, social status and where you live?

– How can we take steps to become such communities?  

– Where have we mirrored the fears of our culture and its frequent trust in force and violence as a means to ‘solve’ issues of difference?

– How can we build understanding and listen to the experiences of brother and sisters who are suffering daily because of the colour of their skin?

3. Only from such self-reflection, might steps become clear as to what acting for justice might look like locally and nationally. But the primary calling of the church is to be the church, not to be a political lobby group to fix the world.

Character and Virtue in Theological Education (2)

A while back I posted a book notice about Marvin Oxenham, Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel (Carlisle: Langham, 2019)

The promised series got sidetracked by pandemics and such. To get going again, here is a pre-publication version of a book review I did for Evangelical Review of Theology, April 2020.

Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel by Marvin Oxenham

Carlisle: ICETE/Langham Global Library, 2019

Pb., 393 pp., index
Reviewed by Patrick Mitchel, Director of Learning, Irish Bible Institute, Dublin, Ireland

“It is AD 2019, and theological education is suffering from Philistine domination. … This book argues that it is time to arm our slings with the stones of virtue and character and reclaim portions of lost territory that are rightfully ours” (p. xv). So begins Marvin Oxenham’s creative, scholarly and passionate argument for a radical reimagining and restructuring of contemporary theological education. In this review, I will unpack each of those three adjectives in turn.

Regarding creativity, as the title hints, this is no neutral, detached academic analysis. Oxenham develops his case in the form of a fictional correspondence from a Christian educator in the West to his friend Siméon in the majority world, who is working to re-envisage and re-launch a ‘Theological Academy for Character and Virtue’ in his context. Each chapter/epistle contributes to articulating Oxenham’s overall vision (Part 1), theological and historical underpinnings of virtue (Part 2) and proposals for practice (Part 3).

This creative move is not without risk; it could feel a bit artificial to have such a one-sided conversation consisting of ‘letters’ that are primarily academic and theological argumentation rather than personal epistles. But overall, the risk pays off at a number of levels. First, the dialogical tone makes the book a pleasure to read (this is also due to Oxenham’s gift for clear prose). Second, the epistolary structure gives the book a sense of unfolding narrative as each chapter carries the conversation forward. Third, the letters help to root the discussion in the nitty-gritty realities of theological education—for example, persuading a sceptical seminary board of the central place of character and virtue in the theological enterprise, or how to re-imagine teaching and assessment in that scenario. Fourth, the conversation with Siméon repeatedly opens up the importance of context. Oxenham has written before on the particular challenges facing higher education in the West within ‘liquid modernity’ and, given his global experience, is acutely aware of the dangers of uncritically exporting a Western model of theological education to the majority world. He candidly acknowledges that he wished he had more space to integrate learning from rich traditions of character and virtue in non-Western cultures.

In terms of scholarship, Oxenham covers a wide range of complex academic territory related to virtue, theology and higher education with the assurance of a well-travelled guide. There are many fascinating conversations to enjoy en route. Some of these cover the difference between spiritual formation and character and virtue education; a critique of loose assumptions of what constitutes Christian discipleship, accompanied by a case for more coherent integration of character and virtue within discipleship paradigms; a critically astute apologetic for an Aristotelian framework to underpin character and virtue education in theological schools; his ‘reading Romans backwards’ (à la Scot McKnight’s recent book of that name, but written independently of it) as ‘a comparatively straightforward invitation to character and virtue’ (p. 211); the author’s familiarity with and critical assessment of the virtues in the classical tradition; and a rich description of the virtues themselves. In addition, as a fan of Stanley Hauerwas I appreciated Oxenham’s frequent engagement with and acknowledged indebtedness to this Texan’s distinctively Christian approach to virtue.

Running throughout the book are extensive footnotes, often in the form of quotations or expanded discussion. I am glad that the publisher did not eliminate these footnotes, which constitute a rich resource for the reader who wishes to take a detour (or ten) along the way.  

The passionate nature of Oxenham’s treatise leaves perhaps the most lasting impression. His analysis of the death of character and virtue in theological education will likely be recognized by most of us working in that field—and by many churches. Oxenham clearly writes with a sincere desire to be of service to fellow theological educators across a theological and geographical spectrum who share his concern to restore character and virtue to the heart of their discipline.

This goal becomes especially evident in Part 3, which explores what actual implementation of Oxenham’s vision might look like at the level of criteria for hiring staff, community ethos, curriculum design, teaching virtue, module content, assessment and quality assurance. He contends that much of what he writes is globally transferrable, yet is keen to emphasize that his work is not a textbook but a work of fiction, designed to inspire and resource his peers in their God-given calling to develop graduates of virtuous character who will serve God’s people with integrity. The book succeeds admirably in achieving that goal. At my institution, we will certainly be reflecting on this book together as a team.

Evangelical Review of Theology (ERT) goes online and open access

Why not take the opportunity to become a subscriber of a very helpful journal which has special focus on theological issues within global Christianity published by the World Evangelial Alliance.

Here’s an announcement from Bruce Barron, editor of ERT about the journal shifting online and becoming free of charge.

WEA launching free online journal

The World Evangelical Alliance’s Evangelical Review of Theology is becoming a free online journal, starting with its August 2020 issue. WEA leaders and other prominent Christians will address issues of contemporary concern to the global body of Christ, in a style suitable for general readers.

To become a subscriber, send an e-mail to ERT editor Bruce Barron at bruce.barron0@gmail.com with “ERT subscription” in the subject line, including your name, e-mail address, country, and (optional) institution. You won’t get any ads or unwanted communications, just a thought-provoking journal at least 4 times a year. Article submissions and ideas are also welcome.

The pandemic is exposing the myths of Western individualism

This post is sparked by reading Douglas Campbell’s marvellous Pauline Dogmatics.

If asked to diagram social relations, very likely most of us would typically use a number of circles to represent individuals.

Each person is imagined as a self-contained ‘unit’, a discrete individual, separated off from other individuals by a social space.

This is a picture of the person as a self-sufficient person, with clear boundaries delineating them from other individuals. Others exist in their own spheres, perhaps bouncing off each other now and then, but essentially each of us are our own island.

Margaret Thatcher famously took this to its logical conclusion in stating that there is ‘no such thing as society’. Or, in Campbell’s words;

Personhood exists in isolation and society is a game of marbles

p.50

But with even a little analysis we soon realise this is a myth. All of us are incomplete, indeed we are crippled, without a network of social relationships. Our very identity and sense of personhood depends on interaction with, and recognition of, others.

This simple diagram begins to hint at how who we are is bound up with with relationships. The self cannot exist in splendid isolation.

By Wykis – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1618169

This is why the pandemic is so hard to bear – we are being forced to actually live like the isolated individuals of Western consumerism / capitalism. And it shrivels the soul and breaks the heart. There is something deeply alien to our humanity to be in enforced lockdown.

For those us locked away with family members that we actually like and get on with this is just about survivable! But we still miss 1001 things about everyday life – its vibrancy, life, and delicious complexity, not to mention hugs, food with friends, and endless fascination of meeting new people.

For those trapped in spaces characterised by toxic relationships, it is unimagineably difficult. For those living on their own it is a lonely wilderness experience, unsustainable in the long term.

Douglas Campbell wrote his book long before Covid-19 was known about. So his words have perhaps attained extra prophetic weight in the meantime. He speaks of the connection between our social identity and the nature of God – Father, Son and Spirit.

We must let this revelation concerning the true nature of personhood sink down into out theologial bones, since it will pervade all that follows. People are relational beings because the personal God that is the Trinity is a relational communion, and we are made in the image of God …

At the heart of all reality lies an interpersonal and hence fundamental familial God. We are involved with a divinity that is interpersonal in the most committed and relational fashion.

p.52

Lockdown is necessary. But it comes at great cost – and I am NOT talking money here. It’s an issue of love. I say this because Christians believe, as Campbell says that

At the heart of the universe is a play of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

p. 55

We are embodied beings, made by a relational God of love to be in relationships of love with him and with each other. Of course we can still love others we can only see on a computer screen, but it is a pale imitation of a fully functioning relationship.

And so, from a theological perspective, we long for the ending of lockdown, NOT so we can save the economy (although we need it to work in order to live) but so that we can love – for that is what we have been created to do.

And, even more remarkably, as God’s children love they ‘witness’ to the truth of who God is. God takes the ‘risk’ of choosing people like you and me to reveal or demonstrate his love to the world.

So in this pandemic, let us be asking ourselves, how can we as individuals and as church communities mediate something of the love of the triune God to a coronavirus world.

Comments welcome

What would Paul think? (Douglas Campbell)

From Douglas Campbell in his big new book, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love.

Not a quote you expect to come across in a heavy-weight academic treatment of the apostle Paul’s thought and its implications for the mission of the church in the contemporary world.

I sometimes wonder what Paul would make of the conferences at which scores of highly learned people sit around and debate for hours tiny semantic nuances in his preserved writings. I expect he might be patient with this exercise for a while, but then at some point I’m pretty sure he would jump up – possibly wielding a whip – and shout: “For goodness sake! Haven’t you read what my writings actually say? You’re not meant to be sitting around debating them. You are meant to be out there doing what they tell you to do – meeting people and fostering Christian communities in service to your Lord. Get off your backsides and get moving!” Doubtless this challenge would be accompanied by the sounds of tables being overturned and piles of pristine books crashing to the floor. (p. 4)

Paul in One Sentence – Michael Gorman

9781556351952

I’m reading a bunch of stuff on Paul and love at the moment. This is from Michael Gorman, one of the most astute and insightful interpreters of Paul around today.

From his book Reading Paul

It’s well worth reading over several times and then mulling over some more ..

It’s all there – can you see anything missing?

That’s some story.

If it doesn’t make you sit up and take notice then maybe you’ve become innoculated to how outlandishly unlikely the Christian faith is.

This isn’t a clever philosophy or an ethic to live a virtuous life. It’s a story of God and his loving action in the world. A story that calls for a response of faith, thanks and complete commitment to a radically different way of life.

How do you think the lives of individual Christians and local churches would be transformed if this one sentence was understood, believed and acted on?

Paul preached, and then explained in various pastoral, community-forming letters, a narrative, apocalyptic, theopolitical gospel (1) in continuity with the story of Israel and (2) in distinction to the imperial gospel of Rome (and analogous powers) that was centered on God’s crucified and exalted Messiah Jesus, whose incarnation, life, and death by crucifixion were validated and vindicated by God in his resurrection and exaltation as Lord, which inaugurated the new age or new creation in which all members of this diverse but consistently covenantally dysfunctional human race who respond in self-abandoning and self-committing faith thereby participate in Christ’s death and resurrection and are (1) justified, or restored to right covenant relations with God and with others; (2) incorporated into a particular manifestation of Christ the Lord’s body on earth, the church, which is an alternative community to the status-quo human communities committed to and governed by Caesar (and analogous rulers) and by values contrary to the gospel; and (3) infused both individually and corporately by the Spirit of God’s Son so that they may lead “bifocal” lives, focused both back on Christ’s first coming and ahead to his second, consisting of Christlike, cruciform (cross-shaped) (1) faith and (2) hope toward God and (3) love toward both neighbors and enemies (a love marked by peaceableness and inclusion), in joyful anticipation of (1) the return of Christ, (2) the resurrection of the dead to eternal life, and (3) the renewal of the entire creation.

A Unique Opportunity – study at IBI from where you are

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News of developments in Irish Bible Institute and new study options for the next academic year 2020-21.

We are very excited about the new possibility of learning at IBI from anywhere in Ireland. While we would prefer to be teaching everyone face-to-face within a Christian community, this new development offers a unique opportunity for students to study from where they live. Please come and hear about the new options, either at our Open Day or by giving us a call.  (01 8069060)

Steven Singleton, Principal

Unique Opportunity

Open Day

Register now

John Mitchel’s Return to Ireland 1874-75

Digging through some files recently I came across this article on John Mitchel I’d written some years ago for a publication in Australia on the Young Irelanders. I can’t remember why but the book never saw the light of day. So here it is ….

John MitchelOnly the most committed readers of this blog may know that John Mitchel, the Irish patriot, author of Jail Journal and numerous other books, and father of physical-force Irish Republicansim is a relative of mine.

There are some other posts about him here, here, here and here

This article is about the last year of Mitchel’s dramatic life – right to the end he caused political upheaval, fierce opposition, adoring support, a women’s strike against men (!) and even a new law to be passed in Parliament banning former felons from becoming MPs.

So, for a change of subject, here’s a bit of Irish history.

John Mitchel’s Return to Ireland 1874-5

For much of the 1990s I lived in the tiny village of Coalbrook, Co. Tipperary. Our view looked out on the rolling landscape of the Slieveardagh Hills, and, by remarkable circumstance, in the distance we could see the Widow McCormack’s house, scene of the 1848 rebellion. John Mitchel, imprisoned in his hulk-ship cell as prisoner 2014 en route to Van Diemen’s Land, with typical outspokenness, called it a ‘poor extemporised abortion of an uprising in Tipperary [at] this cursed Ballingarry’.[1] It was strange, as a Mitchel 150 years later, to wander around that deserted shell with all its associations with the Young Irelanders.

When, in 1998, different events were held in the area to commemorate 1848, I was honoured as a relative of John Mitchel to be asked by Dr William Nolan of University College Dublin to give a lecture on ‘the Patriot’ at the Slieveardagh Summer School. On its conclusion, Mr William Corbett of Drombane, Thurles generously presented me with a bound edition of a John Mitchel Scrapbook 1874-75 that he had purchased at auction in 1976. Within its covers, an anonymous hand has assiduously cut and pasted eighty pages of newspaper clippings containing a mine of information relating to the events of the last year of Mitchel’s life.

Reading the Scrapbook I was struck by the details of a fascinating and (in true Mitchel style) gripping story in its own right. It appears to me that the events surrounding his double return, double election and death have often been telescoped into a brief addendum in accounts of his life, overshadowed perhaps by the intense drama of his earlier adventures. It is these events on which I wish to reflect in this essay.

Mitchel set out from New York on 14 July 1874 on the Idaho, accompanied by his daughter Isabel and a Dr. Carroll of Philadelphia, and arrived in Queenstown (Cobh), largely unannounced, eleven days later. It was twenty-six years since he had seen the Irish coast. Evidently ill, his friends in Cork were struck by his prematurely aged appearance. Newspaper reports described his health as fragile,

‘He looks careworn, and his voice is far from robust, while a hollow asthmatic cough falls occasionally and disagreeably on the ear.’[2]

Sentiment was largely sympathetic to the old rebel, now a naturalized American citizen, apparently back on a personal visit. The Freeman’s Journal opined that

‘After the lapse of a quarter of a century – after the loss of two of his sons … John Mitchel again treads his native land, a prematurely aged, enfeebled man. Whatever the opinions as to the wisdom of his course … none can deny the respect due to honest of purpose and fearlessness of heart.’[3]

After large public demonstrations of support in Cork and Dublin, he arrived in Newry on 28 July, unhindered by the forces of the state. There he was welcomed by his brother-in-law, Mr Hill Irvine, and so returned once again to his boyhood home of Dromolane. After a stay of some weeks, he left Newry for Dublin on 8 September where he was met by John Martin and others. Then on 25 September, he continued to Killarney and thence on to Cork for departure back to America on 1 October 1874 on the steamer Minnesota. The visit was low key throughout, but Mitchel was never a man to go quietly. The scene was set for his second return.

Back in America on 8 December 1874, Mitchel lectured on ‘Ireland Revisited’ at the Cooper Institute in New York. The event was organized by the Clan-na-Gael Association.[4] Its size and long list of prominent nationalists (including O’Donovan Rossa)[5] in attendance, spoke of Mitchel’s undimmed charisma and political influence. The Irishman noted that ‘his love of Ireland, if possible, seems to have increased, while his hatred of the oppressor has unquestionable suffered no mitigation.’[6] Certainly Mitchel displayed no softening of his zealous desire for independence. His speech is worth commenting on in detail in that it reveals much of his thinking as he entered the last tumultuous year of his extraordinary life. In it he spoke with characteristic flamboyance, nationalistic optimism and a fair degree of prophetic foresight. He outlined three specific reasons for re-visiting his homeland. These were thoughts he had kept largely private until this point, ‘you may suppose that while in Ireland, though my mouth was shut, my eyes and ears were open’.[7] The first motive was that he wished to visit his relations in the North. His second was more political,

‘knowing that Irish history is not yet concluded, that it is not a book that is closed and sealed – knowing that a high destiny is inevitable to Ireland, that she is indestructible and immortal – I desired to see “How fares it with old Ireland, and how does she stand (loud cheers)”.’[8]

Although these reasons were persuasive, the third was clearly the catalyst for his voyage. Mitchel had been nominated (unknown to him) by citizens of Cork and Tipperary in a general election of early summer of 1874 when still in America. However, it was the reaction to his nomination that galvanised him into action. His words reveal a man with undimmed political passion. This was no purely private return.

There was a class of newspapers in Ireland which said that I was ineligible; that my sentence of felony was not yet discharged; that if I went there I should be arrested; that a vote for me was a vote thrown away; that I dared not set foot in Ireland at all. Well I would not be dared (loud and prolonged cheering). I said to myself, ‘One of these days I intended to go, and as friends are desirous of my presence I may as well go now’. I felt offended by the assumption on the part of Irish gentlemen that I was a proscribed man; that I was legally exiled from my country and dared not go back; that Cork and Tipperary could not elect me to represent them … Of course, I was well aware that in landing I was placing myself in the power of mortal enemies. It was nevertheless my intention, if any vacancy should occur, to offer myself as a candidate – not to test the question of eligibility, but to get the Irish members to put in operation the plan suggested by O’Connell at one time, of declining to attend in Parliament altogether (enthusiastic applause) that is, to try to discredit and explode the fraudulent pretence of representation in the Parliament of Britain.[9]

In the same speech, Mitchel dismissed the Home Rule movement, despite the best intentions of it members including his closest friend John Martin, as hopelessly naïve. On Martin, Mitchel commented, he ‘now attends Parliament like other good Irishmen, a demoralising practice’. Mitchel argued that the fruitless experience in Parliament of even someone like Thomas Francis Meagher demonstrated that

‘the fact that this Home Rule League goes to Parliament and sets it hope therein, puts me in indignation against the Home Rule League … they are not Home Rulers but Foreign Rulers. Now it is painful for me to say even so much in disparagement of so excellent a body of men as they are … after a little while they will be bought.’

As with O’Connell’s constitutional reform, Mitchel’s impatience with the Home Rule League lay in its unwillingness to resort to physical force. He argued

‘One would suppose that the affair of keeping the peace within the borders of Ireland would be an Irish affair. But no Home Ruler has claimed that in Parliament. That is left out of Home Rule policy. Not one of them has ventured to say they want to arm themselves and become volunteers. They have not breathed so Irish a sentiment.’[10]

The only way England would ever surrender was if she were ‘beaten to her knees’. He contended that Home Rule candidates were not representing their own constituencies but in reality

‘they are representing the I. R. B. (loud cheers). Yes there is a great mass of silent, quiet power now holding itself still, collecting itself together – making itself ready should an opportunity present itself.’[11]

When no vacancy arose in 1874 Mitchel returned to Brooklyn with the clear intention of returning in the spring of 1875 ‘if I could see my way of doing good there’. His hopes were fulfilled perhaps more quickly that he imagined following the resignation of Colonel Charles White MP for Tipperary in January 1875. Almost immediately, on 3 February, Mitchel set sail from New York once again. Somewhat ironically, it was John Martin who wrote to the Fenian activist C. J. Kickham announcing his friend’s candidature and promising that Mitchel ‘will immediately come to Ireland and present himself before the electors of Tipperary.’[12]

Martin’s awkward position was highlighted by his own ambivalence over Mitchel’s quest. He hoped that Mitchel would be elected since ‘no living Irishman better deserves the highest political honour that his country can bestow’. This despite Martin’s view that Mitchel’s New York speech judged ‘the Home Rule movement in particular and the policy of the Home Rule party in a spirit that seems to me neither impartial nor friendly.’ In what can only be described as supreme optimism, Martin concluded that after Mitchel’s election ‘the Home Rule movement will not suffer, but will prosper and advance all the more.’[13]

His benign hopes were not shared by other Home Rulers. Rev. Thadeus O’Malley, in a letter to the electors of Tipperary, passionately warned them not to do ‘an extremely foolish thing’ in returning Mitchel who was ‘utterly unfit’ to be the member for Tipperary. Martin had made a ‘grave mistake’ in backing Mitchel ‘blinded by too intense an admiration of Mr. Mitchel’s rare abilities and his close affinity for him.’[14] Mitchel had given ‘gross personal insult to the sixty gentlemen representing the League in the House of Commons.’  How could the electors of Tipperary send to Parliament ‘its avowed enemy’ who, in light of his ‘expressed contempt for their cause’, would find it impossible to co-operate with the Home Rule movement?

O’Malley developed his case against Mitchel at a more profound level with an argument that continues to reverberate down the generations through contrasting figures like O’Connell and the Young Irelanders; Redmond and Pearse; Collins (post-Treaty) and de Valera; and Hume and Adams. In short, it revolved around the divide between those holding to the effectiveness, morality and electoral validity of constitutional nationalism as against the ineffectiveness, immorality and electoral invalidity of physical force republicanism.

O’Malley argued that Mitchel’s ‘insane notion’ of revolution in 1848 destroyed the chances of the National Confederation of ‘achieving something great for Ireland’ at a time when they were poised to do so. Most damning of all in O’Malley’s eyes was Mitchel’s arrogant disregard for democracy and the assumption that his path was the only legitimate one despite the absence of popular support within the National Confederation. He wrote that although Mitchel

‘had a perfectly free debate upon his motion for three whole nights and was utterly defeated by a large majority, instead of loyal obedience to the verdict he broke away from the Confederation altogether, putting himself at the head of a little clique or coterie of his own.’[15]

Seen from this perspective, Mitchel’s imminent election put the Home Rule movement neatly on the horns of a dilemma. To oppose Mitchel was to be seen to betray an Irish hero. To welcome his renewed political role in Ireland was to invite criticism from an unbending and formidable foe. In the end, it was to be Mitchel’s failing health and the actions of the British Government that resolved their quandary.

Mitchel was elected unopposed on 16 February 1875 while still a day off the Irish coast. With unprecedented haste, within two hours of receiving the news by telegram and before the House of Commons had even received formal confirmation of the result, Disraeli gave notice of a motion for 18 February to declare the result invalid and to move a new writ for the county of Tipperary. His actions divided opinion and over the next few days there followed a rather torturous legal debate on Mitchel’s eligibility and fact that a decision of the House was being used to disqualify him rather than a judicial decision. In the event the motion was passed by 269 votes to 102.

Even The Times said ‘it seems most difficult, if not impossible’, to support the conclusion reached by the Crown.

‘To say that John Mitchel is a “felon” so far that he is incapable of being elected … but for all other purposes is as free as air, is to enunciate a proposition belonging rather to the domain of scholastic divinity than that of right human reason’.[16]

Other London papers however were scathing in their dismissal of ‘a score of Tipperary nobodies’ who ‘render themselves again and again ridiculous if only they can vex the “enemies of the country”.’ The Daily Express caricatured Mitchel as a

‘form of Tipperary caprice [that] savours of Donnybrook Fair or the traveling show-box. The ringmaster, the punster, the posturer – somersault, grimace and grin, all are present in all their comic integrity’, such activities are ‘the refuge of imbeciles.’[17]

Meanwhile in the midst of this controversy, John Mitchel had arrived at Queenstown on 17 February, accompanied by his only surviving son, Captain James Mitchel. That afternoon he traveled by train to Tipperary Town and then on to Clonmel. Crowds of thousands greeted him in both places and he vowed to contest Tipperary as often as a vacancy arose and ‘would go before any Irish constituency that would return him.’[18]

Mitchel was back to stay – but surely no one realised just how short that stay was to be. His appearance was described without sympathy by a Daily News correspondent,

‘He is physically a wreck; pale, wan, feeble and emaciated … he has almost wholly lost the Irish accent, and there has been substituted for it what I may call an American intonation.’[19]

Mitchel returned to Cork to rest as his supporters considered their next move. Meetings were held all over the county during the weekend of 20-21 February, the most important being a conference in Tipperary. In Thurles, ‘grave doubts [were] expressed as to the propriety of renominating Mitchel’ but the overall mood was one of bullish determination that renomination should proceed, not least in protest at the disenfranchisement of the voters of Tipperary. Interestingly C. J. Kickham advised against this, arguing that, after much effort, Mitchel’s re-election and inevitable expulsion would not add to the cause and it would be more effective to propose James in John’s place.

Perhaps if his words had been heeded, John would have lived longer – a second election was to cost him his life. His rapid decline was made evident by his failure to deliver a lecture ‘On Tipperary’ in Cork’s Theatre Royal on 26 February. Mitchel had to be helped from the stage ‘looking very ill’. Mr. John Dillon (son of John B. Dillon Young Irelander) read the text to a large audience in which Mitchel had concluded

‘To elicit from Tipperary the magnificent declaration of faith in the National right of Ireland, I consider that it was well worth my while to cross the ocean.’[20]

Events proceeded apace towards the second election on 11 March. Heavyweight political voices spoke out for Mitchel, not least Issac Butt[21] and Charles Stewart Parnell. The latter wrote a letter to The Freeman stating

‘On broad constitutional grounds it must become everyone to protest against the decision of an obscure legal question by a party vote, in hot blood, of the House of Commons … I beg you to put down £25 as my contribution to Mr. Mitchel’s committee.’[22]

Then, on 5 March, the worst fears of Mitchel’s supporters were realised when Stephen Moore of Barne, Clonmel, a wealthy Conservative proprietor, put his name forward to contest the seat. Mitchel would not have a second walk-over and his opponent would likely be declared the winner in light of Mitchel’s inevitable disqualification. Canvassing for the two candidates was ‘conducted with energy and determination’ all over the county in the days running up the election.[23] One correspondent was even shown a remarkable document entitled ‘A pledge by the women of Tipperary’ that promised

‘we will never walk with, talk with, cook for, wash for, court, marry, or countenance, but let live and die as they like any man who will not vote for and support John Mitchel for Tipperary’![24]

The result, announced on 12 March, declared that Mitchel had polled 3,114 votes to 746 for Moore. Unsurprisingly, the result elicited radically different political interpretations. English papers like the Morning Mail pointed out that only one third of the 9,246 registered voters had exercised their franchise and concluded (with remarkable logic) that this level of abstention entitled Moore ‘morally as well as legally to the seat.’[25]

Mitchel, in a letter to The Irish Times indicated he would not attempt legally to defend his seat against Parliament’s decision to declare him ineligible.[26] By this time he was already confined to his deathbed in Dromolane. His last letter was published on St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1875. In it he expressed his gratitude to the electorate of Tipperary and answered calls for him to ‘carry on the war at the bar of the House and before the judges.’ He wrote

If … any friend of mine in Tipperary thinks he has reason to be surprised at my manner of meeting the present emergency, or that I have, ever, at any time or in any manner, led him or others to suppose that I should act otherwise than I am doing, I can only refer him to my whole past political career and to all my published speeches and writings so far as they relate to this subject of Irish representation.[27]

By this he meant that the matter was ‘now complete’ in that no more could be done to expose Tipperary’s effective disenfranchisement and the ‘fraudulent’ system of Irish representation in Parliament. He concluded with his last published words,

‘So now, my friends of Tipperary, I ask your favourable construction, and bid you farewell for the present, with God save Ireland.’

He died on 20 March at 8.00am, surrounded by family, but far from Jenny his wife of 38 years and son James who had returned to New York a week before.

John Mitchel was buried in the peculiar family graveyard in Newry, originally connected to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of which his father had been minister, but now completely surrounded by a convent of the order of Poor Clares. Revd. Craig Nelson gave the address from a pulpit from which Mitchel’s father had often preached. In it he revealed something of the ambivalence that many felt as they reflected on Mitchel’s flawed legacy,

But I may freely and candidly state, that as much as I loved and admired the man, I had no sympathy with his political views, nor with the means and measures by which he proposed to carry them out. But his most decided, and even his bitterest antagonists must and do admit his honesty of purpose, his self-sacrificing devotedness, his consistent and faithful adherence to his convictions, and his unswerving and untarnished truthfulness.[28]

During the procession, John Martin had been unable to continue and had retired to one of the following carriages. In a bizarre twist of fate, during the graveside oration, he collapsed was carried out by mourners. He was never to recover and died a week later, also in Dromolane. The two old friends, united by ideals, transportation, and family ties were now joined in death.

Tributes and biographies poured in for Mitchel, reflecting his ability to divide reaction in death as in life. Some from a nationalist outlook were overblown and sentimental. The Freeman’s Journal was more measured,

‘we may lament his persistence in certain lines of action which his intelligence must have suggested to him could have but been futile issue … his love for Ireland may have been imprudent. But he loved her with a devotion unexcelled’.[29]

Others from a British perspective were scathingly critical. The Morning Mail described Mitchel’s defense of slavery as his ‘prostituting great talents to a very low end’.[30] The Standard concluded,

‘His powers through life, however, were marred by want of judgment, obstinate opinionativeness, and a factiousness which disabled him from ever acting long enough with any set of men’[31]

The Daily Telegraph argued with some persuasiveness that Mitchel’s political ambitions had failed because

he had no taste for the practical part of war. He was a solicitor and a journalist and knew nothing of that most elementary kind of insurrection, street barricades, and was utterly unsuited by temperament or power to organize a real revolt. His sole idea was that the whole people should rise one day, and that, after a brief fight, the soldiers would fraternise with the populace and a Provisional Government replace the Lord Lieutenant.[32]

However, in another sense the act of failure itself contained the seeds of later triumph. A few decades later Patrick Pearse was to describe Mitchel as one of the ‘four evangelists’ of Irish nationalism who had left behind a holy and authoritative body of teaching to be obeyed by the faithful ‘calling’ every living Irishmen to a blood sacrifice for Ireland – a call fulfilled in the Easter Rising of 1916.[33]

In the light of history, perhaps one of the most mistaken claims of the British papers was by The Morning Post that

‘we cannot believe that Mr. Mitchel’s opinions are shared by any considerable number of Irish electors. He was, we imagine, the last exponent of them that will attract any considerable attention.’[34]

The debate continues. Iconoclastic Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers described Mitchel as the exhibiting ‘the psychopathology of the terrorist’ in his apology for political violence as shown in

the personalization of a political injustice so that ego becomes one with the nation; the demonisation of an entire species, in this case the English; vengence becomes a therapy and national requirement; and the transformation of political will into a weapon of punishment, designed to hurt people, and be morally sure of the rightness of that hurt.[35]

Inspirer of hatred or inspiring idealist? Apologist for terror or freedom fighter? Opponent of democracy or man ahead of his time? Arrogant or bravely uncompromising? Wasted talent or glorious visionary? Naively out of touch with religious divisions within Ireland or non-sectarian hero? Which way someone answers these questions will probably rest on their prior political assumptions. One thing is sure; John Mitchel stands out as one of the most dramatic, controversial and memorable figures of 19th Century Ireland.

Patrick Mitchel

[1] John Mitchel, Jail Journal (London: Sphere Books, 1983) 69. First published in Mitchel’s The Citizen newspaper in New York from 14 January 1854 to 19 August 1854.

[2] ‘John Mitchel Arrives in Ireland’, unknown newspaper, 26 July 1874.

[3] Freeman’s Journal. 27 July 1874.

[4] An oath bound organisation which recognised the Supreme Council of the IRB as the rightful ‘government’ of Ireland. The term IRB stands for Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secretive militant otherwise known as the Fenian movement.

[5] Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915): member of the IRB; manager of the Irish People, 1863; imprisioned 1865-71; exiled to the USA where he editied the United Irishman; died in New York.

[6] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[7] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[8] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[9] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[10] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[11] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[12] John Martin letter to C. J. Kickham, unknown newspaper, 30 January 1875.

[13] John Martin letter to C. J. Kickham, unknown newspaper, 30 January 1875.

[14] Thadeus O’Malley, ‘John Mitchel’s Candidature’, The Freeman’s Journal, 12 February 1875. Mitchel and Martin were of course brothers in law after Martin’s marriage of John sister Henrietta.

[15] Thadeus O’Malley, ‘John Mitchel’s Candidature’, The Freeman’s Journal, 12 February 1875.

[16] The Times, 20 February 1875.

[17] The Daily Express, 19 February 1875.

[18] The Daily Express, 17 February 1875.

[19] The Daily News, 18 February 1875.

[20] The Mail, 26 February 1875.

[21] Issac Butt (1813-70): Constitutional nationalist; Professor of Political Economy, Trinity College, Dublin, 1836-40; brilliant lawyer; tried to hold onto an identity that was Protestant, unionist and Irish; defended the young Irelanders in 1848 and the Fenians in the 1860s. Conservative MP for Youghal, 1852-65; Home Rule MP for Limerick, 1871-9.

[22] The Freeman, 5 March 1875.

[23] Unknown newspaper, 5 March 1875.

[24] Unknown newspaper, 5 March 1875.

[25] The Morning Mail, 13 March 1875.

[26] The Irish Times, 12 March 1875.

[27] The Freeman’s Journal, March 17 1875.

[28] Revd. Craig Nelson, funeral oration for John Mitchel, Morning Mail, 24 March 1875.

[29] The Freeman’s Journal, 22 March 1875.

[30] The Morning Mail, 22 March 1875.

[31] The Standard, 22 March 1875.

[32] The Daily Telegraph, 22 March 1875.

[33] Patrick Pearse, Political Writings and Speeches (Talbot Press: Dublin, 1952) 91.

[34] The Morning Post, 22 March 1875.

[35] Kevin Myers, ‘The Physical Force Tradition’ in Kevin Myers: From the Irish Times column ‘An Irishman’s Diary’, (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000) 31.