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.

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.

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (9)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Yes, God’s people are to love, even love their enemies, because that is the character of God himself, but since God is also a righteous and holy God that wants justice amongst his people and in the world, it seems to me that while love is not a social program in the Bible, nonetheless, it is a viewed, perhaps as a byproduct, as a means to change society for the better. Yes we love the marginalized because God loves them, but that love has no concreteness to it if we are not trying to improve their living conditions etc. Jesus after all told us we need to be feeding, clothing, and visiting the least of these in prison. That sounds like a social program to me, even if it’s motivated by love. Comments?

PATRICK: I agree. Love is tangible action for the good of another. I conclude chapter 2 on Deuteronomy 10 with an appeal for Christian integral mission based on loving others in need as we have been loved by God. In regard to the global refugee crisis, for example, I say

“One thing is sure: our hard-edged capitalist culture has no room for those who are not contributing to its ruthless system of acquisition and consumption. The church’s vocation is to provide, with generosity and love, that room for those forcibly displaced” (p.41).

As you know, the history of evangelicalism during the 20th century was marked by major divisions over the relationship between the gospel and social action. It was John Stott and Billy Graham who had a key role in Lausanne 1974 in helping the evangelical movement recover from an unbiblical split of the two that had characterized 20th century fundamentalism. I’m certainly not wanting to go down that fundamentalist path of retreat from social action. My critique is of a hermeneutical jump where the New Testament’s overwhelming emphasis on love within God’s new covenant community is uncritically broadened to apply to the world in general. For example, where Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community subtly shifts to become a basis for political action to end all poverty.

BEN: Let’s talk about the Shema for a moment (pp. 56ff.). As you rightly stress, ahav is the word here for love, which is a more generic term used for the love of all sorts of things and people in the OT. It even is used for the love of mundane things— like Esau’s soup! And as you rightly stress, loving God involves cognitive as well as affective and behavioral love. My issue with the Shema is— how in the world was hard-hearted Israel supposed to love in the total way described in the text when they did not yet have the ongoing internal presence of the Holy Spirit in them and in their community? This sounds like the Don Quixote song ‘To dream the impossible dream’ or like Thomas More’s Utopia. Even Christians who are full of the Holy Spirit have trouble loving God with all they are and have. So how should we view incredibly demanding exhortations like this without trivializing them as just dramatic hyperbole?

PATRICK: I guess that question could apply to all of the OT in comparison to the NT. As you know much better than me, 2 Corinthians 3 is probably the most explicit text in the NT in terms of comparing the ministry of the Spirit Old to New. It is with Christ and the gift of the Spirit that God’s people now have the ‘veil removed’ and are able to ‘see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror’ (2 Cor 3:18). In regard to love, I see it like this: human love for God in Deuteronomy is obviously real. God doesn’t give intentionally impossible commands. But in the NT, humans can enter into a deeper transformative relationship of love with God through the Spirit of Jesus. The Old foreshadows fulfillment in the New. (And we should say, present new covenant experience of love in turn foreshadows perfection of love to come in the new creation – 1 Cor. 13).

As an aside, this relates to wider theological debates about love within the Christian tradition which I could only mention in passing in the book. Luther’s theology of love is particularly interesting and significant. He distinguished between divine love (amor Dei) and human love (amor hominis). Humans have genuine capacity to love, but this love is marred by sin. God’s love alone is perfect; it loves what is sinful (humanity) in order to make it good. We are not loved for our innate lovability, but out of God’s grace. It is being united to Christ through faith, that we are enabled to love both God and fellow humans aright. In other words, justification by faith leads to participation in God’s love. A couple of quotes from Luther illustrate the point:

“Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts” (Table Talk, 1533). “[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (8)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook

 

BEN: Let’s talk about the circumcision of the heart, an important idea in both the OT (p. 37) and the NT. On the face of it, the text of Deut. 10.16ff. indicates that God’s people must circumcise their own hearts— they must repent, not be hard-hearted etc. and turn back to God and thus be able to love God. But in the NT this act of internal circumcision seems to be the work of the Spirit. It seems to be something humans can’t do for themselves or to themselves, at least not without divine help. How do you view this matter? Where should the emphasis lie?

PATRICK: That’s a very interesting question. I think there are strong continuities here OT to NT. In both cases the great good news is God’s prior love which elicits a human response of love in return.

The chapter on Deuteronomy 10 is called ‘God’s love for the outsider’. Love is a major theme in Deuteronomy (think the Shema of 6:4-5) and in chapter 10 Israel is told to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:19). Verse 19 is paired with verse 16, “ Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” Their love of the ‘Other’ does not come naturally, it requires repentance and a turning of their hearts (the seat of identity) to God. What ‘circumcision of the heart’ seems to mean here is internalizing the generous and indiscriminate love of Yahweh himself who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (10:18) and remembering how they themselves were beneficiaries of such life-saving love.

There is a strong continuity here with Paul’s talk about true circumcision being a matter of the heart, a spiritual response to God not merely an external physical act (Rom 2:28-29). In both cases circumcision of the heart has to do with appropriate human response to God’s prior love. Yet it is not all dependent on human will. Deuteronomy 30:6 locates heart circumcision with God: “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” In the NT, it seems to me, this promise is fulfilled in the gift of the Spirit whose fruit is primarily love. Again, there is both continuity and discontinuity – the Spirit enables believers to love and be in relationship with God and one another in a way that was not available in the OT.

BEN: There is a strong emphasis in your book on the church being the church, and you see the social side of the Gospel as a sort of overflow to local communities, but not a matter of a direct focus on the world and changing the world (p.283 especially). I was thinking about the Salvation Army while reading this, and thinking they at least would strongly disagree with some of this, with the church focusing on itself and loving itself, and simply being an alternative witness, rather than having a direct prophetic ministry in the culture, and a reaching out to better the culture quite apart from evangelism. John Wesley once said there is no spiritual holiness without social holiness, and he went about prodding Wilberforce to get the abolition legislation passed in Parliament to the day he died. He went about founding orphanages, and poor houses, which is eventually where General Booth got the idea. I know you are not talking about the church becoming like the Amish, and withdrawing from culture and society, but could you articulate for us what you do mean to say a bit more clearly?

PATRICK: One theme that was continually reinforced for me in researching chapters on the Old Testament and the New, is how the Bible’s overwhelming emphasis is on the spiritual authenticity of the community of the people of God, called to obey and imitate their God in every aspect of their lives together. And love is what that life together looks like. I say on the page you mention that “There is virtually no focus, Old Testament or New, on transforming the world outside the covenant community.” Love for God and each other is the missional task of the Church.

Now, as your question suggests, that sounds like a pretty insular thing to say! If seems to fly in the face of a lot of evangelical social and political activism, but I think we need to take seriously how uniform Scripture is on this theme. I believe that the primary calling of the church is to be the church – a foretaste of God’s kingdom and justice in the present. I worry when I see Christians ‘leaving the church behind’ and becoming consumed with making this world a better place through social and political action. I wonder if this turn to politics is in part a disillusionment with the church and a lack of confidence in the gospel – as if persuading those in power to do the right thing will advance the kingdom. In contrast, I’m struck by Jesus’ and the New Testament’s rather magnificent disinterest in the affairs of Empire. The real king of the world is the risen Lord.

This is not to say Christians in their individual lives, and local churches in their communities, should not be busy showing God’s love and justice with those in need around them (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12). This is a ‘bottom up’ witness to the world, not a Christendom ‘top-down’ attempt to control levers of power. I could start to comment on (some) evangelicals in your part of the world Ben and their apparently uncritical support of a certain President in order to advance Christian values through profoundly unchristian means – but I’ve probably said too much already!

BEN: Interesting that you brought that up, your fellow resident of Dublin, who is certainly a Christian, by whom I mean Bono, would disagree with your reading of the material rather strongly. But I don’t disagree that the primary mission is for us to be the church in the world and fulfill the great commandment as well as the great commission. Nor do I disagree with your critique of things in America where the civic and Christian religion are syncretized in unhelpful and unBiblical ways.

Detoxing from the news this Brexit Day

On this ‘historic’ ‘B-Day’ – a post about the news.

I haven’t listened to RTE news (or any Irish news station) for a long time – I used to consume them voraciously. Neither do I watch RTE. Some years ago we got rid of the TV, so I don’t watch the news there or watch online (I confess that I’m rather delighted not to pay the licence fee. Long may it last before threatened action by the Govt to introduce a ‘household charge’ for RTE regardless of whether you ever watch it or not as an act of enforced patriotism to support ‘the national broadcaster’. There’s something Stalinesque about that argument Richard Bruton).

The first time I realised that an election had suddenly been called in Ireland (for 8 February rather than an expected date in May) was walking home one evening from work and seeing two guys up a ladder putting up election posters.

I joined Facebook for a day about 10 years ago, regretted it instantly and deleted my account (if such a thing is really possible).

I’ve looked at Twitter now and then. I can see the appeal; there are a lot of witty, smart people posting witty, smart things but it’s not for me. First of all, I’m not witty and smart. Second of all, is the relentless assault on the mind of information, ideas, campaigns, political opinions, controversies, trivia, moral outrage etc. It makes me feel like I do when I listen to or read a lot of news – which brings me to the main point of this post which is …

Consuming too much news* is toxic for the soul

(* I’m defining ‘news’ here broadly in terms of information about the world that we watch or listen to via TV or online. It includes social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)

This is a personal opinion (and experience). I can’t say I have a high-minded and carefully researched philosophy to unpack for you. If you want to get theological, I accept that even the concept of the soul is debateable, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

Neither can I say I am consistent. I’m well aware of the irony of arguing this view by linking below to resources that are from newspapers and magazines. I’ve a particular morbid fascination for the unravelling of contemporary American politics that I have to resist getting lost in. I listen to radio news and read online newspapers, but I’m trying to wean myself off them bit by bit. I’m also aware that I am of a particular vintage which may colour my views of this new-fangled interweb thingy. But perhaps, just perhaps, experience counts for something.

Here are some voices I’ve come across that have resonated with my own experience in some way.

FIRST is the well-known research by Jean Twenge arguing that smartphones are causing a devastating mental health crisis. If you have not read this, you should. Related to this, today my Firefox browser tells me that adults spend about 4 hours on their smartphones per day and gives tips on how to cut down.p068myhz

SECOND is the witty and smart novelist and commentator Sarah Dunant talking about a growing explosive anger building within her for years from consuming news of one political disaster to another.If you have 10 minutes do listen, she is quite brilliant. Her response was to try a complete news detox. She went cold turkey,

“… turning your back on the whole seething noisy excruciating mess … cut the adrenaline feed .. I stopped listening to news bulletins, stopped accessing news websites, buying or reading any newspaper, participating in any social media. Nothing. How did it feel? Well some strange things happened. The passage of time, for instance, altered. It got slower. Or maybe that was just putting together all those little gaps where my fingers used to be on the keyboard or staring at the screen. In public, I noticed people more. I actually spent time looking at them. Almost willing them to look up from their phones, and if they did, I smiled … I am up to seventeen returned smiles. I have also taken to breathing, consciously that is …. To tone down the volume of thoughts, to try to be in the moment.”

She knows such a radical detox can’t last. But her experience of making human connection in is telling. We are embodied people. Love and relationship are innately physical, not virtual.

51n1jdr470l._sx314_bo1204203200_THIRD, is the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli who has written Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life.

He can find out the important stuff that is going on without daily consumption of news bombarding him from every angle. He gave an interview in the Irish Times (yes, I know) earlier this month.  Consuming news neither helps us to understand what is going on nor does it help us make better decisions in our personal lives or work.

News consumption, he argues, breeds superficiality and short attention spans. Online ‘noise’ militates against sustained engagement with ideas. It is also overwhelmingly negative and fosters chronic stress, anxiety and has physical effects of lowering a person’s immune system.

Online news and social media works on clickbait. We not only waste time but get sucked into an ephemeral world where nothing is solid. News has become little more than a form of entertainment, desperately trying to catch the consumer’s fleeting attention.

And so the noise, and extreme opinion, gets louder and louder.

News, the Body, the Mind and Eschatology

So in 2020 I’m trying to turn the volume down and perhaps you might give it a go as well.

Perhaps this upcoming Lent, what about trying a total detox from the news and social media and see what happens?

Since we are embodied pepple, what about getting up from your chair, or lifting your eyes from the screen, and getting outside for walks in places of beauty? Take up Park Running on a Saturday morning – its’ a great detoxifer. If possible, talk to people rather than emailing or texting them. Spend the ‘extra’ time away from the screen in connecting to people ‘in the flesh’. Cook food and invite friends around. (Feel welcome to add other suggestions for an ‘embodied life’ in the comments if you wish).

9781540961136Finally, since this is a theological blog, there is a question here related to the mind and what we put in it.

Recently, Craig Keener has written a major book on the neglected topic of the Christian Mind – The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

At the heart of the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) is an eschatological dynamic. It is from the perspective of God’s future that a renewed mind is enabled to discern right choices in the present

1 Corinthians 2:15-16 and the mind of Christ versus human judgments

15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Colossians 3:1-2 and minds set on things above rather than things on earth cf Phil 3:19-20).

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippiaans 4:8 needs to be heard and acted upon in these days of information overload

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The ‘tryanny of the urgent’ within the never-ending cycle of news of human behaviour is relentlessly non-eschatological. It is also relentlessly anthropocentric. Both emphases are inimical to Christian faith in the triune God.

If Christians fill their minds with such content it is not hard to see what the results will be:

– a lack of prayer

– anxiety

– fear

– a loss of transcendence;

– obsession over human agency in the world

– a loss of hope

– anger (as with Sarah Dunant)

– an over-reliance on politics to fix the world

– a shrivelled sense of worship.

Perhaps it’s time to detox and use the body in better ways and fill the mind with better things.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (5) a dual approach to the state (long read)

So how does a kingdom-shaped approach to the world work out in the political sphere?

To try to answer this, I’m continuing to engage with John Nugent’s The Endangered Gospel: how fixing the world is killing the Church.

The third part of his book deals with applied theology – what does a kingdom-centred view look like in practice across themes like discipleship, leadership, fellowship, family, friendship, vocation (work), mission and politics.

So we are only engaging with the last of these, and again I’d recommend the book if you want to read about the others

1. To Recap

Within the kingdom of God, the church is called to be the better place within the world rather than, mistakenly, to attempt to make the world a better place. The church is a ‘showcase’ for justice (p. 166) rather than an organisation that demands justice from the world.

This calling is a gift, it is God’s initiative all the way down.

“Our job is to embrace the gift, display it, and proclaim its availability to others.” p. 166.

This where Anabaptism gets accused of quietism, an inward-looking withdrawal from the injustice and pain of the world. (As far I can see Nugent never uses the word ‘Anabaptist’ in the book, but it is clear where he is coming from).

It is a vision of world-involvement – just not one that believes it is the job of the church to attempt to shape society to its beliefs, even if it could. It is not about trying to pull levers of power in order to protect or advance the kingdom.

2. The Temptation of Christendom

In the modern period, the state has become humanity’s most potent form of organisational control. It governs the affairs of a particular group of people within a national boundary. It commands the right to use force to do so. It has at its disposal the ability to tax its citizens, and has forces like the law, the police, the army to rule and (hopefully) protect its citizens.  These are considerable powers – there are no greater human powers in our world. It is for good reason that many states are feared by their citizens when such power is misused.

So there is good reason why we are obsessed with the drama that is Brexit – it has sucked in the most powerful national institutions of the UK, Ireland and Europe into a morass from which, three years in, only promises to deepen in the years ahead – whatever Boris Johnston says about ‘getting it done’.

The great Christendom temptation for the church was to look upon such power and believe that if the right people (Christians, the church, politicians sharing some Christian values) were in power, then that power could be used to do significant good.

And so the church moved into partnership with the state – a marriage of convenience in which the state also benefitted from having ‘God on our side’ to legitimise and validate the state and its policies.

That way lies corruption of the church. It naively imagines that Christians, who are fallen human beings, will somehow be able to harness the power of the state for ‘pure’ ends. In Ireland we don’t have to look far to see how well that’s worked out.

3. The Kingdom of God versus the State

The Christendom temptation can’t be squared with the New Testament. Nugent has a compelling series of contrasts between the kingdom of God in the NT and the state. These are just some of them and I have organised them in table form. (The wording are quotes from Nugent pp. 184-85).

KINGDOM OF GOD THE STATE
God’s kingdom takes precedence over all other loyalties The state asks for allegiance and a willingness to kill and die for it
God’s kingdom flees from and repents of immorality The state tolerates most forms of immorality that don’t immediately hurt others
God’s kingdom shows equality to all people The state discriminates against citizens of other states, especially those with significantly different political philosophies
God’s kingdom loves without partiality The state favors the wealthy and influential
God’s kingdom seeks peace in all circumstances The state wages war whenever it’s politically and economically expedient
God’s kingdom welcomes the undeserving and unexpected The state considers them a problem to be dealt with and protected against
God’s kingdom assimilates the poor more easily than the wealthy The state esteems the accumulation of wealth and property as one of the highest ideals
God’s kingdom infiltrates the entire world The state is concerned primarily with its own territory and invests elsewhere only where positive returns are foreseeable
God’s kingdom is guided by God’s Spirit The state does not understand God’s Spirit and is guided by the power of the air and the spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:2)
God’s kingdom triumphs over persecution, bondage, suffering and death The state perpetrates these atrocities when individuals and groups stand in its way
God’s kingdom raises people to eternal life The state focuses exclusively on this life
God’s kingdom entails a restoration of this earth The state exploits the earth’s resources as much as public opinion will allow
God’s kingdom judges all powers and personalities counter to God’s kingdom The state is one of these powers and is destined for divine judgment

I haven’t put in all Nugent’s contrasts and I am sure nuances of some can be debated. Nor does this mean that the state does not have many positive functions. But the overall point, I think, is unassailable: God’s kingdom is of a fundamentally different character and nature to that of the state.

Jesus said that disciples are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.  This saying can be paralleled with his statement that disciples cannot serve both God and money. Both examples illustrate that disciples have one master to whom they are to be exclusively committed.

The Bible has a word for when God’s people commit their allegiance to anything alongside or above God – idolatry.

4. What then is a Christian attitude to the state?

Distance and Belonging

Now this may all sound like I’m advocating a hostile rejection of the state. Things are not so simple.

Maybe this image will help. In my book on evangelicalism and politics in Northern Ireland, I used the idea of ‘Distance and Belonging’ to describe a Christian attitude to the culture in which they live. This was developed from Miroslav Volf’s brilliant Exclusion and Embrace. It captures how Christians are to have a dual approach to their culture – of which the state is one expression.

BELONGING

The state has valuable God-given role, if one that is temporary and belonging to an old order which is passing away. The state is about ‘this world’, and a healthy state does a good job in organising practical aspects of life for its citizens – healthcare, local government, infrastructure, providing stability and justice and so on.

In this sense Christians ‘belong’ to the particular state in which they happen to live and recognise its God-given role. They should be praying for the state, especially that its considerable power is used for the good of all its citizens and not twisted to serve the agendas of the powerful.

At a local level, churches will be positively impacting wider society through good citizenship. This is influencing the world from the ‘bottom up’ rather than trying to control it from the ‘top down’. Nugent gives some examples:

  • Helping those in need within and around the local church. It was in meeting such needs rather than waiting for the state that the church was instrumental in starting hospitals and schools.
  • Keeping fellow citizens of the kingdom financially afloat and being less of a drain on the state
  • Being good citizens and employees in paying taxes, working, helping others and generally contributing to the common good.
  • In this sense the church exists for the world’s sake.

“This is part of what it means to be salt, light and leaven. We do what we do because God has called us to it. We serve with the bottom-up power that Christ has infused in us, and we trust in God to grow the seeds that we plant.” (p. 189).

DISTANCE

But, as I read the NT, its emphasis is more on ‘distance’ than belonging. Nugent calls this ‘respectful disentanglement’ (p. 186).

‘Distance’ is required in that, as we have just unpacked, the depth of the differences should mean that Christians have a profound caution about the state, especially the Christendom temptation to use the power and resources of the state to advance the kingdom of God.

Distance means that Christians are simply not convinced by the false promises of the state to deliver a future utopia. They belong to a different narrative – the unfolding story of God’s kingdom with Jesus as ruling King. It creates a different community to that of the state, organised by different values and shaped by a different eschatological goal.

We see distance at work in the NT in its overwhelming disregard for the power and relevance of the Roman empire.

For example, New Testament scholar John Barclay has convincingly argued that what is remarkable is just how insignificant the Roman Empire is in the thinking of Paul (Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 2016). For the first Christians, the might of Rome was simply not relevant to kingdom life within the community of the people of God. The politics of Empire pale into insignificance compared to presence of God made manifest in the world through his Son Jesus Christ and the gift of the Spirit who forms the new community of the king.

We see this in 1 Peter which most explicitly describes the pilgrim, exilic calling of the church in the world.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)

In this vein Scot McKnight argues that the church is to be an ‘alternative politic’ to the politics of the world by being ‘a witness to the world of a new worship, a new law, a new king, a new social order, a new peace, a new justice, a new economics, and a new way of life’ (Kingdom Conspiracy, p. 101).

This means that the church’s calling is not to get entangled in the ‘top-down’ power politics of the world, as if it is the key to making this world a better place. Creating ‘distance’ means that Christians can bear witness from the ‘bottom up’ to a different kingdom that is present here and now within the world, and which will, one day, come in full.

It also means, the church should expect opposition from the state when there is a clash of kingdoms. After all, Christians follow a Messiah who was crucified by the state.

5. Back to Brexit

So this brings us (finally!) back to Brexit.

How are those who belong to a different kingdom to respond to the political dramas, Machiavellian plots, lies, fears, power-plays and complexity motives behind Brexit?

Here are some thoughts shaped around distance and belonging .. and these are very much an ongoing thought experiment, so please to feel welcome to add your own to the conversation.

DISTANCE

‘Distance’ means a healthy detachment and scepticism about the rhetoric and promises of Brexit. It means to trust in a very different kingdom.

1. Disbelief in empty promises

The power centres of Westminster, Dublin, Brussels (and Washington, Bejing or Moscow for that matter) are not where the future of the world will be decided. That future is already decided in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is the risen Lord.

Politicians like Boris Johnston, Leo Varadkar, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean Claude Juncker et al do not rule the world – thank God! If Brexit has shown us anything, it has revealed the powerlessness of politicians to deliver on grand promises of making the world a better place. I have lost count of the number of empty promises made about Brexit.

Those in power tend to believe their own hype that history revolves around them. It does not. As Nugent comments, this does not mean their rule is a complete sham, “but they control a diminishing realm with little future” (p. 190). Political power is on loan from God, it has limited power for a limited time.

2. Humble confidence rather than apocalyptic fears

Brexit has also been surrounded by apocalyptic language of a dark future.

On the pro-Brexit side, the future of the British state rests on a great reversal; liberation from the clutches of the EU that would lead to a utopian future in which control of borders would be regained, true British identity ‘restored’ and economic sovereignty reclaimed. This is a sort of ‘salvation narrative’ and would be a source of amusement if it was not so passionately believed. It is doomed to failure – even if a ‘clean’ Brexit were achieved it will never deliver what its proponents dream of.

On the anti-Brexit side, Brexit itself presages a xenophobic future of ethnic tension, narrow nationalism and economic stagnation. Defeating it becomes a mission of decisive significance.

Both visions come wrapped in fear and use language of ultimate purpose. Both talk in apocalyptic terms of what will happen if Brexit goes the wrong way. Both seek to mobilise their supporters to give their all for the cause.

This means what side you are on becomes a matter of great significance. Families are divided and friendships are destroyed.  

Citizens of the kingdom of God are called not be captured by such narratives of fear.

Their trust is in someone else, regardless of what European politics gets up to. I don’t say that glibly. People’s jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Major political instability may well lead to the break-up of the UK and Northern Ireland could easily erupt in violence.

But the church has always had to negotiate a precarious path of faith in Jesus within a violent and unjust world. Stability, security, comfort and certainty are hardly descriptions of the life of first Christians. Perhaps we have become so used to life within a stable Western democracy that we are especially shocked when our unexamined assumptions are suddenly challenged.

In such a climate of fear where politics becomes a game of ultimate significance, the Church needs to be preaching and teaching its message of hope, trust and humble confidence in God’s future.

I don’t know about you, but it is so easy to fall into the trap of ‘Brexit fear’ – you know those dinner table conversations that descend into gloomy incredulity about the stupidity and unnecessary destructiveness of British politics around Brexit. But fretting about the actions of politicians, their false promises and threats that may or may not materialise is not consistent with faith in a risen Messiah who holds the keys to all our futures.

Belonging: an alternative kingdom within the world

More positively, it seems to me that the calling of the church regarding Brexit looks more like this:

  • The church cannot and should not try to control or influence Brexit. It is not the church’s remit. Nor is it simple to say Leave or Remain is ‘the’ Christian position. As I said in the first post in this series, whether you agree with them or not Christian arguments can be made both ways for Leave and Remain.
  • The church’s calling is to be a new humanity in the midst of the old order, especially in how the kingdom of God is for all people, regardless of what ethnicity, passport or qualifications they have.
  • To reflect something of God’s radical impartiality for all, just as Israel was to love and care for the alien and the stranger in her midst because YHWH her God loved them first (Deut 10:18-19). The church recognises no national borders in who can enter the kingdom of God.
  • To be a place of unity in Christ where political affiliation and national identity is of relatively little importance.
  • To be kingdom communities that are not primarily concerned for ourselves (our own economic well-being, our own political self-determination, our own security, our own comfort) but in which love ‘spills over’ into our local communities.
  • To have a global perspective rather than obsessing over Brexit, borders and national identity by praying for, helping and learning from brothers and sisters across the world who are facing far greater threats and fears than we do.

So what do you think?

How useful or convincing to you find this Anabaptist framework for thinking about faith and politics? (And it may be worth looking back at post 2 at Anabaptist Core Convictions).

Do you see how it is distinct from a ‘world-centred’ perspective that tends to widen the church’s remit to be a better place into a general mission to transform this world?

What issues and questions are not being addressed?

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (4) towards a kingdom-centred approach to politics

If you have been reading these posts on an Anabaptist view of Brexit and might be thinking – cut to the chase, you’ve spent time pointing to shortcomings of other views, what is an Anabaptist kingdom-centred view?

So, in brief, here goes. And I am going to use John Nugent’s nuanced and well-made argument but not nearly do it justice …. I’d warmly recommend reading his book in full.

  • Christians are given no mandate in Scripture to make this world a better place
  • There is no ‘cultural commission’ for the church to reform fallen cultures and create new ones.
  • Within the biblical narrative, God’s people are never commissioned or given power and authority to manage or rule the world.
  • Within the OT and NT, human powers are given delegated authority by God to govern in a way that facilitates human flourishing. The great temptation and trap for the people of God is to become like the powers – to seek political power for themselves.
  • It is God alone who will, one day, step in and make this world a better place.
  • He does this in and through the incarnation, ministry and mission of his Son. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God, which is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, “the reign of God over his people on behalf of all creation.” (p.67)
  • The kingdom is God’s new world order. It is not entirely future, it has begun now. It is not ‘other-worldly’, it is this-worldly.
  • The kingdom has come, it is God’s gift. Citizens of the kingdom are followers of the King and Lord Jesus Christ. Members of kingdom have:
    • Entered in a new era in world history
    • Entered a new world / new creation within the old world
    • Entered new life
    • Entered a new social reality, a new community / new set of relationships
    • Entered a new way of life
    • Entered a new status / identity
    • Entered God’s abundant blessings
  • The people of God have a unique missional task – to be God’s better place in the world.
  • And a core way they are to do this is through LOVE.

Nugent is spot on the money here. As was highlighted for me in writing The Message of Love, there is just not very much at all in the Bible about love for the world or love for others outside the community of the people of God. We may find this surprising or awkward, but it is a fact. Nugent quotes Gerhard Lohfink

“In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament – it we abstract from Jesus’ saying about love of enemy – interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one’s brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else about the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.” (90)

In similar vein, after a survey of biblical material on poor and oppressed, widows and orphans etc, Nugent concludes this

“The disturbing bottom line is that, in the New Testament, love and service are reserved especially for fellow believers. This is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s not what I want my Bible to say. If God cares so much about this world, why doesn’t he give his people an important role in fixing it? Why teach us how to live properly in this world if God doesn’t want us to infiltrate its structures and wield our superior knowledge to get them on the right track? Why not help all people everywhere? Isn’t it selfish to dedicate our time, energy, and resources primarily to the church family?” (101)

The twist here, is that the mission and calling of the church is to be the church – to be a light to the nations, to be a community of love and justice for the world’s sake.

It is a calling to reflect the love and beauty of God

“Since loving one another is God’s plan, it must become our highest priority. No more embarrassment. No more second guessing. No more imitating worldly strategies for making this world a better place.” (102).

And this embodying of God’s kingdom – the better place – is to be accompanied by proclamation of the gospel. Words and deeds. Not via political power. Not by political lobbying. Not by imagining that we can change the world through access to the levers of power.

[An aside – a lot of American evangelical Christianity today desperately needs to hear and respond to this message. The word ‘evangelical’ has become debased because of its links to political power.]

The mission of the church is not to partner with the powers in order to make this world a better place. Lessons of church history (and Irish experience is a sobering reminder) show that the church not only loses focus on its God-given mission, but also becomes corrupted by power when it achieves it.    

Nugent wisely comments that all this likely is making readers feel uncomfortable and uneasy. What does all this mean in practice?

Should Christians have nothing to do with organisations which seek to help those in need?

Is it back to the old caricature of saving ‘souls’ and having little or no concern for people’s physical and social needs?

Is this retreat from society into a sectarian holy huddle? [I know some friends who have lived in Christian communities cut-off from the outside world and they have not tended to end well].

You may have guessed that the answer to these questions is ‘No’.

Since we started these reflections talking about Brexit, what then does a kingdom-centred view of political engagement look like? Since this post is long enough already, you’re welcome back to the next post for more discussion on this.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (3) problems with the world-centred view

Problems with the World-Centred View

In the last post we left off with John Nugent’s description of a ‘world-centred’ approach to Christian action and witness. It should sound familiar – it encompasses people like N T Wright (Surprised by Hope) and Richard Middleton (A New Heaven and a New Earth).

Jesus has inaugurated a new creation in which God’s people are called to participate as image bearers, acting to bring God’s future world into this present one wherever and whenever possible (Nugent, p. 13). We cannot redeem the world, but our action in the present will point to and be ‘folded into God’s ultimate global redemption.’ (p. 13).

And the church itself is to be a foretaste of that new creation.

This all sounds good and right does it not? What’s not to like?

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have unhesitatingly affirmed this world-centred framework. It avoids the undue optimism of the human-centred view (that humans can transform the world along the lines of God’s kingdom) or the anti-worldly and often dualistic theology of a heaven-centred theology.

However, researching and writing The Message of Love reinforced something that I had felt but not fully worked out – that there is remarkably little in the Bible about God’s people loving the world. And there is next to nothing about God’s people being called to transform the world.

But there is an overwhelming emphasis on the people of God living up to their calling to be a community of love and justice in the world.

It is this unique ecclesiological calling that tends to be blurred within the world-centred view. I use the word ‘blurred’ deliberately, because ‘loss of focus’ describes well what is going on.

The specific task and calling of the church to be the church is subtly widened to include making the world a place that better aligns with the kingdom of God. This happens when biblical commands aimed at the people of God are misinterpreted to become general endorsements to transform the world.

Nugent gives some examples:

  • OT prophetic denouncements of Israelite social injustices such as the rich exploiting the poor (Amos) is broadened into a mandate to denounce and fight against all injustices everywhere.
  • Mary’s Magnificat celebrating God’s rejection of the proud and powerful and choice of a humble peasant girl becomes an endorsement for political action to liberate the marginalised and oppressed in general.
  • Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community shifts to become a basis for political action to end global poverty (and we could add in Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ in Galatians 2:10 here).

Many more could be given but you see the pattern: the mission of the church, and Christians within it, becomes heavily invested in political activism. ‘Kingdom-work’ gets broadened to include all sorts of activity that loosely connects to themes of justice or social improvement.

Focus is lost on how, in both the OT and the NT, attention is on the integrity and communal life of the people of God. In the NT, it is the Spirit-formed body of Christ that is now being renewed and which represents God’s new-creation in the world.

Nugent puts it this way;

“… the world centered approach risks putting the cart before the horse. Even though the New Testament presumes and proclaims God’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of all things, it gives primacy to the new thing that has already begun among God’s people. What Christ has begun to do in the church is the core of what will be folded into his ultimate renovation of all things. The order of priority is first Christ, then his renewed people, and finally the redemption of our bodies and then of non-human creation.” (p. 18)

His conclusion is that

“God’s people are not responsible for making this world a better place. They are called to be the better place that Christ has already made and that the wider world will not be until Christ returns.” (p.20)

Quite radical implications follow

If political and social activism to make the world a better place becomes primary, then Nugent argues that this oversteps the church’s mission, eclipses part of the gospel and leads to neglect of believers’ true calling.

This challenges disciples to ask where are our energies, time and resources focused? Are they detached from the church into community and political activism?

Are all our energies and time and money invested in seeking to make the world a better place – whether in political lobbying, environmental protection, business development, social justice activism and so on?

Do we see ‘kingdom-work’ being engaged in any activity that is somehow making the world a better place?

And, returning to Brexit, are our emotions, worries, time and energies focused on the political drama unfolding in Westminster? If they are – what does this say about where we see real powers in the world at work? Are we obsessed with Brexit because we believe that human political power is where things are really at?

Rather than understanding that the future of the world lies elsewhere and that the nations are but a drop in the bucket to the one true God (Isaiah 40:15)

Again, this is not a call for pietistic retreat. It is not a heaven-centred ‘washing of hands’ concerning desperate needs within this broken world and a dualistic desire to ‘get out of here’.

What a kingdom-centred approach to life within the world is where we will go in the next post(s).

Comments, as ever, welcome.