Berlin, repentance and thoughts on Ireland

I had a few days in Berlin recently. Had never been before and had wanted to visit for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole history of Germany is there on display, from its monumental impressiveness, its awesome technological efficiency to its unimaginably dark past. A visit leaves much to think about.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Alongside the visit I read Neil MacGregor’s brilliant Germany: Memories of a Nation (2014) and the history parts of this post owe a lot to his book.

Way back in my PhD I studied nationalism and national identity, particularly the belief structures that are characteristic of ‘hot’ nationalisms.

They tend to construct a simple, glorious narrative of the past that legitimizes present political goals of ‘freedom’, ‘self-determination; ‘respect’, ‘autonomy’ and national pride. Alongside such political objectives are cultural markers like language, music, art, literature, food, and so on. Such a combination forms a potent mix that gives a sense of destiny, hope, unity and willingness to suffer – and inflict suffering – in the pursuit of the utopian nationalist myth.

Such memories are everywhere in Berlin. We stayed in Moabit, just outside the city centre in an apartment up 113 steps (!) with a great view of a huge prison across the road which is also Berlin’s central criminal court.

01 prison Moabit

Why mention this? Well, with a little bit of reading (i.e. wikipedia), I found out that this prison was rebuilt after the demolition of an older one just down the road. The memories of the Gestapo and prisoners murdered in the original prison were too awful – the old site is a now a memorial garden. The stories of two murdered prisoners stand out.

One is Albrecht Haushofer who wrote the ‘Moabit Sonnets’. Jailed for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, he had formerly been involved in the rise of the Nazis. He was executed by the Gestapo just as Berlin was falling. One of his sonnets was this one:

I am guilty,

But not in the way you think.

I should have earlier recognized my duty;

I should have more sharply called evil evil;

I reined in my judgment too long.

I did warn,

But not enough, and not clearly enough;

And today I know what I was guilty of.

The other was Klaus Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s older brother, executed just two weeks after Dietrich’s hanging because of his part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and just as Soviet troops were entering the city.

Germany only became a united Empire in 1871 under Bismarck. The Siegessäule (victory column) below commemorates this short glorious period of German unity.


Yet, defeat in the first world war, subsequent humiliation, the rise of National Socialism and the evils of the Third Reich destroyed any narrative of national glory. The catastrophe of Hitler bequeathed immeasurable suffering on the Jews of Europe, cost millions of other lives and led to invasion, defeat and division of Germany between the Allies and Stalin’s Red Army.

Nowhere was this disaster more graphically played out than Berlin with the building of the Wall in 1961 – on one side a working democracy, on the other dictatorship, the Stasi and communist brutalism.

Berlin’s most famous building, the Brandenberg Gate, stood on the east side of the wall. This is where Napoleon entered Berlin in 1812, where the Nazi’s organised mass rallies and where the Russian conquest of Berlin reached its limit.



Not much remains of the Wall. The longest section is in the east of the city and is decorated on its eastern side by art from a 2009 festival.



Brezhnev and Honecker

What struck me is how pathetic a wall it was. Ugly, low and thin – it represented everything bad about Communism. Its cheap brutalism dividing people by pitiless and inhuman slabs of grey concrete.


Modern Germany is therefore unlike any other Western European nation in its relationship to its past, present and future. What is, I think, tremendously impressive is how it has sought to reflect honesty on its shameful recent past – a past that implicated in some way pretty well every German family. As MacGregor says, that past is still highly charged, often silently so. Yet, there has also been a huge effort to deal publicly and corporately with its legacy.

As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe …. I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame. (MacGregor, Germany, xxiii)

The memorials include this one


IMG_8532And this one to the Jews of Europe

Holocaust memorial berlin

Another striking theme is the public commitment towards openness and transparency in government. I visited the Bundestag museum telling the political story of Germany, warts and all in how Hitler was democratically elected and his plans for the Jews known by all.


One fascinating model was of Albert Speer’s planned Great Hall of the People – a vast monument to the glory of the Third Reich. That’s the Brandenberg Gate in the foreground. If built it would have dwarfed even the mighty neighbouring Reichstag.


Given the history of National Socialism and of a police state in the East, there is a deep public sense that government needs to be kept in check. Unlike surveillance UK, there are very few CCTV cameras on the streets and when there are there are signs to indicate you are in a CCTV zone (like the underground).

But the most symbolic image of transparency is the re-built Reichstag, the seat of the unified German Parliament after the fall of the Wall in 1989. The huge building has a complex history. It was redesigned by British architect Norman Foster in the early 1990s. You queue up to get a ticket to visit – you need ID but there is no charge – the building belongs to the people (Dem Deutscher Volke). Foster erected a vast glass dome above the parliament chamber, a cupola where via a series of mirrors and glass panes, the public look down on the political process below. It is literally transparent – the imagery that of accountability of power to the people.




Some thoughts and questions stayed with me:

It was Hannah Arendt who talked about the “banality of evil” – how ordinary people do extraordinarily bad things. The Third Reich is one stark reminder (among many) of the accuracy of Genesis 1-11’s diagnosis of the human condition. Created in God’s image, we have an inbuilt turn to autonomy, pride, violence and injustice.

Haushofer and the Bonhoeffer brothers all lost their lives in standing up (in quite different ways) to a ‘hot’ nationalism gone toxic. As one of the great Christian theologians of the century who died for his faith, Dietrich’s refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler stands as a challenge for all Christians if their national identity starts to claim ultimate allegiance. Christ is Lord, and that means Hitler and the Third Reich was idolatry.

The importance of public national recognition of past failures: of how rare it is for there to be a sense of humility and repentance in politics.  It takes huge political courage to confront the ghosts of the past. There are good reasons it happened in Germany, but what about nearer home?

What might be issues or events in 20th Century Ireland that need airing, discussion and some sort of ownership of past failures – not just past ‘glories’?

I’m not thinking of the failures of ‘others’ – the British Empire has rather a lot of its own past to deal with. I’m thinking of 20th Century Irish history – South and North.

Some starters for ten since we are in the decade of centenaries.

  • The “right to take life” by unelected republicans inspired by Pearse’s toxic brand of religious nationalism in 1916 was generally glossed over in the 2016 commemorations.
  • The Civil War was dealt with in silence for most of the century.
  • A consequence of 1916 was deep political ambiguity in the South about the IRA campaign in the North. This, I think, has never really been acknowledged or openly discussed, let alone owned.
  • And then there is the ‘dark side’ of Catholic Ireland, a culture that was freely chosen and almost universally embraced by the people as a whole. These days the Catholic Church gets all the blame, as if it staged a coup and took over the country like in Margaret Atwood’s Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet such shifting of blame is too simple and too easy.
  • And year by year, month by month, day by day there are ongoing revelations of a deeply entrenched Irish culture of elites, secrecy, and ‘golden circles’ of business, bankers and politicians where practically no-one is ever held accountable.
  • Nowhere is the failure of the transparency of the Irish State more visible than the shambles that is the Garda Siochana. When the State Police force is itself involved in massive falsification of millions of pieces of evidence where no-one is held accountable (the breathalyzer scandal) it is a symptom of deep dysfunctionality. And that is just one scandal of a very long and very bizarre list. The current Charleton Tribunal heard eye-popping evidence this week of the then Garda Commissioner, his deputy (later Commissioner) and Garda Press Officer all conspiring to lie, misuse power and betray their duty (and country) in deliberately blackening the name of Sgt Maurice McCabe in order to discredit him and his allegations of Garda incompetence and illegality. No-one is holding their breath for anyone to be made accountable or for admission of failure or for the emergence of a deep-seated political will to effect reform and openness.

Then there is Northern Ireland.

Yes, there have been people of great courage and huge progress has been made. But the political culture is frozen. The past looms over the present. The Good Friday Agreement was a pragmatic deal that avoided deeper issues of reconciliation. That avoidance worked for a while but has run out of space. It will take acts of real political courage to confront failures of the past. And by courage I mean taking ownership of ‘my side’s’ participation in injustice. It is only humility and repentance that can unlock the future.

In terms of churches and Christians in the North – many have been outstanding and inspiring examples of courageous peace-making who have challenged their own ‘side’. But I am not at all so sure that Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) have really grappled with their relationship with political unionism. Back in that PhD (later published by OUP) I called a chapter on the PCI ‘At Ease in Zion‘ which concluded with this comment.

Volf has written that “the overriding commitment to their culture serves churches worst in situations of conflict. Churches, the presumed agents of reconciliation, are at best impotent and at worst accomplices in the strife.” Although it is apparent from my analysis that Irish Presbyterianism practised exclusion primarily through indifference rather than overt discrimination or domination, its spiritual bulwarking of the goals of Ulster unionism classify it as an accomplice during the Partition period and beyond. It can be said that the Church then represented a diluted form of belonging without distance. A significant reassessment of the PCI’s relationship with unionist identity has enabled Irish Presbyterianism to create significant distance from the ideology of its host culture. However, it seems that, as yet, the Church has only moved as far as a largely theoretical repudiation of a spiritual legitimation of national identity. As such, while no longer an accomplice, it continues to be, on this specific issue, largely impotent to confront the powerful emotive appeal of nationalism. It remains in open question whether distance, having once been lost, can be regained. (259)

Maybe you have your own suggestions?

Comments, as ever, welcome.



The Gospel and Capitalism – Daniel Bell

What do you think of this quote from Daniel Bell, Divinations: theo-politics in an age of terror (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2017) on how the gospel confronts and overcomes capitalism?


Paul’s gospel is the proclamation of the free gift, Messiah Jesus, that exceeds every debt, that explodes the very calculus of debt and retribution and sets in its place an aneconomic circulation of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. Here is the promise of true liberty from capital. As we share Israel’s election in Christ, we are set free from an economy whose circulation is ruled by scarcity, debt, retribution and finally death. In Christ, we share in the abundant life of the Immortal, which is not the solitude of self-sufficiency, but life lived as donation, as the ceaseless giving (and receiving) of the gift of love. In Christ, a path is opened up beyond the iron cage of sin, of capitalism, and of the Hobbesian/Weberian world where both appear to rule. In Christ we are liberated from all that would prevent us from giving, that would interrupt the flow of divine plenitude that continues through our enactment of love. We are freed from captivity to an economic order that would subject us to scarcity, competition, dominion, and debt, that would distort human desire into a proprietary and acquisitive power.

This is to say, the only way to defeat capitalism is to embrace the gift given in Christ, which is nothing less than the superabundance of grace that repositions our lives within the aneconomic order of love. So repositioned (redeemed) by love, we are enabled to give ourselves, to sacrifice without loss or end, even in the face of an economy that would eclipse gift and plenitude through the imposition of a regime of scarcity, debt, and dominion. Christ defeats capitalism as Christ heals human relations of their economic distortions and renews their circulation as donation, perpetual generosity. Capitalism is overcome as human relations are redeemed from the agony of competition and dominion and revived as the joyous conviviality of love that is the fruit of the proliferation of non-proprietary (that is, participatory) relations. Capitalism is defeated as fear is cast out—the fear of my neighbor that compels me to possess more tightly and acquire more compulsively, the fear that in giving I can only lose, the fear that death and the cross are the end of every sacrifice.

An aneconomic order of love, grace, generosity that subverts the self-interest, power, fear and ruthless competition of capitalism.

A gospel which has searching implications for our wallets, time and priorities.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

An essay on why Jordan Peterson is worth listening to

img_9823-1024x683Time to come out. For most of a year now I have been watching many of the University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s large collection of You Tube lectures and videos. I’d never heard of the guy until a year ago but such lack of awareness is becoming harder to achieve as his popularity and influence continue to grow.  His new book is bound to be a best seller.

It’s been hard to miss the massive kerfuffle arising from his first visit to the UK last week and particularly the car crash of an interview of Peterson by Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news which you can watch in full. It is worth reading Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic for an analysis of the interview. I think it should become a classic in teaching journalists how NOT to interview someone.

This post isn’t going to add to that noise. Rather, I want to reflect on what lessons can be learned from Peterson. Not just in the sense of ‘Why is he so popular?’ (popularity per se, as Trump has shown, is scarcely an indication of moral or intellectual virtue). But instead asking what can be learnt from both what he is saying and how he is saying it.

In a terrific article, written just before ‘that’ interview, Douglas Murray of The Spectator makes this point

Today, for at least one generation, … Peterson … has become a mixture of philosopher, life-coach, educator and guru. He has the kind of passionate, youthful, pedagogical draw that the organised churches can only dream of. Anybody interested in our current culture wars, not to mention the ongoing place of religion, should head to YouTube, where his classes have been viewed by millions.

He concludes his article with this rather remarkable statement for a journalist

‘What was that?’ asked an old friend I bumped into on the way out. Hundreds of young people were still queueing to get books signed. Others stood around buzzing with the thrill of what we had heard. I still don’t have an answer. But it was wonderful.


When I’ve told some friends about Peterson I’ve been warned that he is ‘extreme’ or a voice somehow supportive of the American alt-right. Such warnings baffled me because I had ‘got to know’ Peterson well through his own material before hearing of his supposed right wing reputation. I stay away from You Tube comments (mostly toxic) and don’t do social media. So they made no sense at all then – and still don’t.

It was manifestly apparent that Cathy Newman had this sort of ill-researched preconceived cartoon-strip image of Peterson as some sort of apologist for Patriarchy. It kept getting in the way of her actually listening to what he was saying. She was literally left speechless because the reality didn’t conform to the caricature. She, and the Channel 4 team, had not done their journalistic homework (or, worse, maybe they had and decided to try to do a hatchet job anyway). It was remarkable to watch such a blundering ideologically-driven binary approach to a potentially interesting conversation.

What is he saying?

This is a big question because, as he says himself, he talks a lot, often too much and often at speed. He also covers a lot of ground from psychology, to philosophy, to men and women, to the Bible, to politics, to the world of work and freedom of speech. What follows is a snap-shot, drawn from listening to Peterson over the last year.

And the fact that what he is saying is now seen as ‘provocative’ or ‘radical’ or ‘patriarchal’ or ‘extreme’ says more about a contemporary culture of relativism and victimhood than it does about Peterson. Finding out more about his ‘reputation’, I have had to keep asking myself, ‘am I missing something?’. ‘Is this guy a member of some secret right-wing network?’ For I can’t see the evidence in his academic lectures, written material or You Tube videos.

1. Individual responsibility

Sort out your own life before criticising the world. Clean your room – literally and metaphorically. Make a plan. Stand up straight and face the world. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. Take responsibility for what you can influence – mainly yourself. And, in very Stanley Hauerwas type language, tell the truth.

2. Meaning and significance matters

Read great authors – make them your friends. Get beyond the superficial narcissism of much modern culture and think about questions of meaning and purpose. Don’t buy into postmodern relativism and pessimism. Make a difference for good in the world. Values, integrity and hope matters.

Peterson has developed an entire lecture series on meaning within the Bible. He sees it as foundational to the Western tradition, containing mythic truths that describe the reality of our world and the human condition. The individual finds purpose in something greater, outside of themselves. He seeks to live as if God exists. Tim Lott in The Guardian puts it very well.

Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

It is doubtful to me that Peterson is Christian in any creedal orthodox understanding of that term, but that is not the point of this post.

3. Freedom of speech

Peterson shot to ‘fame’ by accident by stating, ahead of time, that he would not use speech compelled by an impending Canadian law, Bill C-16. Now law, it makes it compulsory for federal subjects – widened by most provinces to include personal and commercial interactions – to call transgender people by their preferred pronoun. This was an unlikely Lutheran ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ moment, but that’s what it turned out to be.

Any fair-minded observer would see that to call Peterson ‘transphobic’ or ‘homophobic’ is just being malicious. His consistent point is one of freedom of speech, standing against the right of the State to compel him to use certain words. His argument is that a free society has to have room for disagreement and offending others without the law intervening, and for the state to do so is fascistic.

4. Libertarian individualism

Linked to iii, Peterson calls himself a classic liberal. He is into empowering the individual – including many women it should be said (another point of surprise to Cathy Newman). Society is stronger the freer it is. Those that seek to control and manipulate through law, oppression, shame, and political bullying are enemies of freedom. Respect is earned and cannot be demanded. He is resistant to a contemporary culture of offence. It simply masks a power play to silence those with whom we disagree. It stifles debate and creates a climate of fear

5. Psychological well-being

I’ve hugely enjoyed his online lectures on psychology and philosophy. I’m not qualified enough critically to assess his approach, I suspect it veers towards behaviouralist. But, on a wider canvas, his lectures, clinical practice and now popularised book (12 Rules for Life) show a passion to enable mental and social well-being. It is here, perhaps that Peterson’s main appeal lies. He is intensely practical in giving advice, backed up by academic research and mainly to young people, on how to negotiate an increasingly complex and uncertain world. The Newman interview closes with him mentioning that he had received 25,000 letters in the last 6 months from people saying he had helped transform their lives. Whatever you think of Peterson, that is an astonishing claim worth serious reflection – another missed opportunity in the interview. Something is going on here and you would hope a journalist would be interested to investigate.

6. Understanding yourself

Peterson uses the ‘big five’ personality test – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It is one of many such tests. Our family enjoys taking them – not sure what that says about us! The big five is a very useful tool, we had fun doing it and comparing results. Peterson himself is very high on openness. The test says “high scorers tend to be creative, adventurous and intellectual. They enjoy playing with ideas and discovering novel experiences.” They tend to be unconventional and artistic. This is a long way from ideological group-think and may help explain why Peterson despises attempts to control and enforce behaviour whether from the left or the right.

7. Gender difference matters

It’s on gender that Peterson is seen as most provocative. But again he is quite careful and nuanced in what he says. Bottom line – men and women are not the same. It is not, as some conservative Christian commentators try to extrapolate, that there is a list of particularly ‘manly’ virtues (there is neither the data or a biblical foundation for such a claim). That is to generalise far too far. But the data, Peterson argues, is clear that, for example, women tend to be higher on agreeableness (tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own, and to cooperate rather than compete with others) and on conscientiousness (self-discipline and control in order to meet goals). These are general tendencies, the differences are not great. They cannot be reduced down to individual cases.

One of his points is that differences between the genders cannot be reduced down to a single cause – say patriarchy. So, once patriarchy is overcome, full equality will follow. But in the most radically equal societies on earth (Scandinavia) data shows that given a relatively equal playing field, men and women make markedly different life choices regarding types of work (e.g. nursing and engineering). Against expectations, the gender gap actually widens rather than narrows. This strongly suggests inherent male / female difference, rather than simply being due to one all-embracing cause like ‘patriarchal culture’. One implication is that the current drive for full equality in the workforce is driving by unrealistic and mistaken assumptions. (For example, a friend of mine in an engineering firm has been given the target to achieve a 50-50 gender balance by xxxx date. But the task is proving far more difficult to implement than to set).

And it’s worth noting what he does not say – he does not defend unequal pay for the same work; he does not defend discrimination against women – he wants to see women empowered and successful; he does not say patriarchy is a good thing; he does not say women are in any way inferior to men or less intelligent.

He does say that there are only two genders, regardless of those who say gender is simply a social construct that can be chosen at will. Such social engineering is ideological dogma, biologically incoherent and psychologically and socially destructive.

8. The crisis facing men

Another area that Peterson has tapped into the zeitgeist is the crisis facing young men. Many men are not doing well – they are dropping out of school and university; they are withdrawing from the humanities; and rates of male suicide are truly catastrophic. The reasons are complex, but Peterson seems to be on to something in giving young men a challenge. Most of his online audience is male (although it is true that a lot of things online are mostly male). He treats young people with dignity and respect. He calls them to acts of meaning and courage. He rejects destructive cultural assumptions that young men by default are an insidious danger to a civilised society and that Western society is inherently patriarchal and oppressive. He believes that people can be responsible and free.

9. Realistic anthropology

Peterson is at his most Calvinist when it comes to human nature. In contrast to a naïve optimism that we are all essentially rational and good and just need to be given equal opportunity in life for justice to flourish, Peterson the psychologist tells us that we are a mess of competing desires, irrational decisions and damaging behaviour. We need to understand this truth about ourselves. We are all capable of being monsters. (Getting back to those toxic comments on You Tube, just look at what apparent anonymity does to people commenting on the internet for example).  The challenge is not to allow the monster control. Overcome it by choosing the light, living ethically, with courage and purpose. Happiness might come and go as a side-effect, but to pursue it is a delusion. Of far more importance is taking responsibility for our own lives.

10. Family and Social Capital

Again in psychologist mode, Peterson has a lot to say about the importance of friendship, family and the value of marriage. Marriage is not, as much modern romanticism has it, the ultimate source of individual ‘happiness’. It is a commitment to another person through which family emerges. We are social beings who need close relationships. I haven’t heard him talk of marriage in religious terms, but there are strong parallels to a Christian view of marriage as covenant love in which context children are born and raised. He does sound utilitarian at times in how choosing not to have children is to store up a relationally barren old age.

11. Thankfulness

From time to time Peterson observes how much modern political activism is relentlessly thankless. Despite living in relative wealth within the most advanced, equal and technologically advanced cultures in human history, there is a narrative of failure, oppression, injustice and victimhood. This fails to balance and be thankful for the extraordinary achievements of the West – by both men and women.

How is he saying it?

OK, if that is a summary of some of the sorts of things Peterson is saying, what about how he is saying it? It is here, I think, that his real appeal lies.

1. Love of learning

I mentioned earlier that being high in Openness means delighting in ideas. This comes through in Peterson’s lectures which are freewheeling enthusiastic monologues (whether monologues are the best form of teaching is a whole other debate). He is captivated by the transformative power of ideas to change the individual. And an associated abhorrence of ideology and identity politics.

In teaching, perhaps the most important quality of good communication, and subsequent student learning, is that the subject matter has first enthralled the teacher. There is nothing worse than a teacher bored by his or her own material. And there is nothing better than a teacher in love with their subject, overflowing with energy to pass that learning on to others. A personal example, thirty plus years after being taught the Gospel of Matthew by Dick France I sure don’t remember all the details of what he said, but I do remember his infectious love of the text and delight in passing that on to others.

2. Scientific method

As a clinical psychologist, Peterson utilises a lot of scientific data in developing hypotheses that interpret that data. Now, ever since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we should be aware that the way science works is not a nice and neat objective process. All sorts of variables are in play, including chance, personal and corporate agendas and so on. Assorted scientists can interpret the same data in quite different ways. But this does not invalidate the scientific process. It just means that hypotheses – and any claims arising out of them – need continual critical examination. I am not in a position to do this with Peterson’s use of science, but others are. He seems to be a serious and respected figure, widely published and peer reviewed and teaching in a major public university. In the past he taught at Harvard.

The point in saying this is that Peterson is engaging a young, well-educated and critical audience. He is not dumbing down, nor is he expecting them to believe assertions and personal opinions. He is, regardless of whether you agree with him or not, following the evidence to where it leads. If that means contradicting what he sees as ill-founded assertions of gender constructivism or identity politics or right wing nationalism, then let the dice fall where they will.

3. Respect of opponents

For me, one of the most impressive things about Peterson is the way he engages opponents. Watching him being baited by student ‘social justice warriors’ outside the University of Toronto was to witness exasperation and despair at their utter failure (and inability?) to engage in rational discussion. But that exasperation did not turn to bitter sarcasm. He genuinely wanted to discuss the issues and try to change minds. In the University of Toronto ‘debate’ with opposing colleagues on his position on Bill C-16, Peterson emerged as the one more interested in freedom of speech as opposed to shrill restatements of entrenched ideology. Similarly, with Cathy Newman, Peterson maintained composure, humour and grace despite being interrupted and almost comically misrepresented at practically every turn. He engaged her own willingness to offend him in positive terms – ‘good for you’ – stumping her in a good humoured way.

4. Empowering others

Some things are hard to fake. Another attractive feature of Peterson’s persona is what seems a genuine desire to empower and equip others for their own good. This comes through in his classes, in his clinical psychology and in Q & A with young people. Whether you agree with him or not, there is a passion to enable others negotiate the complexities of life as successfully as they can. Whether that means working with women not to be taken advantage of in the workplace or helping someone out of a cycle of depression, it speaks of an other-centeredness that is admirable.

5. Vulnerability and integrity

Peterson gives plenty of advice on relationships, work and success in life in general, often in strongly directional terms. Anyone doing so in a public space (whether a clinical psychologist or a Pastor or a self-help guru) is justifiably opening up their own lives to examination – does he or she practice what they preach? There is a need for (appropriate) transparency here. Of course, the reality can be hidden and often is. But with Peterson you do not get the sense that there is a mismatch. He shows critical self-awareness (on the Dave Rubin show, when asked, he listed things like over-work, talking too much, a potential addiction to alcohol etc etc). He talks about his wife and family in moving terms, deeply grateful for their love, support and presence in his life.

6. Language

There is a compelling attraction and power to language used creatively to express complex ideas. It is a rare gift and Peterson, I think, has it. Listening to his lectures is, for me anyway, a pleasure. Of course, such a gift can be used for good or ill. In general, Peterson is constructive rather than destructive. He values words. At one point, he said to Newman, “I’m very, very, very careful with my words.”

7. Courage

Whatever you think of Peterson’s beliefs, it is hard not to admire a person who has the courage of his convictions. He took a serious personal and professional risk in speaking out against Bill C-16. He was warned he could lose his job, was threatened with bankruptcy by the potential costs of a court process and found himself at the centre of a storm of abuse and vilification. His health suffered under the stress. He has said he will never use compelled speech even if that means going to jail – where he has claimed he will go on hunger-strike. You might think this is over-dramatic, but it is rare these days to find conviction in public life that comes with a tangible personal cost.

Concluding Clarifications and further issues

A couple of points of clarification. These are simply my takes on Peterson and as such are subjective observations that may well misrepresent things in some way. Neither do they mean I am an uncritical fan. I am trying to unpack why and how he has become an iconic cultural figure.

While there are obvious parallels to themes of Christian belief, it would take further posts to analyse and reflect critically on the theological content of Peterson’s worldview. It would also take further posts to consider what, if any, lessons can be learnt from Peterson by churches who have a heart to communicate the breadth and depth of the Christian faith to young people today.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Is it time to give up on the term ‘evangelical’?

Quite a few people think the answer to the title question is YES.

Alwyn Thomson makes the case with typical incisive analysis in a post at PS at Contemporary Christianity’s website

The word ‘evangelical’, he argues, is now theologically almost meaningless. Evangelicalism as a movement has undermined the church. And evangelicalism, especially in the USA, is fatally compromised by its alliance with political power.

Alwyn knows what he’s talking about. When research officer for Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) he developed a lot of excellent material on evangelical identity, politics and theology, and now he lives in the USA.

In America, Christianity Today is asking the same question. Scot McKnight has argued that the word is so compromised politically that it is time to give it up.

The issue is politics; the presenting painful reality is Trump. The reality is 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. The word “evangelical” now means Trump-voter. The word “evangelical” is spoiled …

… Which now means evangelical=Republican=Conservative=populist=Trump …

… Today the term evangelical in the USA means (supposedly) conservative in politics, and hence “Votes Republican.” This definition is not going away. The political folks have won.

Let the political evangelicals have the term …

…. The one thing I despise about Christianity in the USA is its aligning with a political party. Mainliners have done it; they’re Democrats. Evangelicals have followed suit; they’re Republicans. Politicization is accomplished.

Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.

Others, like Roger Olson, know well the difficulties associated with the word but refuse to let bad use take away right use.

Here in Ireland, evangelicals are so tiny that the vast majority of people have little or no idea what the word stands for. If they do, it is probably something like one of the following ..

  • zealous for something: ‘She was almost evangelical in her enthusiasm for sushi.’
  • fundamentalist: ‘ISIS are the evangelicals of the Muslim world’ (I heard this said by an Irish reporter on radio)
  • Intolerant, obscurantist, right-wing, Trump supporters
  • Conservative reactionaries against the emerging liberal new Ireland, particularly on sex and gender issues.

None of which are exactly complimentary definitions.

If the heartbeat of evangelicalism is an ethos that feels something like this then I don’t want to give up what it describes:

  1. A love for the Bible leading to personal transformation
  2. An emphasis on repentance and faith
  3. A focus on the cross as that which makes reconciliation with God possible
  4. Activism as living out faith in Christ with integrity and authenticity
  5. And a Christ-centered faith that issues in discipleship, obedience and good works empowered by the Spirit

And, as I’ve posted about before, this sort of evangelicalism alive and well in countless individuals’ lives across the globe.

But what to call it?

Is the word ‘evangelical’ necessary in order to describe such faith? Is it fatally compromised – mostly by an American fusion of religion and politics that has global consequences?

If we answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to these two questions then we need to find a different way of talking about who John Stott called ‘Bible people’ and ‘Gospel people’. Whether just ‘Christian’ or something else.

In my Irish context, it’s not a word that is very helpful. Trump and American Republican co-opting of the term plays a part, but there are other historical factors at play too. So I have no great objection to dropping it.

Or should the majority world evangelical movement – as defined by the Cape Town Commitment for example – resist being defined by the ugly politicization of what is only a relatively small sector of the global evangelical family? Can the word ‘evangelical’ be redeemed?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Bible and Refugees

This is the text of an article I wrote recently for Vox Magazine (Issue 34, April – June 2017)

The Vox team (Ruth Garvey-Williams, Editor;  Jonny Lindsay, Layout, Advertising and Promotion); Tara Byrne, Operations) do a remarkable job of producing a high quality magazine that captures stories, news and opinion from across a broad Christian spectrum of Irish Christianity. There is nothing else that begins to do this job.


We have always lived in a violent and broken world. People have always had to flee war, famine, torture and persecution. But today, the scale of forced population movement is unprecedented since the end of WWII. The implosion of an entire country like Syria, added to desperate crises in places like Myanmar, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, has led to millions of refugees forced to seek safety outside their home nations. The UNHCR says that today there are about 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and a further 21.3 million people are refugees.

A refugee has been defined as a person who has fled their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. A refugee is typically in a highly vulnerable situation: often without official status; lack of access to basic resources; removed from networks of family, language and culture; and often deeply traumatised by violence or fear of violence. Over half of refugees globally are under 18 years old.

Three ‘solutions’ face refugees. One is voluntary repatriation, in which refugees return in safety and with dignity to their own country. Second is local integration, in which the government enables refugees legally to integrate into the host country. The third is resettlement to a third state which has agreed to admit them and in which they have permanent residence status.

Tragically, of course, for most refugees none of these ‘solutions’ is their reality. The vast majority are left in limbo: stateless, homeless, friendless and penniless; living in camps or trying to survive on the margins within neighbouring nations. It’s important to know this: only about 1% of refugees are ever resettled to a third country despite the fact that the UNHCR reckons that about 8% of refugees globally now need resettlement.

So that’s the context. It is, of course, a hugely political issue in Europe and the USA as politicians grapple with their own population’s fears of ‘uncontrolled immigration.’ It is not an issue that is going to go away anytime soon.

How should Christians think about one of the major humanitarian issues of our day?

What follows are some proposals drawn from two key Bible texts that I believe should begin to shape a biblical and theological response. My main concern is to argue that there are absolute non-negotiable attitudes and priorities for Christians when it comes to thinking about refugees because they are based on the good news of the character of the God we worship.

Key Text 1: Deuteronomy 10:17-19

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

  1. God is Impartial

The great news of this text lies in the character of God. God is utterly unimpressed by ‘important’ people with money, power and all the right connections. This magnificent indifference to human status means that he is impartial and incorruptible. He treats people, whoever they are, equally. This goes utterly against the power structures of the world, then and now.

  1. God loves the outsider

But even more counter-culturally, God ‘loves the foreigner’ residing within Israel and takes care of their needs. This is not just something he likes doing, it is something he is. We could quote multiple texts from the OT and NT related to this theme. God is a God ‘for the poor’.

  1. God’s people are to love as God loves

As God loves the foreigner, so are his people to imitate him. They should do this because they themselves had been slaves in Egypt. Another important example is Deuteronomy 23:15, “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.” This is radical stuff. Instead of hard borders and forced repatriation, the refugee fleeing from slavery is to be given shelter. Instead of oppression, they are to be given freedom, safety and a new start in life. This is exactly what refugees today long for (if they can’t go home).

Key Text 2: Luke 10:25-37 – The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Jesus’ famous parable about ‘neighbour-love’ deepens and radicalises the teaching of Leviticus 19:18 to ‘love your neighbour’. Leviticus is aimed within Israel. The uncomfortable point of Jesus’ tale is that the neighbour-love includes those religiously, culturally, politically and socially alien to us. The parable puts flesh on the bones other famous Jesus commands to ‘love your enemies’ (Mt. 5:44) and ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’ (Lk. 6:31). Like Israel’s love in Deuteronomy, Christians will love this way out of their own prior experience of God’s saving love. That experience should transform us to be the neighbours that Jesus calls us to be. In a globalised world, our neighbour surely includes, for example, the Syrian refugee.  Each one of us should ask ourselves ‘How would I like to be treated if I was in his or her shoes?’

The teaching of Jesus raises two final points.

  1. Refugees our teachers

So much of the refugee crisis is framed around what ‘we’ (in the West) will ‘allow’ refugees to do or not do. It is a fantastically unequal relationship of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. ‘We’ have all the power. ‘They’ have had the most traumatic experiences of their lives, and yet ‘we’ view ‘them’ primarily as a threat to ‘our’ way of life. ‘They’ are ‘lucky’ if we permit them to enter ‘our’ promised land. And, if ‘they’ behave themselves, ‘they’ will be blessed to become like ‘us’. Rarely, if ever, do ‘we’ think that we might have a lot to learn from ‘them’. Yet Abraham and Sarah, Lot, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all of Israel, Ruth and Naomi, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Esther, Daniel and his friends, were all refugees for various reasons, as were many of the first Christians (Acts 8:1, 11:19). God himself enters our world and becomes a refugee (Mt. 2:13-15). What questions, do you think, this raises for those of us living in freedom and security?

  1. Christians are not to be driven by fear but by love

There is a tremendous sense of fear in much of the West today. Fear of terror. Fear of the future. Fear of refugees. Some politicians are ruthless in exploiting this fear to get elected. Many others are, in turn, afraid of those politicians. Christians are not to be people of fear but of faith, hope and love. In Deuteronomy 10:16, Israel is told to “Circumcise your hearts’ and love the foreigner. Similarly, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is aimed at those who felt justified in not helping those in need. We need to hear these texts afresh and have our own hearts softened. We fool ourselves if we think there is some great status gap between ‘us’ and ‘those refugees’. God doesn’t see it that way – remember he is magnificently indifferent to our man-made boundaries of money, identity and power. Rather, he calls us to be people of radical counter-cultural generosity; to be communities of welcome and grace to those in need of help.

For this is what our God is like.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Fear, Nietzsche and Beauty: approaching 2017

Two things behind this post.

  1. 2016 was, in many ways, a brutal, ugly and unsettling sort of year.
  2. This pair of goldfinches visited our garden (I’ll come back to the goldfinches)


2016 was especially unsettling for us in the West, I think, because it was also a year that saw rising threats to the future stability and security of our Western way of life.

In no particular order, some of these threats include (and I am sure you can add your own):

  • The devastation of Syria – but also within Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – and its unimaginable associated human cost, have left many looking on feeling both helpless and angry. On top of this, the conflict has exposed the West’s impotence to oust Assad and has hugely bolstered Putin’s influence in the region.
  • The West continues to reap what was sown by Bush and Blair’s reckless and arrogant invasion of Iraq. Western hubris to imagine that Western democracy could be catalysed in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown to be just that.
  • Putin’s latest ‘victory’ in Aleppo is part of his agenda of regaining Russian self-respect and influence in the world. Annexing Crimea, partial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, new balances of power with Turkey, cyber-hacking the USA and ruthless crushing of dissent at home – are all part of Putin’s gangsterism and empire-building strategy demonstrating his contempt for the weak West.
  • European elites seem to have no coherent answer to either the refugee crisis or the very real chance of the break up of the Euro. Italy could enter a fiscal crisis in 2017. Risks to the viability of the Euro appear to be relentlessly rising despite continual firefighting by European policy makers. After years, it is pretty clear that there is neither the political cohesion or creativity to ‘re-imagine’ a different structure for Europe that can actually work.
  • That scepticism towards Europe as an idea is shared by more and more within Europe. Brexit might be only the first step.
  • Liberal Westerners are aghast at the potential ending (or at least a serious threats to) of the onward ‘civilising’ march of liberal secular democracy in Europe and the USA. Trump and Putin (and their mutual admiration society) pose the nightmare scenario of the rise of autocratic right-wing nationalism. I mean by this  a form of nationalism that goes back to a myth of ‘our origins’ and seeks to ‘recover’ who we ‘truly’ are while simultaneously finding scapegoats blame for the ‘decline of our once great nation’.
  • The nihilistic brutality of ISIS / Daesh and its sporadic, unpredictable and ruthless violence within European cities is designed not for military victory but to spread fear and catalyse division within the enemy. One desired outcome is to sow seeds of enmity and distrust within European multiculturalist pluralist societies that can grow into ugly plants of xenophobia, racism and exclusion – to undermine Europe from within.  So far, quite a lot of progress made on this front.

The fear and uncertainty felt by many in the West today is not because uncertainty, violence, mass immigration and nationalism are new but because they are hitting close to home.

These are some impressionistic descriptions – some may be more accurate than others. The real point is not the detail but a question:

What is a response for a disciple of Jesus to living in times of deep uncertainty?

Some possible responses:

  1. Be consumed by fear at threats to our ‘Western way of life.’

There is an incomparable richness with living in the West – the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted are all around us. It is an astonishing privilege to live in a culture that has a democratic government (and only partially corrupt form of politics). Heck, even the trains nearly run on time some of the time. These freedoms should be supported and defended as that which gives maximum freedom to most people.

But, Christians should be well aware that these gifts are not guaranteed and are certainly not an indispensable part of being a follower of Jesus. A Christian’s source of identity, security and hope does not derive from living in an unheralded time (historically speaking) of prosperity, political stability and access to infinite information.

So we are not to be people of fear, but of hope. Our ‘salvation’ does not rest on the fortunes of liberal secular democracy. Christians in the West are, after all, called to be NOT good Westerners – whether Irish, American, British or German etc. They ARE called to be faithful disciples of Jesus their Lord.

2. Live by the sword

Up there with ‘love your enemies’, perhaps one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus is that “those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52)

Christians are not to be uncritical supporters of the West or of their particular state. A role of the church (however unpopular) is to call the state to account before God – and take the consequences (ask John the Baptist).

It is the West’s arrogance and militarism that has helped create the disaster of the contemporary Middle East. Rather than respond the catastrophic mess with support for more violence, it is Christians who are called to be peacemakers; people of prayer; compassion; of reconciliation and mercy.

An illustration from the radio this morning: Lyse Doucet is a superb international correspondent for the BBC. She was talking of why she risked her life reporting from Aleppo. Her reply was unescapably moral: it was a privilege to see what was happening and tell the human story of suffering. She recalled her Catholic upbringing and that she had been taught to be ‘my brother’s keeper’. She was there to use her training and experience to help give a voice to those without a voice. Her actions are a fantastic model for Christians. Non-violence is not passive, it is courageous and bold on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. It speaks of risky love at cost to ourselves. It speaks of a radically different narrative to the men of war.

3.   Accept the fate of the world

nietzscheThe brilliant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (with impressive moustache) talked of amor fati – love of fate. By this he meant that we should overcome our weakness of trying to seek salvation or moral perfection in this world. Rather we should grow up and say YES to all that exists; embrace all of life, both its miseries and joys. There is nothing else higher or better than life as it is.  It is Christian weakness and illusion to believe that there is – and Nietzsche hated such weakness. He believed in strength and power rather than perverse ideas of pity and compassion.

Nietzsche was absolutely right – if God is dead. For without God all we do face is a pitiless world where the will to power wins out and compassion is mere stupidity (sound familiar re a certain President elect?). Fatalism and power are the responses of faithlessness – quite consistent for an atheist but not exactly an option for a Christian.

4. Hope, compassion and beauty

Rather than 1-3, can I suggest that in a violent and uncertain world, Christians are to be people of hope, compassion and lovers of beauty.

Christian hope rests not in politics or nationalism but on the victory of God won in Christ. In him we have the certainty of resurrection life, forgiveness of sin, new life in the Spirit, a mission give our lives to, a God to love and a church and world to serve. We are to be people who believe in, are shaped by and share good news – whatever the world is doing around us.

That good news includes Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ and to live a kingdom life that is ‘good news to the poor’. God’s people, like OT Israel are to reflect God’s heart for those cast aside by the power structures and politics of the world:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19

As recipients of God’s grace and compassion, we are to share grace and compassion generously with those in need like refugees fleeing from unimaginable violence.

Finally, back to those goldfinches. I like bird watching and think goldfinches are particularly pretty. Now some people I know don’t like birds at all and I think Starlings are frankly evil. So my point is not about birds per se, but beauty.

There is something captivating and transcendent about beauty – maybe for you it is a landscape, a sunset, a person, a poem, a tree, a painting, a crashing wave on a beach or a crafted piece of clothing?

Beauty reminds us that this life, this world, is full of goodness, made by a loving creator. It is to be treasured, savoured, enjoyed and looked after. Since God’s ultimate agenda is renewal and healing of this broken and violent world, Christians are to be life-affirming and world-affirming.

Part of being people of hope is to pause and give thanks for the beauty we see every day. Part of being people of hope is to create beauty with our hands and with our words.

Hope, compassion, beauty: these, I suggest, rather than fear, violence and fatalism, form a Christian framework for approaching 2017.

Christians and the Arms Industry

Last month the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Belfast hosted Alan and Elaine Storkey to give their annual Sir Fred Catherwood Lecture. It was entitled ‘Ain’t Going to Study War No More ..’

The lecture can be listened to here.

One major theme of Storkey’s lecture is how arms do not ‘follow’ wars, but wars follow the production and selling of arms.

In other words, the arms trade has a vested interest in the incredibly lucrative business of selling arms. It also has a vested interest in promoting narratives that tell us that we need arms to defend and protect our Western freedoms. They also need, and have, mutually beneficial relationships with Western politicians who give the companies contracts worth billions that simultaneously help Western economies grow.

Storky also talks about the endemic corruption of this system with arms companies engaged in blatant bribery of potential clients – that Tony Blair (for example) knew about and closed down investigations ‘in the national interest’.

The money at stake also means that attempts at disarmament will, and have for many decades, met a wall of resistance from political power brokers and the arms trade.

The West, of which you and I are a part, has therefore a huge ethical and moral responsibility for the proliferation of war around the world.

If this is so, what then is a response for Christians who owe their primary loyalty to a crucified Messiah and not the state they happen to live in?

The lecture is largely drawn from a book by Alan Storkey called War or Peace? The long failure of Western Arms.

A discussion board hosted by the centre is here with a post by Rev Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It in he says,

It is striking, and deeply disturbing, that our daily diet of the horrors of war on the news has not energised any substantial discussion amongst Christian people in the UK (or indeed the Western world) about war – even though huge attention has been given this year to remembering World War 1 and the Battle of the Somme. Is that because war is not quite yet on our doorstep, even thought its tentacles have brought death and fear to Nice, Rouen and Brussels this year, after the outrage in Paris in 2015? Is it because we know that jobs and economic prosperity come to us from the making of war and armaments, and that we don’t want unemployment to rise? Is it because we really do believe that a ‘war on terrorism’ war is necessary and justified to try to rid our world of such evil? Is it because we believe that national defence matters a great deal, and so we must encourage our government to take whatever steps are needed to protect us? Is it because we have committed so few of our armed forces to that conflict (unlike our role in Afghanistan)? Or is it because we haven’t thought much about it as Christian people, and find it all too easy to keep it that way.

What do you think? What are some reasons why Christians are so slow to talk about war?

Some points come to mind for me:

  • A failure for Christians to have a prophetic critical distance from their own’s national narrative.  Too easily we believe the myths that armaments and violence will make us ‘safe’. Too easily we swallow the assumptions that war is a necessary and even good thing that is regrettable but ‘justified’ – despite pretty well no war meeting the abstract criteria for Just War theory. This all leads to passivity and acceptance of the status quo.
  • How we read the Bible: if Christians globally refused by default to engage in war how profoundly this would challenge the assumed ‘naturalness’ of war and the acceptability of the arms trade. Yet this is not the case – despite the New Testaments crystal clear teaching that followers of Jesus are to be people of peace, reconciliation and non-violence. For various reasons, we jump through all sort of hermeneutical hoops to avoid the teaching and example of our Lord, and the teaching and example of Paul and the rest of the early Christians movement. We have been co-opted into the Constantinian story of religion in partnership with the state rather than resisting the temptation to take up the sword in the name of the state.
  • A fatalism / passivity that this is the way the world is? Storkey ended with a call to action and also a confidence in the gospel that God’s ways actually work. Is war – with all its senseless brutality and death actually practical in solving anything? Just ask the residents of Aleppo. Is peacemaking and action towards dismantling the West’s military industrial complex somehow more impractical than warmaking?

Comments, as ever, welcome.