Marva Dawn – a joyful Christian life

Marva Dawn

Back in 2008 it was a pleasure and rare privilege to spend some days with Marva Dawn and her husband Myron Sandberg. With my IBI hat on I had invited her to come over from America and speak at our annual Summer Institute.

It was a delight to get to know her and Myron. I recall reading in The Atlantic some time ago that research showed that marriages that flourish have kindness at their heart. A lack of kindness is the surest indicator that a relationship is in trouble. Theirs was a kind way of being that brought others into its generous orbit. And a michievous wit and sense of humour as well.

She taught on themes related to her books on worship such as Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (1995), A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (1999) and my favourite Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (2002) which won a Christianity Today annual book award.

If you haven’t read any of Marva’s work then you have something to look foward to.

In class yesterday by coincidence I was talking about Marva’s book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting as an example of a rich, thoughtful and life-giving theological response to our restless and frentic culture, driven by an insatiable desire for more.

Today I learnt from a friend that Marva had recently passed away (April 18) aged 72. She had suffered from an array of serious illnesses for many years. I think it was polio that meant that one leg was in a brace, and she had had a kidney transplant, cancer, blindness in one eye and other ailments. She wrote a wonderful book called Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope In Spite of Infirmity that has been a help to many many people. But she was not defined by her infirmities! She was a far from infirm thinker and she displayed fierce courage not only in dealing with her frail body but in her bold and uncompromising call to the church to spiritual faithfulness in an age of compromise and confusion.

It is hard to think of a more joyful Christian. She radiated joy – joy in the Lord, joy in being with fellow brothers and sisters, joy in her marriage with Myron and joy in teaching. She leaves a rich legacy – not only of significant books, but in and through many lives enriched by encountering her along the way.

She was a prophetic voice in calling the church to authenticity, prayer, humility, connection to the Great Tradition of historic church worship and liturgy – and to love. We need voices like Marva’s – and Eugene Peterson with whom she worked closely – more than ever. Gentleness, kindness, joyfulness, love, peacefulness, patience – these are characteristics of the power of God’s Spirit at work. How ironic that so often such characteristics are dismissed or despised as not ‘strong’ enough or not ‘effective’ enough in so much church ‘leadership’ practice.

In several different ways these last couple of weeks I’ve been reminded of how short life is. As the Psalmist says

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.

Ps 103:15-16

Marva lived with a close awareness of her mortality. Even back in 2008 I remember her wondering how long she had left and if that would be one of her last trips abroad – travel was simply becoming too difficult physically. But death was not feared. We are back to joy again – because of Easter she had a joyful hope that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already opened up a new future for all joined to him through faith. Death has lost its sting.

She is now in that future. Her ‘light and momentary’ troubles are over. And I can imagine her now in the presence of Jesus her Lord and his words of welcome,

‘Well done good and faithful servant’.

Ministry amidst “An Abundance of Caution”

These are remarkable times for sure. Conversation after conversation is dominated by debates over risk of death and illness and how best to mitigate that risk on a national level. Two examples;

1) Irish Quarantine

A furore has broken out here in Ireland about mandatory hotel quarantine – its legality (whether it is in reality a form of detention breaching constitutional rights) and its inflexible application – already more than one court case has been won against detaining already vaccinated people, or where someone returns (vaccinated and Covid free) to see a dying relative only to be quarantined for 2 weeks and possibly being denied the chance to say farewell. The irony is not hard to see – a dying person cannot see their son in order to ‘protect’ them from risk of infection. And this does not touch on its military-style application, even for people with negative tests and who have already been vaccinated. This from the Irish Govt website.

Designated fresh air breaks will be accommodated at the hotel. A designated safe and secure space for fresh air breaks will be available at the hotel. These breaks should be booked in advance. The hotel will endeavour to accommodate guests at their preferred time.

At the requested time, a Security person will knock on the guests door and escort them to the designated area. All outdoor areas are monitored. Security will escort guests back to their bedroom after their break. In order to protect other guests and the hotel team, a fresh air break will only be permitted after you have received a negative PCR test.

Penalties for breaking the rules are €2000 in fines and up to a month in jail.

2) The Astra Zeneca Vaccine

And this evening it has been announced that the AstraZeneca vaccine will not now be given to anyone under 60. This is the advice of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC). This follows a report from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which concluded that a small number of unusual blood clots in the brain are likely linked to the AZ vaccine. These cases are serious and potentially fatal.

From what I’ve read there have been about 222 cases in the UK and EU out of about 34 million cases. That is risk of about 0.00000652941176471. This compared to a many hundreds of times higher risk of being unvaccinated and getting Covid-19, especially the older you are.

As I understand it, the NIAC advice, accepted by the Irish Govt, goes much further than the EMA advice which says that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the minimal risk.

Ministry amidst “An Abundance of Caution”

There are no easy answers here. And this is not an argument for law-breaking, arrogance, lack for respect and care for others, or a selfish insistence on individual rights at the expense of the common good. Neither am I a doctor or politician. These are complex, difficult decisions based on multiple factors. I don’t envy those who have to make tough calls. Everyone has their own opinions and the comments sections on newspapers are rather places of rather vitriolic debate (no change there on most comment sections come to think of it). On those issues my opinions are probably as (mis)informed as anyone else.

But as a Christian and church elder and someone trained to think theologically, the point I want to focus on is a phrase used by one of the NIAC advisors who said that the advice to limit the AZ vaccine to over 60s was made out of “an abundance of caution“.

Safety first. Minimise risk. Lockdown. Protect the vulnerable. Save the health service. This is, rightly or wrongly, the dominant narrative of 2020-21.

But such a narrative raises many questions for Christian life and ministry.

One of the last things believers or churches should be characterised by is “an abundance of caution.”

Thankfully God is not characterised by “an abundance of caution.” He is a God of outrageous grace and extravagant salvation whose saving love finds ultimate expression in the cross of Christ.

Christian mission is not to be marked by “an abundance of caution.” Countless martyrs throughout Christian history testify to that.

Christian love is not be marked by “an abundance of caution.” It is to be poured out generously for others, often at great cost to the self.

Christian worship is not be marked by “an abundance of caution.” It is to be joyful, wholehearted and holistic.

Christian faith is not a “safe investment’ with a guaranteed return. It is a call to an adventure of following the Risen Lord wherever he leads and who calls his followers to an un-cautious life:

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:27-31

All this raises questions for individual believers and church leadership teams. And pershaps answering these sorts of questions will be one of the main challenges for churches as the rest of 2021 unfolds.

What does it look like to live an ‘un-cautious’ life in times characterised by ‘an abundance of caution’?

What does it mean to be communities of faith, hope, joy and courage in a culture shaped by fear of making a mistake?

What does the gospel have to say about life and death in times confronted with, and traumatised by, the reality of death?

2020 in pictures

For a change of pace here are some personal highlights of 2020. The change of pace being very few words and no mention of pandemics or politics and such. These are some photos I took during the year. I find peace and solace in the natural world, especially so when we’ve been locked down for so much of the year. I hope that you enjoy them.

Blue Tit
Coal Tit
Great Tit
Dublin and Dublin Bay
Annalong Forest
Mounes looking at Bernagh
Mounes. Meelbeg, Bernagh and Donard
12 Bens from Diamond Hill
Over Letterfrack
Roundstone Beaches from Errisbeg Hill
Roundstone Harbour
Killary Fjord Famine Walk
Killary Fjord Famine Walk with Mweelrea in background
Gurteen Beach Roundstone
Owenmore River

Thoughts on ‘Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles’

Stories are powerful. They often convey truth far more effectively than a factual presentation or an academic paper.

There is a vast amount of academic research on the Troubles and Northern Ireland. I’ve even contributed to the pile. Many years ago the political scientist John Whyte wrote a book Interpreting Northern Ireland that sought to categorise and assess the tidal wave of research. He commented way back then that NI was probably one of the most heavily researched places on earth. And the volume of publications has only probably increased since his time. What difference all that research has made is another question!

Why mention this? Well, it’s surprising how rarely, in all that output, that stories of people caught up in the violence have been recorded and told and reflected upon. And even more rarely (if at all) a particular community has been invited to tell its stories.

That is what Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles sets out to do.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), and specifically its Council for Public Affairs (CPA), should be congratulated on being the catalyst for the book. Their idea was for a research project into the question ‘How did Presbyterians Respond to the Troubles?’ To ask the question (and act on it) speaks of a willingness for self-critical examination, an openness to learn from past mistakes and consider how to build a better future.

Gladys Ganiel, a sociologist of religion at Queen’s University Belfast, helped to find the funding and carried out the research with the help of Jamie Yohanis. Ganiel wrote the book. Again this was an encouraging decision. As a professional sociologist, Ganiel brings an objectivity to the process. And certainly the book does raise plenty of questions and issues for the PCI to consider.

Some 120 people were interviewed across a range of categories, including at least 50 women, geographically from all over NI and the border counties, and intentionally not restricted to clergy and leaders.

The groups were: ‘Ministers’, ‘Victims’ (the largest group of interviews), ‘Security Forces’, ‘Those Affected by Loyalist Paramilitarism’, ‘Emergency Responders and Health Care Workers’, ‘Quiet Peacemakers’, ‘Politicians’, ‘Those who Left Presbyterianism’, and ‘Critical Friends’.

As such, it is a valuable resource for at least 5 reasons:

1. (some) Victims’ Stories are heard

To an extent that is impossible to imagine if you didn’t live through it, the violence of the Troubles impacted every level of society. During 30 years of conflict, over 3,500 people were killed, 100,000 injured and countless others traumatised – all this in a small geographical area with a population of only 1.5 million.

One harrowing story follows another, especially in the chapters on ministers, victims, security forces and emergency responders.

About a year ago I spoke at a PCI conference in Omagh. A co-speaker was Rev Terry Laverty, whose story opens the book. He was 15 when his 18 yr old brother was shot dead by the IRA. His mother was already a widow, looking after seven children. That was 1972. Nearly 50 years on that pain has not diminished. His experience of God’s grace enabling him to forgive and live free of bitterness frames the book’s invitation to consider grace.

Terry Laverty and the authors are well aware that there is no one or ‘right’ way to grieve and that forgiveness cannot be forced – and may take decades if it happens at all. The strength of this collection of stories is its non-prescriptive nature. People tell their experiences. Some cannot say the line about forgiving others in the Lord’s Prayer while others can. And these are only a tiny selection of stories – many potential interviewees did not want to participate. Recounting the past was simply too painful or they could not see a benefit in bringing it all back up again.

2. Truth telling is an opportunity for grace

The motive for the book is to let the stories speak their own truth. Ganiel writes in the conclusion that such telling in itself is an invitation to grace. Listening well to others is an act of grace. It opens up possibilities of understanding, empathy and compassion. It fosters lament – a grieving along with those who have suffered so much.

The chapter on emergency responders sheds light on a particularly hidden aspect of the conflict. The relentless horrors that so many faced on a daily basis in hospital ERs, operating theatres and wards are talked of often for the first time by participants. Among all the pain, screaming, tears, and cursing of victims and their families, one line stayed with me from the health-care workers, themselves made up of people from both communities

‘All blood is red. There’s no orange or green blood’

3. To understand Protestant experience of sectarian conflict

At a different level, anyone seriously interested in Protestant experience of the Troubles should read this book. It does not claim to be the only story – there are others. But this is a story that needs to be told.

It should be essential reading for church leaders in training, for academics, for community leaders and for politicians. The PCI is continuing to reflect on the book and is producing resources for churches and groups based on it.

And it should also be a reminder for historians of Northern Ireland to take religious belief seriously as they research and write academic analyses of the Troubles. These are deeply human stories of anger, hurt, pain and suffering and loss – but also frequently of remarkable love, grace and resilience inspired by faith in Jesus Christ. Steve Bruce, a sociologist of religion and author of books on Paisley and Protestant paramilitaries is one voice who has long argued, in the face of much opposition, that religion needs to be front and centre of any analysis of NI.

4. As a Resource for critical self-reflection for the PCI

This was the original intent of the book and there are plenty of uncomfortable questions for the PCI to consider.

What is highlighted for me is the ambiguity of what is meant when we say ‘the Church’. Such a title conjures up images of a clearly defined hierarchy of leaders in control. But the PCI is more an uneasy mixture of a centalised bureaucracy bound by the ‘Code’ (rulebook) of the denomination combined with a decentralised structure and lack of hierarchical leadership. At a local level each minister and church pretty well do their own thing.

This structure has strengths. Geraldine Smyth (Critical Friends) notes how it allows the PCI to embrace a wide diversity of opinion. But is also can lead to what another interviewee called ‘lowest common denominator’ Christianity where the Church stays silent on controversial issues for fear of alienating some of its own members.

I wrote about this in my Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster 1921-1998 (Oxford University Press, 2003). It described the PCI’s slow and uneasy journey of self-critical reassessment regarding its relationship with political Unionism and Orangeism while trying not alienate many within its ranks committed to a ‘For God and Ulster’ theology who were the target for Paisley’s constant attacks on the ‘liberalism’ and ‘weakness’ of the PCI.

These internal tensions, combined with the denomination’s bureaucratic and democratic structures, meant that during the Troubles (and since) the Church tended to be politically tentative, lacking both the will and a common vision required for prophetic action.

You see this in the interviewees criticisms about ‘the Church’. They are often contradictory, but have in common a frustration about inaction on the ground and merely abstract statements of principle.

  • Some want more political involvement, others do not think the Church should be involved in politics;
  • some want the Church to make peace-making a central priority, others want more support for victims and justice for those who took lives with apparent impunity;
  • some want to make the Church more truly Reformed, others are closer to a ‘mere Christianity’ and have little affinity for, or interest in, Reformed theology;
  • some are socially, politically and theologically conservative, others are passionate about the radical social implications of the gospel;
  • some think the Church did as much as it possibly could in an awful situation, others think the Church let the Lord down by its prioritisation of internal unity at the expense of obedience to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and loving enemies.

It’s not easy to see how such internal tensions can be resolved. I guess there are at least two dead ends. One is to pretend they are not there. The other is for one group or other to try to ‘grab power’ and enforce their own vision while marginalising others with whom they disagree. Such methods are likely to either split the church or just increase the flow of those heading for the exits. There is no short cut to transparency, dialogue and listening to each other.

5. The need for hard theological reflection

As a theologian I would say this wouldn’t I? All all of life is theological in the sense that every disciple of Jesus is faced daily with the question Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked, what is the meaning of ‘Jesus Christ for today?’

In the context of sectarian violence all sorts of theological questions emerge from a reading of this book. Questions like:

What is our theology of God and suffering?

What does it mean to love your enemies in a context of political violence?

What is our theology of forgiveness? (this comes up a lot in the interviews)

What is our theology of justice?

What is our theology of church and state?

What is our theology of faith and national identity? (this is the question my book primarily tackled)

What is our theology of peacemaking? Of violence / non-violence? (Joe Campbell, a friend who is interviewed in the ‘Quiet Peacemakers’ chapter, makes a telling observation that the PCI does not have a coherent peace theology. But things are changing. The Church’s 1990 Coleraine Declaration was a challenge to traditional views of violence and just-war. Again, how much it has stayed a statement of principle is open to question).

This of course is not to say that Presbyterianism, with its rich theological legacy, has not thought about these questions. But it is to say that from reading Considering Grace there seems to be a major disconnect between theory and practice on the ground. Despite much loving pastoral care, you get the sense that many interviewees are left wrestling with such questions on their own.

It is telling that it was a parachurch group like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) that did most during the troubles to think theologically and biblically about these sort of theological issues. Many found their work a breath of fresh air.

So for me this book reinforces that theology is the lifeblood of the Christian faith. A critical task for every generation of Christian leaders is to help believers under their care know the Scriptures and to be resourced to think with a Christian mind about all of life.

The Age of Disappointment

There is much excellent writing by talented authors on the cultural, social and political challenges of our times. This is one of the best.

David Brooks in The Atlantic on ‘America is Having a Moral Convulsion’

It could also be called ‘The Age of Disappointment’ or ‘What Happens When Trust Disappears’ or ‘Why Trump is in power’ or even ‘The Disintegration of America’.

Some clips below – but well worth a read in full.

And for followers of Jesus, Brooks’ forensic analysis raises all sorts of questions. And not only in the USA – many of the trends he talks about are present throughout the West, and are certainly here in Ireland.

Christians are to be people of the gospel – of good news. The story Brooks tells is an unremitting tale of bad news. Societal fragmentation, injustice, fear, despair, depression, insecurity, anxiety, familial breakdown, rage, violence, selfishness, individualism, the collapse of a civic commons and institutional decay.

A tragedy for the church, it seems to me, is when it mirrors the distrust, fears and hopelessness of the world. Brooks’ comment about (some) American evangelicals is telling

Evangelicalism has gone from the open evangelism of Billy Graham to the siege mentality of Franklin Graham.

Any Christian leader reading this article and especially Brooks’ final paragraph, should, I think, be asking ‘How can I, how can our church, embody Christian virtues of trust, faithfulness, kindness, justice, love of God, neighbour and even enemy?

Not in order to ‘save’ America, but to fulfil the Christian calling of being people of the gospel, people of hope, faith and love.

From David Brooks

Trump is the final instrument of this crisis, but the conditions that brought him to power and make him so dangerous at this moment were decades in the making, and those conditions will not disappear if he is defeated.

… The emerging generations today … grew up in a world in which institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile. Children can now expect to have a lower quality of life than their parents, the pandemic rages, climate change looms, and social media is vicious. Their worldview is predicated on threat, not safety.

Unsurprisingly, the groups with the lowest social trust in America are among the most marginalized …

Black Americans have been one of the most ill-treated groups in American history; their distrust is earned distrust …

The second disenfranchised low-trust group includes the lower-middle class and the working poor…

This brings us to the third marginalized group that scores extremely high on social distrust: young adults. These are people who grew up in the age of disappointment. It’s the only world they know … In the age of disappointment, our sense of safety went away. Some of this is physical insecurity: school shootings, terrorist attacks, police brutality, and overprotective parenting at home that leaves young people incapable of handling real-world stress. But the true insecurity is financial, social, and emotional.

… In this world, nothing seems safe; everything feels like chaos.

… When people feel naked and alone, they revert to tribe. Their radius of trust shrinks, and they only trust their own kind. Donald Trump is the great emblem of an age of distrust—a man unable to love, unable to trust.

… By 2020, people had stopped seeing institutions as places they entered to be morally formed, Levin argued. Instead, they see institutions as stages on which they can perform, can display their splendid selves. People run for Congress not so they can legislate, but so they can get on TV. People work in companies so they can build their personal brand. The result is a world in which institutions not only fail to serve their social function and keep us safe, they also fail to form trustworthy people. The rot in our structures spreads to a rot in ourselves.

The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat … We’re seeing a few key shifts.

From risk to security

From achievement to equality

From self to society

From global to local

From liberalism to activism

For centuries, America was the greatest success story on earth, a nation of steady progress, dazzling achievement, and growing international power. That story threatens to end on our watch, crushed by the collapse of our institutions and the implosion of social trust. But trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts—by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned. Sometimes trust blooms when somebody holds you against all logic, when you expected to be dropped. It ripples across society as multiplying moments of beauty in a storm.

Simply beautiful

I heard this on the radio this morning – must admit that my wife and I both shed a tear or two. Both our mothers had alzheimers.

This is from Nick Harvey in England. His father, Paul, a former music teacher, who now has dementia, is given four notes by his son from which to improvise a piece of music.

The result is hauntingly beautiful and captures, I think, the tragedy of someone losing their mind alongside a reminder of the intrinsic dignity and humanity of each human life.

The reaction has been such that the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are going to record the piece with Paul Harvey.

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.

The power of beauty

Few words in this post. You don’t need me to tell you there is something powerful about being out in the beauty of the natural world. I’m sure there are all sorts of scientific studies on its physiological and psychological benefits. I’m fortunate in this lockdown to be able to get out most days for a jog in a country park – these are some sights along the way. After a day locked to the screen teaching, or on emails or zoom calls or writing – this somehow restores the soul. I hope you have a place nearby that does the same for you.








Lenten Reflection – Alison King

This week leading up to Easter I am posting with permission a series of Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth.


1 Corinithians 13:12 and Unmet Expectations

12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

I love this verse. It’s an often go to verse of mine. Why? Because it reminds me that because I don’t have God’s “whole picture” perspective, there are always going to be things this side of heaven I simply won’t understand. However, honestly, within my not understanding I can all too easily get caught in an endless cycle of over thinking, especially when expectations are not met.

I wonder this Lent what might be some of your unmet expectations? Perhaps you expected to be married by now, or have a better job, even any job, or you didn’t expect to be walking in and through so many hard spaces, or perhaps like me you’ve been given a medical diagnosis which you didn’t expect? And within those unmet expectation places I am certain that people, including family and friends, haven’t always behaved as you expected them to. You thought others would understand better, be more supportive, spend more time listening to your side of the story, and so you end up feeling let down.

And what has all this got to do with Lent you might ask? Well it’s simply this: as I think of Jesus being tempted, I’ve come to believe, that these unmet expectations can be a destructive tool of Satan as he tempts me with his insidious whispers: “If they really cared, or if you “did” enough, or if only you had more faith?”

What then do we do with these feelings? Firstly, recognise them for what they are, just that, feelings, which our sometimes muddied thinking minds, often don’t allow space, or indeed grace, for the whole picture to be considered. Then I need to bring my hurts firstly and fore-mostly to God, and to then try to leave them there. The Psalms are full of laments. However, as you read them you will find that most often they are written from the perspective of being spoken to God rather than other people. Philip in a sermon to his class recently wrote of how when the cloud descends over us, when we can’t see God in our situation, (when expectations are un-met) that is the very time we most need to lean into Him to ask Him to transform us. I both like and am challenged by the idea of allowing God to mould me in ways I may not understand. I also need to remember, that God as El-Roi sees and knows the whole, including the finish of our stories! And therein surely lies our very hope during this waiting for Easter Sunday season.

Having read this now I invite you to perhaps firstly to pause and be real with God about some of your unmet expectations. Then I’d ask you to see Him coming alongside you and hear Him say to you, “child of my heart all that is not known or understood by you, is seen and fully known by me and I can assure you that I’m going nowhere, until, together we cross the finish line.”





A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (20)

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: As a Christian pacifist myself, I really resonated with what you say on pp. 172-73, affirming my fellow Methodist Stan Hauerwas’s repeated teachings on such things.

I agree that this is the clear thrust of much of the Sermon on the Mount, and the clear witness of the life of Paul who was converted from violence against the church, to the Gospel of non-violence for the sake of Christ. When Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean love them to death by killing them!

Interestingly, Martin Luther King Jr. was finally convinced of this Gospel by reading E. Stanley Jones’ biography of Gandhi when he was in seminary. Jones was a Methodist missionary to India, and a graduate of Asbury college. Recently there was an excellent movie entitled Hacksaw Ridge, which told the story of a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist who served as a medic in the Pacific WWII, who was the first soldier to be allowed to serve in the U.S. Army without carrying or firing a gun. And he rescued many people in battle at Hacksaw Ridge, both friend and foe.

I used to think when I was younger that there’s no way I could serve in the military… but perhaps I could do that, and still serve my country without violating my conscience or the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Would you see this as plausible, or as an unhelpful compromise? After all, you could be said to be patching up soldiers so they can go back out and kill some more.

PATRICK: I really wanted to get over how enemy love is not confined to interpreting a line or two from the Sermon on the Mount. What tends to happen then is Jesus’ teaching is reinterpreted as hyperbolic or idealistic. Richard Hays has an excellent discussion in his classic book The Moral Vision of the New Testament of all the attempts made to soften Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. None of them are convincing.

Jesus’ teaching shapes that of the first Christians – Paul, Peter and the early church. The overwhelming historical evidence is how the pre-Constantinian early Christian movement repudiated killing in all forms – abortion, war and capital punishment. The shift after Constantine (Augustine especially) to legitimize ‘just’ violence in order to suppress heresy or expand Christendom was, in my opinion, a disaster to the witness of the church. Similarly in the 20th century for Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory of ‘just war’.

It isn’t a question of whether Christians are to be violent in certain situations, Jesus calls disciples to be non-violent full stop. Of course this seems crazy, but that’s the point – enemy love is the good itself. It’s the window to life in the upside-down kingdom. I saw Hacksaw Ridge in Dublin a couple of years ago and read up on the story of Desmond Doss on which it was based. While I don’t think I could sign up for the military, his was an inspiring example of how Christian non-violence requires considerable bravery.