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.

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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.

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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.”

Amen. 

 

 

 

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.

Down With This Sort of Thing: How is the Gospel Good News in Contemporary Ireland?

Now we are pretty well all confined to quarters, maybe it is time to catch up with some reading.

Praxis Press is a new Irish Christian publishing venture. They published their first book last year – Down With This Sort of Thing by Fraser Hosford. Other ones are in the pipeline.

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This is what I said in endorsing the book

It is so good to see an Irish pastor writing about theology, culture and mission for our contemporary Irish context! Fraser Hosford asks an important question – how is the gospel good news in Ireland today? What is so fresh about this book is that he answers this question by engaging thoughtfully and graciously with what real people in Ireland today actually think, believe and hope for. It is from this foundation of careful listening that Hosford unpacks how the gospel is good news for all of life. Peppered with stories and illustrations, the result is a very readable account of how the gospel leads to a flourishing life. Anyone writing about such a great theme has my attention, I suggest that he should have yours as well.

Highly recommended. Not only an excellent read but by buying a copy you will be supporting a new Irish Christian publisher committed to helping the church think about and practice mission in 21st Century Ireland.

Sir Ken Robinson on industrialised education

My job title is the rather grand ‘Director of Learning’ at IBI. It’s a good title actually I think (how I do at it is a whole other question). Better than ‘Director of Education’ or ‘Director of Teaching’. Why? Because for the education or teaching experience to be worth anything learning must be taking place. If there is no learning, then really it’s all just talk.

So I try to keep informed and engaged with education and learning as much as I can. A few of our teaching team are doing a course on creative teaching at the moment, and one of the inputs is a famous 2006 TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ (his answer is ‘Yes’!) that’s been viewed over 60 millions times now.

Which reminded me to rewatch this brilliantly animated 2010 RSA video of Robinson’s excorciating analysis of contemporary education and the need for diversity and creativity in education as opposed to a deadening industrialised model that prizes conformity and compliance.

Here in Ireland words like these have, it seems to me, fallen on deaf ears. Despite numerous critical reviews and reports over decades the secondary school system and the industrialised rote learning required to navigate the Leaving Certificate’s points race remains all about stifling creativity and diversity. Students are forced into a mad competition measured by narrow criteria that suit the few and marginalise the many.

The whole system is predicated on the outdated myth of ‘Work hard + pass your Leaving Cert + go to College = secure job and successful future guaranteed”. As Robinson says, children know this is a lie. What’s required is a revolution in education that facilitates student learning across subjects and the diversity of the student population,

If you haven’t seen this it’s well worth a watch. From purely a communication perspective, Robinson’s TED talks are models of how to convey weighty ideas lightly, yet with real intellectual and emotional force.

Would be interested in your comments – and any implications you see for theological education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (1)

The B word. It didn’t even exist a short while ago and now apparently it’s one of the most spoken words in the English language. It’s pretty well impossible to get through a day without it intruding. And as we approach 31 October that cacophony will rise to a crescendo.

I haven’t said much on this blog about Brexit (in fact I haven’t had time to say much on this blog full stop). It’s not because I’ve got my head stuck in the sand and don’t follow the news (I do – rather too much probably, it is an addictive soap-opera-horror-show on both sides of the Atlantic).

The reality is that it is not obvious how to articulate a ‘Christian’ response to Brexit.

If you were to preach or teach about Brexit, what would you say?

Those that confidently pronounce judgement that leaving is a disaster or mock the stupidity of the entire Brexit fiasco sure have plenty of ammunition, but such responses don’t take us very far apart from maybe feeling better about ourselves. I freely confess that much of my response to the unfolding ‘debate’ in London and the catastrophic ‘leadership’ from the Conservative Party from Cameron, to May to Johnston is a gut reaction to an entitled, arrogant, destructive, narrow sort of English nationalism that, as an Irish observer, presses every one of my red buttons. But that isn’t a very good basis for a mature theological reflection! It is no good misusing the pulpit as a platform for one’s own political opinions and prejudices.

An alternative approach is to step back from partisan politics and issue general appeals for tolerance and civility in public life and particularly against whipping up fears for populist political ends. While important in our increasingly fragile political environment, there is nothing particularly Christian in this. Indeed, there is little distinctively Christian in most arguments I’ve heard from Christians and church leaders either for or against Brexit. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The debate revolves around complex issues of economics, national sovereignty, trade, immigration and law, untangling those is proving to be well-on-nigh-impossible practically, let alone theologically. Reasoned Christian responses to Brexit tend to revolve around analysis of such issues and therefore largely mirror reactions in the media and wider society.

A digression – I’m reminded here of this exchange in between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s, Through the Looking Glass (p. 364.) A key reason behind the fiasco is that over three years after the Referendum, no-one is still sure what the word ‘Brexit’ actually means. Different factions fill the word with whatever meaning that best suits their interests.

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‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

A third response is to say nothing. Now I have some sympathy with church leaders who have not preached about Brexit (and I have not heard a sermon addressing Brexit – have you?). What do you say, for example, if your congregation in England or Northern Ireland is split down the middle just as the Conservative and Labour parties are?

But saying nothing is inadequate. Like it or not, Brexit has become a defining moment that will shape politics and society in the UK, Ireland and Europe for the foreseeable future. It requires theological engagement, so what follows is some ‘thinking out loud’ towards that goal.

The title of this post asks what is an Anabaptist view of Brexit. As I have often said on this blog over the years, I am an Anabaptist at heart. Researching, writing about and teaching the New Testament only continues to confirm those sympathies. So the next post will try to sketch some principles for thinking about Brexit through an Anabaptist lens.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A day out in county Clare

Took a day trip to the county of Clare over the bank holiday weekend. Hadn’t been in ages. The weather was beautiful, as was the scenery … and the company good as well.

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Dunguire Castle

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The Burren

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Poulnabrone Dolmen

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Ennistymon

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Lehinch beach

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Cliffs of Moher

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Cliffs of Moher

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (40) Substitution the greatest act of love

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we finish chapter (11) on The Substitution.

For Rutledge, the theme of substitution is an “underlying motif” which supports other themes.

It is best understood, not as a rationalistic scheme (like Hodge’s we discussed earlier), but within the overall biblical narrative.

[My Comments] This very much ties in with issues discussed much on this blog over the years – the scope of the gospel (euangelion) as the great good news about God’s fulfilled promise in Jesus the Messiah and King of Israel, come to bring liberation, forgiveness of sin, the kingdom of God and the gift of the Spirit.

This Jesus-centric gospel narrative is not to be equated with a formula of atonement-for-sin like Hodge’s.  It abstracts substitution into something close to a transactional formula that is all too easily detached from the biblical narrative.

It also risks making substitution narrowly individualistic. While atonement for sin through Jesus paying the price and taking our place IS profoundly personal for every believer, penal substitution happens within the wider story of God’s victory over Sin, Death and the Powers (Christus Victor).

But, having said this, penal substitution is a vital aspect of the atonement. Rutledge argues that it

is more closely linked with the virtually ubiquitous biblical teaching about God’s judgement upon Sin than any other motif, however much our culture may wish to avoid this unpleasant truth about itself. (534)

The powerful emotive image of the Son of God willingly dying ‘in our place’ and ‘for our sins’ tells us at least two things – and please feel welcome to add comments of your own …

First, that there is something profoundly and desperately broken about each one of us. I have never watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But, I am told, there is a scene where the director filmed his own hands hammering in the nails into those of Jesus. Rutledge calls this “the inclusive nature of human depravity”.

Not a popular doctrine today for sure.

Second, substitution must be understood from the perspective of the Trinity, as God in three-persons

“acting together, with one will, for one purpose – to deliver all of humanity from the curse of Sin and its not-so-secret weapon, the Law. Jesus, the representative substitute, not only shows us how human will can align itself with the will of God, but also makes it happen, in his own incarnate person; and then, in the greatest act of love that has ever taken place, he gives his own person back to us, crucified and raised from the dead, the firstfruits of all who belong to him.” (534)

Beautiful.