On top of being an Aberdeen graduate, Adam Roberts is one of the most consistently entertaining and thought provoking novelists around. If you only dare to dip your toe into the nerdorama that is sci-fi once (or speculative fiction as some like to call it), New Model Army would be an excellent place to start. It will get you thinking about networked technology, war, and most importantly, the early modern philosophy of Rabelais and the nation state.
In Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer, Roberts tells three interlinked stories. There is a prison story, a murder mystery and a classic locked-room mystery. They all arc together. The stories are bloody and fascinating.
Here, explaining two of the characters, aristocratic heirs to great power, the narrator muses on what a dream is (Page 119):
As far as dreams were concerned – well dreams are generated by the random processes of neural oscillation during the brain’s rest phases. What dreams do is cycle and recycle images and feelings, rationalisations and fears. There’s nothing special about that. It’s not the dreams that matter (chaff, mental turbulence, the rotating metal bars moving endlessly through the transparent tub of metaphorical slushy). It is what the problem-solving circuits in the mind make of the dreams. Dreams iterate and test mental schemas, discarding the maladaptive to return the adaptive to the slush to be reworked. Dreams are emotional preparations for solving problems – that is why we have evolved them, because problem-solving abilities are highly adaptive and thus strongly evolutionarily selected. Dreams intoxicate the individual out of reliance on common sense and preconception, and tempt her into the orbit of private logic. Dreams have utility.
And then elsewhere there is a conversation about how people once upon a time (remember that the novel is set in the future) people “worshipped economics” (Page 62):
“… Because they believed that economics preserved the special place for humankind at the universe’s heart. We used to think the Earth was the centre of the cosmos, and that meant we were special, until science told us we’re marginal creatures. Then we thought the sun was centre, until science told us not even that was true. We used to think God made us in His image, and that meant we were special, until science told us we just evolved that way because it suited a landscape of trees and savannas. That’s what science does: it says, look again and you’ll see you’re not special. But economics? Economics is also a science. And what does it say? Ask my fathers, and they’d tell you. It says: there is energy, and there are raw materials, and that’s the cosmos. But without us the energy is random and the raw material is inert. It’s only labour that makes the cosmos alive. It’s only us that makes economics happen at all. And that makes us special.
Your Correspondent, Always in favour of the conceptual disorientation of the familiar
As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.
You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.
Your Correspondent, Go deimhin, tá sé éirithe!
The people of Gorey, in Co. Wexford are:
sinking under the weight of huge debts, negative equity and the trauma of failure. They bought into the dream that they could juggle all the balls in the air, the new houses, the new jobs and the new children. They believed that the price of houses would continue rising. Why wouldn’t they? Every politician and businessman in the country told them it could only go one way. The media saturated them with seductive images of a brave new world where they could just hope on the Irish bus to success. All you needed to do was to gather the deposit and you would be whisked away to an advertiser’s dream world of better stuff, better friends, better kitchens, better careers, better sex.
- David McWilliams, Follow The Money, 9.
One of the many valuable things that David McWilliams contributes to Irish discourse is the ability to see economic statistics in terms of actual human beings with beating hearts and driving desires. I don’t mean to suggest that academic or corporate economists, who may be closer to the “events that matter” are heartless buffoons. Rather, I simply mean that McWilliams recognises that people and societies are never motivated by abstractions – growth or efficiency or productivity. They are motivated by desires and crucially, the way that capitalism presents those desires is in terms of representations.
Thus, buying a house isn’t just about a place to call your own and grow tomatoes in the tiny back garden. It is the entrance-way into a world of betterness, it is a milestone of achievement for people striving to be happy. The house represents far more than four walls and a roof.
The difference between the formal way we analyse our economic activity – abstractions – and the functional way we order our economic activity – representation – is probably something someone very, very smart should study.
But McWilliams has this great, almost pre-moral recognition of it that reoccurs in all his writing. We should appreciate it, even (or especially) if we wish he’d drive for something more radical in our response to austerity.
The web of economic activity that consumed the households of Gorey and much of Ireland over the last 25 years was driven by cheap and easy access to credit. We know this story. We understand the political motivation for flooding the market with such money. That is a story that operates on a national level (electoral success was guaranteed by providing liquidity), on a European level (the internal dynamics of the Euro meant that peripheral nations were quite literally peripheral) and on a global level (the story of the age we live in is the age where we tell the story that the flow of capital is more powerful than even politics).
But perhaps there is a deeper connection between indebtedness and the consumptive desire that is aroused in us by the promises of betterness. I suspect that one of the reasons why this recent consumptive capitalism has been so phenomenally successful is that there is a fittingness between the stuff being sold (credit) and the reasons for buying (desire). We are eager to get into debt, because we believe we deserve to be in debt.
Freud talked about the death-drive, the thanatos, that can grip individuals and whole societies. We live in an age suffering from a debt-drive, an opheilos. We can posit all kinds of cheap hypotheses as to why the rhetoric of austerity works so unproblematically. Perhaps with the collapse of shared societal values, the only binding that holds us together is fiscal and so language about the importance of repaying debts wins our allegiance? But regardless, it does seem to be the case that the disputable moral claim that anything that can be rendered as a debt must be repaid is eagerly assumed as an axiom.
If I am even a little bit right – not entirely full of shit – as I muse looking out on a sunny Aberdeen morning in Holy Week, there is a direct implication for our theology. Whatever glorious thing happened on the cross, one persistent line of thinking cherished by the church has been that Easter overloads our cosmic debt. Before his last breath, Jesus cries out “It is finished”. Some Greek lexicons note that the word used, “Τετέλεσται”, was stamped on invoices in the Roman world when they had been paid in full. Regardless of how accurate that is, there is this one thing we should remember and preach this Easter: if God has entered in on your behalf, no debt can unilaterally bind you. Long before money, markets or capitalism, humanity talked in terms of debt. Debt to family, debt to nation, debt to temple, debt to the Cosmos. Jesus addressed each of those issues in his teaching (Family: Matthew 12:48, Nation: Mark 12:16, Temple: Mark 2:23-28, Cosmos: Matthew 5:45) but he explicates them most fully on the cross.
It is well outside the bounds that even McWilliams can address, but Easter is the living God’s response to both debt and desire. Our standing in the world is transformed. If God elects to be God for us, then our status here in time and space is not as hired hands, but as embraced sons and daughters. The fatted calf is prepared for us, the ring is placed on our finger. We are not indentured slaves. God is not levering us into debt peonage. He is making us his sons and daughters. Debt is put to death.
But desire is also challenged. The beauty of the God we find in the parable of the two lost sons is laid bare, literally and metaphorically, historically and poetically, on the cross. It is Him that we want. All the other wants are shadows of that one want. He is what we were made for. Not indebtedness and not better stuff, “better friends, better kitchens, better careers, better sex.” We were not made for betterness, which is always inherently relative. We were made for God, the one standard and one measure by which all else is assessed.
In other words, Easter is the beginning of God’s financial year, the divine economy of grace
Your Correspondent, Going back to work now
On Being an Able-Bodied, Cisgendered, Heterosexual, Married, Middle-class, Evangelical, University-Educated, White Irish Male6 Comments Published April 14th, 2014 in Church, Society, theology.
Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made
How lucky are young Irish poets, to have advice from so sage a voice as Yeats. There is no equivalent for Irish theologians. I am working at being an Irish theologian. By that, I mean that I want to wrestle with theology for the sake of the Irish church and in the light of Irish history and in dialogue with Irish society and preferably, geographically located on the island of Ireland.
Being an Irish theologian should come naturally to me, since I am the son of an Irishman whose “Irishness” stretches back a millennium. But it does not take much awareness of western European history to know that Irishness has been a disputed concept for almost as long as there have been Hargadens in Leitrim.
As you can see from the title of this post, I’ve got it pretty good. On top of all of those cultural privileges, it must be admitted that I do struggle with a lisp. But rather than being very lonely in my isolated tower of indecipherable speech, people seem to associate my voice with genteel bookish stereotypes (Ira Glass is the most complimentary comparison that gets made) and are willing to find good humour in my expression, even when it is undeserved.
The story of being a Christian in Ireland is often a story of insular tribalism or the painful heartbreak that comes from being perceived as disloyal to your tribe. I know many people who were effectively written out of their family’s lives because they encountered Jesus in the context of “born agains”. I know of many Catholics who suffered vicious prejudice at the hands of Northern Protestants. “Your husband is vermin and you will breed vermin” being one especially vivid word of counsel given to a woman before her marriage to a Catholic.
Just today I received my monthly copy of the Presbyterian Herald. In a seemingly innocuous piece about how political leaders celebrate Easter, we find three Northern Irish politicians, all Unionist. The all-island denomination I serve cannot help but repeat the geographic and political and cultural mistakes that come with our religious identity. Culture cannot be escaped and cannot be easily changed. Cultivating a culture that is open and gentle and true can only be done in tiny, little, conscious steps.
When I was compelled out of atheism and into Christian faith, there was much painful wrestling about my national identity. I now see nationalism as a perpetual problem for Christians, something that must be disavowed. I still think of myself as an Irish theologian (in training) because the parochial is the universal. The specificity entailed in Irishness isn’t a barrier to engaging the global but the means by which I do it.
In the most recent edition of the journal Modern Theology, Siobhán Garrigan from Trinity’s Loyola Institute has published a paper that has been very helpful for me. I have spent the day mulling on it. She makes an argument about the difficulty of the academic concept of whiteness as it relates to Irish people. That might sound obscure, but it is actually deeply relevant to pew-level ministry and witness in Ireland. It is a phenomenal 26 pages and I urge my friends in the Irish church to read it carefully.
She engages the theological discourse around race to demonstrate the ways in which Irish people represent an anomaly. Ireland is the only country in Western Europe to be colonized, and it was colonized for a long, long, long, time. But Irish people were subjugated without tools of slavery and while they were clearly the subject of centuries of explicit racial derogation, our (typically) white skin means that this is easily forgotten. Understandably (yet unnecessarily), racial discourse can unfold along the lines of the American case, so that their history gets read onto histories that don’t share the same shape.
Irish people do not have the same history or consequent cultural norms as Germans or British or French or any of the colonists with whom whiteness theory consistently lumps them. In such a climate, the categorization of the contributions of Irish women to theology as “white” is not just a case of mistaken identity, it is also a pitiful irony, because it re-inscribes colonial-style cultural erasure. It erases the difference between the historically-colonized subjects and their former oppressors, and it requires the Irish to keep quiet about their actual experiences because they don’t exactly ﬁt the expected narrative of being white.
This happened recently in an unfortunate way when the Irish philosopher Pete Rollins got into a Twitter feud with an American blog, Women in Theology, over the fact that they inelegantly mapped an idea that has traction in America (white privilege) crudely on to people in Northern Ireland who happen to be Protestant (including Pete).
One reason why reading this American way of mapping race onto the Irish experience is so unwise is that it allows Irish people to engage in questions of race without giving them tools to self-critically consider the racism prevalent in contemporary society. The tools don’t fit. Forcing them into our hands leaves us unable to address the problems that stand before us:
For the Irish then, signing up to US-American-style whiteness theory allows you to think you are addressing a heinous problem, racism, but also allows you to continue in home-grown racisms, free from having to see them as racism.
But let me not get distracted by bickering on social media. Garrigan’s article begins by considering whether it might be possible for Irish feminist theologians to draw to themselves a distinctive title such as Shanchaithe or Cantoirí to encourage people to be cognizant of the specific contours that mark Irish racial and religious history out from the standard narrative that prevails in conversations about these topics. To demonstrate the complexity of “whiteness” as it works in Irish theology, she spends time laying out very clearly how “Irishness” has not always been equivalent to “whiteness”. While the American theologian James Cone used to hassle her as a student over her “European perspective”, for many centuries Ireland was not really considered “European”, where Europe is a codeword for civilization.
This is a really important point that I have struggled to put into words myself. She says:
Whiteness, like the tropes “Europe” or “the west”, itself becomes a hegemony and those whites, Europeans or westerners who, like the Irish, have histories that were mostly brutalized by the dominant culture rather than mostly beneﬁtting from it, ﬁnd themselves erased by an assumed uniformity.
In other words, our words need to be more adept. Our histories are complex. So the terms we use to disentangle the mess we inherit have to be nuanced. There are plenty of old, dead white men who lie in graves because of “civilization”. She does great work excavating how the Othering of Irish people stretches at least as far back as the Elizabethan era. But the way Irish people were construed as “other” by pre-enlightenment Englishmen was very different to the shocking way that Ireland was engaged with during the Great Famine or the way in which Irishness was then subject to a Darwinian racism in the late Victorian era.
Neither is this racial categorization a thing of the past. IRA activity was often described by the BBC as “Catholic” while Loyalists were Loyalist, not Protestant. This is a recurring theme in the different varieties of anti-Irish prejudice; it has always been tied into an anti-Catholicism. Here there is a clear contact point with J. Kameron Carter’s magnificent argument in Race. Catholicism, in English discourse, has been presented as Semitic, and therefore as backwards and inferior. Englishness is constructed against Irishness, the way that the European Enlightenment constructed its Christianity against Judaism. Those blasted Fenians are just unable to leave their superstitious Popery behind them!
In such justiﬁcations of Irish incapacity for Christianity we see a theological anthropology that, as part of iterating Anglo-Saxon identity, locates humanness in not-Irish-ness. (In a similar way, perhaps, to Carter’s account of Whiteness after Kant, this description of the Christian self is essentially that which is not-Semitic, not-dark-ﬂeshed.)
In short, in Ireland, sectarianism is a kind of racism.
What does this mean for being an Irish theologian? As important as it is that I continue to deepen and sharpen my awareness of the cultural situatedness from which I live and move have my being, a fundamental, pressing, present problem is finding a way to live out the story I find myself within in a way that draws the Other on this very island closer to me [I notice, hours after publishing this, that I no longer live on "this very island" - I hope this reveals a lot about the extent to which my time in Aberdeenshire is bound to be temporary!]. That means coming close to the Other and inviting the Other to come close to me. If, as Garrigan has it, our job is to “bring occluded differences and discriminations to light”, it seems the only we can do that is to go to the people who are dark to us.
Quoting Louis MacNeice, Garrigan suggests our identities must become “incorrigibly plural”. There are traces of this in some of the churches I have encountered, especially the community gathered around Trevor Morrow at Lucan Presbyterian Church. But as evidenced by the pages of the Presbyterian Herald, such plurality is not (yet) reflected in our denomination’s self-understanding. Neither is it so in the Church of Ireland, Methodists or Catholics. To some extent it might be more the norm with the new Pentecostalisms, but it needs to become our norm in all corners of the church in Ireland. To subvert the racism we have inherited is after all, a way to challenge the racism in which we implicate ourselves today. And more than all this, it is a way to see the Kingdom in our midst.
Your Correspondent, Let’s find something new to talk about; he’s tired of talking about himself
Two days ago I wrote about ten blogs I think everyone could enjoy. Yesterday I whinged about the role of blogs in contemporary Christian discourse. Today, I briefly want to describe my attitude towards the bigger picture of how to handle all the things you could be reading and watching and listening to, but aren’t.
First things first, books are better than blogs, movies are better than tv and albums are better than YouTube videos. But everything is good.
Except, of course, everything isn’t good.
We are drowning in data. The internet has accelerated a process that already went rabid with 24 hour news. Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe has offered us a most excellent insight into how “news” is a packaged product. In Scroobius Pip’s great song Death of the Journalist he cites a historic event from the relatively recent past that seems mythic to us:
Good Friday, April 18th, 1930
BBC radio news showed rare maturity
The news reporter said something that these days they wouldn’t say
‘Good evening, There is no news today’
So here is my philosophy of data: like everything else in this material world, more is not better. I guard my attention so that it is directed towards things that are enjoyable. My twitter feed is loaded with comedians. My RSS feeds are loaded with cartoons and animated gifs. I try not to read national newspapers. I avoid headlines. I never watch the news on telly. I do not know what is happening in American politics. I have only a vague awareness of this week’s newspaper front pages in Ireland. I don’t even read Broadsheet anymore, since it was annoying me. If you did a test on the current conversations happening, I would flounder.
The reason I have embraced intentional ignorance is that engaging with data at its source is an invitation to permanent ignorance. When we track news, we track data at its most manipulated. My intentional ignorance is just an ignorance of news as it happens. If the news matters, it will persist so that I can pick it up off the shelf in six weeks, more stable and mature, richer in data, all the crud of click-bait burned off. By waiting 2 months, I can often find a 10,000 long-read piece with serious context and detail and nuance. It not only avoids the blood pressure-raising nonsense of the news cycle, but it encourages the kind of journalism that at least nods towards discernment. So if I can dare to use such preposterously pretentious language, my philosophy of data is that fresher is mankier. Old news is better. My most visited webpage is football.guardian.co.uk because I find that as I get older, the things that don’t matter are the things I care about.
Your Correspondent, Humbling computational arrogance since 2012
Yesterday I shared ten blogs I think are brilliant. Tomorrow I will explain why I spend so much time spending little time tracking the news. Today I want to more generally write about the way Christian discourse sometimes seems to be dominated by conversations that happen in the realm of blogs.
I have a friend who keeps a private blog. They notify their readership by email when they write something and we use passwords to access it. The reason for doing things this way is that what they write about is incredibly sensitive. It is almost always gruelling to read what they write. Gruelling, but enriching.
They wrote in a recent piece about reading things online that were so insensitive and horrible that they broke out in tears. They weren’t down a rabbit hole of links that ended up with pro-Ana tumblrs or white-supremacist bulletin boards. They were moved to tears by the casual, off-hand and widely read ramblings of one of the most famous bloggers in Western Christianity. When I read the link, I remembered why I have such a byzantine system of tracking stories that interest me. There is so much shit out there that you have to wear HAZMAT suits if you are just going exploring. Blogs make sharing your opinions incredibly easy. The polite way to describe the value of those opinions is to share some economics: things that aren’t scarce aren’t valuable.
English speaking evangelicalism was blessed in the late Twentieth Century with a series of leaders of unusual learning, sophistication and humanity. F.F. Bruce and Carl Henry, Billy Graham and Martin Lloyd Jones, J.I. Packer and most especially John Stott were men (not without fault) who were trustworthy leaders. They wrote out of down-to-earth devotion and what that means is that they led out of prayer. Stott lived a life of ascetic single-mindedness to show people the love of Christ. I never got a chance to meet him, but by all accounts, he couldn’t care less that he was JOHN STOTT.
This is no longer the case. Friends of mine who are gifted writers find that not having a “personal brand” is a barrier to getting books published. Christian leaders get trained in social media management but cannot explain what the filioque clause is and why it matters. Strategic personal promotion is a necessary step on the path to influence, election by actual parishes to speak as Teacher for them is not.
The problem with this isn’t that some people have a lot of influence. After all, John Stott had almost Papal authority in Anglo-evangelicalism. The problem is that the influence accrues through the personal manipulation of techniques of promotion. The church is having its opinions formed, not by the local leaders that embodied communities of Christians call “pastor” but by the folk who have managed by luck or providence or skill to have the biggest loudspeaker. As a Christian who believes in the church, I should care more what Rev. Elsie Fortune of St. Mary’s Church of Scotland on King Street in Aberdeen has to say on a topic than what Al Mohler has to say. And I do. After all, I can go worship with Elsie on Sunday. As much as I love and respect Tim Keller, he isn’t on hand to go for a walk with me the next time I really fuck things up.
So while blogs are brilliant and wonderful and Scot McKnight is a gift to the church etcetera, etcetera… let me tentatively propose that we shouldn’t let the untethered words of distant teachers be the primary shaping influence on the conversations we have. Let me make this more pointed: people like Trevin Wax and Rachel Held Evans that consistently court controversy for the sake of attracting clicks to a website that sells advertising space for profit… these are not voices that we should pay vast heed to. Or at least, the way they transmit their voices (both in terms of medium and tone) is something we should be tentative about. The church is global only because it is first local. The conversation that bubbles up in Tennessee shouldn’t be the conversation that is continued in Tyrone or Teeside. The role of “talking head” might be well established in society, but it is super-dubious in the church.
Your Correspondent, Writes this for his friends
I now sit in the pleasant position of pretty much only blogging when people ask me to write about things. I have a friend here in Aberdeen called Wilson who is a pastor from Singapore. He is doing his PhD on Slavoj Zizek and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, because everyone here seems happy to spend years throwing fascinating and apparently clashing ideas together. Wilson asked me and two other guys to share some of the blogs that we read regularly.
I might take this as an opportunity to do three things. I subscribe to hundreds of blogs and journals and have a very efficient way of filtering the noise out to find the good stuff. So out of those sources, I am going to share ten blogs I think everyone can benefit from reading. But over the next few days I’l also briefly outline my philosophy of data, if I can refer to my ignorant hunch about all the news on offer to us by such a glorified title. I am also going to write tomorrow about why I think it is pastorally important that we are thoughtful about the way blogs are shaping Christian discourse.
But before that, some blogs (or websites more generally) I think everyone could enjoy:
- Bogwitch: The largest folder by far in my feedly account is friends. I could link to any of them (many of them are linked on the right hand side of the blog’s homepage), but as a representative, I link to this one. Laura, who writes this blog, is my internet-friend. She consistently throws up stuff that is delightful. Especially stuff about inter-species friendship, naturally occurring crystals and webcomics. I think you’ll like it.
- Everyday I’m Pastorin’: This is one for my readers in Christian ministry. Animated gifs posted by someone in the American mainline Protestant church, beautifully detailing the absurd and inane work that pastoring sometimes involves.
- Twitter: The Comic: I could easily make a list of 100 Twitter people you should follow, but maybe this will suffice. The genius behind this blog takes some of the funniest tweets and depicts them graphically. Pure gold. Everytime.
- Space Avalanche: Even more comic genius here, from a Dublin-born artist. The punchlines sometimes arrive deliciously late. It is rarely updated, but worth keeping track of.
- Hark! A Vagrant!: I presume you are familiar with this blog. If you are not, welcome to the 3-panel historical cartoons you have been waiting for. Beautiful.
- Vinoth Ramachandra: Vinoth works for IFES in Sri Lanka. He is an atomic physicist and one of the great Christian ethicists of our age. He writes things for free and publishes them on this innocuous little website every few weeks. He is a wise and compassionate man, who isn’t afraid to say hard things. It is a true promise to declare that if you tune into the quiet voices of practitioners like Vinoth, you will be better off than paying heed to the constant flamewars that happen in the fancier parts of the internet.
- Kottke: Old skool lovers of blogs will of course know about Jason Kottke’s daily dedication to excellence. But the chap who asked me to write this might not be aware that there is a full-time blogger in New York “curating” the best of the internet for you.
- The Medium and the Message: Adam Curtis is an acclaimed BBC documentary film maker. Every few months he spews the results of his research on this blog, which means he throws together an analysis made of clear thinking and grainy archival footage that makes sense of a single stream out of the gulf of rolling news data we are immersed in.
- The Soccer sub-reddit: Reddit is obviously a mixed-bag, a sort of synecdoche for the entire Internet. It is gloriously rambunctiously libertarian in its rhetoric and could be purely draconian in practice. It is home to glee-inducing creativity and heart-sinking depravity. I limit myself to a pretty tight leash in those parts of the interweb and the soccer thread is my favourite. Quirky gifs and insanely passionate disputes about silly football theories means that it never fails to deliver. A royal waste of time, to mis-use a Marva Dawn phrase.
- The Last Psychiatrist: Finally, the greatest blog on the internet. It is headed up with a quote from Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. For long periods of time, the Last Psychiatrist will be silent. Then all of a sudden s/he will break out in into a torrent of verbosity. The rambling, digressing, meandering posts sometimes read as long as a novella and they rarely hold together coherently. Sometimes they exhibit a wanton disregard for all that is decent in this world so that you fear they bear a kind of philosophical virus that will infect the reader with a Clockwork Orange style nihilism. But when the author hits the target, s/he destroys it. S/he is a prophet of culture. If I could get everyone to read it, I would. So go subscribe.
What did I miss?
Your Correspondent, Agrees that the internet is the most important single development in the history of human communication since the invention of call waiting.
A congregation member from back in Maynooth was talking to me on the phone this evening and they asked me to write a ten point list about Christians and non-violence. So here goes.
- Fundamentally, you can’t understand the call to non-violence without reflecting on Jesus standing before Pilate. Jesus’ victory comes about through his torture and death at the hands of the Roman Empire, their brutal representative Pilate and the nails driven through his flesh, into the cross by soldiers. Doing serious, prayerful, business with the fact that God responds to military might without militarism fuels the sneaking suspicion that Christians are called to another path.
- Of course, that sneaking suspicion appears to have been a full-on assumption in the early church. Tertullian is representative when he says, “The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” The early church, not absolutely but in the largest part, took non-violence to be the norm.
- That shifted fairly rapidly when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian. He was actually waging war when he had his purported vision that converted him. How bizarre is it that Rome would (more than fifty years after Constantine) adopt Christianity as its official religion? They raise Jesus as their Lord, having previously raised Jesus on to their execution device? But this is how Empire works. An imperial army devastates the opponent and then amalgamates the opponent into itself. Is it fanciful to suppose that Christians need to wrestle with what it means that we have been emeshed into the very systems that killed our Christ?
- And when we think about Rome, we think about Empire and our thoughts turn to how the Bible is always deeply troubled by militaristic regimes. From Egypt to Babylon, from Alexander to Caesar, the stance of the Bible seems to be that the people of God are not meant to play the ideological games of world domination. When Israel asks YHWH for a King so that they can be like the other nations, what warning does he send them through the prophet Samuel? “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.” Is it fanciful to think that Christians are called to be suspicious when power is used to accumulate military force?
- Perhaps you think you’ve spotted a weakness in my argument. I have gladly quoted from the Old Testament. And as Richard Dawkins famously put it, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser…” and it goes on. How can Christians be called to pacifism if God is not afraid of violence? Well let me answer that by saying that if God calls me to take up a sword, I will take up a sword. Until then, I will leave the outcome of history in his hands, since it is probably safer there than in mine.
- And this is why I don’t say I am a pacifist. That sounds too, well, passive. Instead, I am convinced we are called to the most difficult but also most significant action in the world: prayer. As Karl Barth says, prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. If European Christians had prayed more in the aftermath of World War I, instead of trying to find ways to perfect politics, maybe we wouldn’t have gone so far down the hellish rabbit hole of fascism.
- My great theological hero, Stanley Hauerwas, who convinced me of non-violence, has a slogan. He says it is not our responsibility “to make history come out right”. What he means by this is that faith in God involves trusting that the victory of Christ is real. Nothing humans can do will either damage or hinder God’s plans. We are called to have the faith of the psalmist and the prophets and even of Job, in the face of turbulence, even war. God is in charge. We don’t have to be panicked into actions unworthy of his ambassadors.
- Ambassadors represent the people who sent them. Christ’s ambassadors are sent by someone who dies for the sake of others. For the Christian, there are fates worse than death. This seems to be an inevitable conclusion of Jesus’ claim that the greatest love one can show is that you lay down your life for others. In other words, the chief problem with war is not that you might die, but that you might kill.
- I hope it is becoming clear that the chief motivation for non-violence is not that somehow by being opposed to war we might reduce its occurrence (but how nice would that be?). Rather, in a world of war, Christians have no other option than to be non-violent. Since war is never a battle between goodies and baddies, the people in the right and those in the wrong, no matter how many Hollywood movies try to convince us otherwise. War is the continuation of politics by other means. War is the outcome of the military-industrial complex. War shows up as sharp end of politics and economy, of technology and propaganda, of surveillance, control and power. War is never a simple thing. By the time that Christians have prayerfully and gently deliberated and discerned what is going on, the blitz will have been krieged and the troops will be in play. In other words, war moves faster than the church, when the church is taking itself seriously. We couldn’t catch up even if we wanted.
- But then on another angle, war is always a simple thing. It involves the randomisation of the internal organs of human beings who are fearfully and wonderfully made by their creator, who bear the image of their God, who are sustained by their redeemer. War is not the plan God has for his people. When war breaks out, is the consequence of sin. Better to repent than try to undo the sin with more sin. As Bonhoeffer said, if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction. Get off the war train. We don’t need it. We need God. And in Revelation, people walk into God’s city on foot to praise the Prince of Peace. Since that is our future, let us let it shape our present too.
Your Correspondent, If he was a spice, he’d be flour
This is a collage of images from the beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows located in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Topeka. I have never visited the congregation but judging from their website, they seem like a wonderful group of people, humble and gentle in their worship of Jesus and sincere too.
Upon seeing that the newspaper of record in Ireland reported the death of Fred Phelps on the front page, it occurred to me that I didn’t know one damn thing about Christianity in Topeka, Kansas. I actually can’t tell you anything about Kansas, except that it is in the middle and Kansas City is in a different state. Since I couldn’t locate Kansas on a map, you can rest assured that I have no idea where Topeka is. Apart from the fact that it is home to Westboro Baptist Church that is.
Like you, probably, I encountered the Phelps family initially through a fantastic Louis Theroux documentary. It was hard to even understand how appalling these peoples’ religion was. I was an atheist and profoundly Biblically illiterate but even then I knew that Christ was big on forgiveness. That’s probably how I would have put it. “Big on forgiveness”.
More than fifteen years later, on a daily basis I hear from Louis directly. I follow him on Twitter. He is living in LA now. I am drowning in data now. Everything from pictures of hippos charging naked men (Louis shared it this week – it’s HILARIOUS!) to statistical analyses of the suicide rates among the American veterans that Phelps taught were hated by God. I have the information. What the hell do I do with it?
Here’s a thing. If you accept that the course of modernity is a course that encourages being spiritual but not religious, then it follows that the narrative the Phelps family represents was primed for potency. Or put another way, when we imagine that the “individual” is the best way to think of human beings, then it follows that we are going to be geared for suspicion against “organised religion”. After all, thick accounts of community are in contest with thick accounts of individuality.
If this is true, then when we encounter the Phelps we encounter community of the worst kind – a family that is also a church. NiGHTMARE, right? Sure, their spirituality is repellent. And their lives appear to repudiate the God that they are notionally aligned with. But what we find in the Phelps clan isn’t just a story about how bad “religion” is. Our offence is of course riled on behalf of the gay people and the army families who suffer the onslaught that the Phelps clan dispense. But our offence strikes us with such personal potency because they stand for us as a sign of what we have escaped.
We don’t have to be like them. Brainwashed. Sheep. Blind. We can be rational. We can come to our own conclusions. We are not blinkered by prejudice or warped by bias.
We have no idea what Topeka is like. Is it mountainous? Is there a river running through it? Is it segregated? Do they prefer baseball or basketball? We know a family of lawyers went sort of mental and ended up creating a website called godhatesireland.com. We know that is ridiculous. It is theologically ridiculous but also, what do they know about Ireland?
Then we turn the page of the newspaper and click on the next link and get offended or appalled by the next thing designed to offend or appal us.
If you think I am being harsh in my description of the world in which we have immersed ourselves, ask yourself again why a newspaper published off Pearse Street and distributed around the island called Ireland would feature so prominently the report of the death of an old man in the middle of America who did horrendous things that mostly weren’t illegal? Why is that news?
Topeka Presbyterian seems like a community that is pretty interesting. In the aftermath of the Phelps family making Topeka famous for “religion”, I’d love to see a documentary about that congregation. Their three senior staff have doctorates. They are part of a rapidly shrinking denomination famous in many quarters for embracing every political and theological fad that passes by its General Assembly. But they declare themselves “missional”, even while they employ organists and proudly share photos of their stained glass. I suspect that if you hung out with them for a weekend with a video camera, you would find stories of deep human struggle and compassion, not a jot of anti-intellectualism, and a community of people comfortable with doubt and difference. It wouldn’t be weird enough for Louis Theroux and their leaders will never be memorialised on the front pages of Irish newspapers. But at least that programme would feed us data about Christianity as it is practiced, about America as it really is, about Topeka as a city where people live and breath and have their being. It would be hard to make that a programme about cartoon villains.
But seriously, what do I know?
Your Correspondent, The word “lover” bums him out unless it’s between meat and pizza.
My wife lamented this evening that I haven’t been blogging. It is good to have a wife who isn’t bored by me.
I responded I had nothing to write about. After all, I spend my days hived away on top secret work I can’t publish in case one you fools rob it and get a PhD from it before me. That might seem outlandish to you but someone at a seminar organised by the university told me that I needed to protect my ideas. Ideas are intellectual property, dontchyaknow?
I will share someone else’s ideas here. This opening paragraph from Zadie Smith’s latest essay is the best paragraph I have ever read about climate change. It seems to me to describe where we need to start our talk about what is happening, in its sheer odd hellishness:
There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.
People in mourning, people who are guilty and ashamed. This ought to describe who we are. That it doesn’t yet, will only heighten our grief, our guilt and our shame when the realisation does hit.
The crappiest kind of blogging is the glorified tweet that directs your attention to a link. I know, I know. I’m sorry.
Your Correspondent, The crappiest kind of blogger