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