Redeeming Violence?

Last weekend there were a number of celebrations of the Easter Rising that is seen as the key moment in modern Irish republicanism. Many of these celebrations had a greater "historical re-enactment" character than in previous years (which were more overt celebrations of the more recent Republican campaign of violence) akin to the recent re-enactments associated with the celebrations of the Ulster Covenant etc. This is clearly only a dry run for a full blown re-enactment in 2 years time... By that stage, the only thing missing will be the Royal Navy lying at anchor in Dublin Bay and firing a broadside in commemoration of the flattening of central Dublin by them! Doubtless the commemorations will take place over Easter weekend in 2016, as they did this and every other year, but the actual anniversary of the beginning of the rising on Easter Monday is 24th April. 98 years ago today Patrick Pearse stood on the steps of the GPO and proclaimed the creation of the Republic of Ireland, giving a poetic and religious gloss the pursuit of Irish independence. It may be impolitic of me to say this but I believe this "poet-martyr" casts a long, romantic and malevolent shadow over relations on this island. His peculiarly toxic combination of religion and republicanism is even clearer  in a piece he wrote before the preceding Christmas:

"The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth... it is patriotism that stirs the peoples. Belgium defending her soil is heroic, and so is Turkey fighting with her back to Constantinople.
It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.
War is a terrible thing, and this is the most terrible of wars. But this war is not more terrible than the evils which it will end or help to end...
Many people in Ireland dread war because they do not know it. Ireland has not known the exhilaration of war for over a hundred years. Yet who will say that she has known the blessings of peace? When war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God. And she will.
It is because peace is so precious a boon that war is so sacred a duty. Ireland will not find Christ's peace until she has taken Christ's sword. What peace she has known in these latter days has been the devil's peace, peace with sin, peace with dishonour. It is a foul thing, dear only to men of foul breeds. Christ's peace is lovely in its coming, beautiful are its feet on the mountains. But it is heralded by terrific messengers; seraphim and cherubim blow trumpets of war before it. We must not flinch when we are passing through that uproar; we must not faint at the sight of blood. Winning through it, we (or those of us who survive) shall come unto great joy. We and our fathers have known the Pax Britannica. To our sons we must bequeath the Peace of the Gael."

A slightly different tenor to that of Julia Ward Howe's Mothers' Day Declaration, that I published in my Mothering Sunday post. That was a rallying cry to mothers in the wake of the American Civil War to take a stand for peace and against nationalistic militarism. Sadly that appeal was not widely heeded and despite the huge losses incurred by America in that war, 2 world wars and many other international skirmishes(!), America is, in my humble opinion still far too swift to see the sword (or unmanned drone) as the instrument of choice in international polity. And some of its citizens, those Patrick Pearce in the Easter Proclamation deemed Ireland's "exiled children in America" have supported the use of violence for political ends on this island down through the years. I've had personal "debates" with those who have supported the "armed struggle" in Washington DC, Providence RI, Grand Rapids and New York, and was disappointed, if not surprised by the recent controversy over the presence of the PSNI in the New York St. Patrick's Day parade fomented by dissident republican supporters there.
But the whole theme of politically motivated republican violence has been bubbling away in my heart and head since that fateful night three months ago now when I was listening to Patrick Magee in the Skainos Centre with some decidedly non-non-violent protest taking place outside. In that listening exercise it was interesting to hear Magee's reluctance to cast any doubt on the moral validity or even the pragmatic effectiveness of the Provisional IRA's campaign of violence and his part in it, whilst at the same time to hear him passionately arguing that the current campaign by dissident republicans is at best counterproductive with regard to the ultimate aim of a United (and peaceful?) Ireland.
The analysis of the effectiveness of violence in Irish politics points in different directions depending on who you talk to.
  • There were some in the room that night who would suggest that the IRA campaign had clearly failed since there are now former IRA volunteers sitting in an avowedly British institution as Stormont MLAs.
  • Others would argue that an effective Stormont Assembly was only possible once Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA had abandoned violence and the threat of violence with a ceasefire and subsequent decommissioning.
  • There are those in the dissident, or as they might prefer it "alternative" republican camp, who would actually agree with both of the above analyses, reinforcing their rejection of the Good Friday Agreement, the Stormont Assembly, and the pursuit of a United Ireland by purely political means. You will find no mealy-mouthed condemnation of politically motivated violence in that sector.
  • Yet among their polar opposites on the more disaffected fringes of loyalism (at times reinforced by some ill-considered statements by more mainstream Unionist representatives), there are those who look at all that Sinn Fein has achieved and continues to achieve for their community, attributing it to their use and threat of violence in the past, and the continued ambivalence towards the use of violence in the wider republican community, reinforcing the idea that violent protest pays dividends... And there are times when that is true, when unrepresentative individuals are given undue influence in public discourse on the media, in political discussions etc because they claim to be "the voice of the (rioting) people."

But whilst Pearse's mindset may have been different from Julia Ward Howe, it was not so different from the mindset of those who baptised British and German Imperialism before the first world war, and which even today sees nothing ironic in conflating the image of the Cross and the Sword in the recently dedicated Glasnevin monument to Irish citizens who died in the 2 world wars... And it was not so different from the "for God and Ulster" mindset of those who drafted the Ulster Covenant, smuggled German arms into Larne one hundred years ago this coming weekend, to resist the democratic will of the British parliament, and a few months later encouraged the Ulster Volunteer Forces to take up arms against their arms supplier in support of Britain... Leading inexorably to the sacrifice of Ulster Unionists for their country on the Somme, a few months after Irish Republicans had sacrificed theirs in Dublin at Easter 1916.

Faith, politics and violence is a dangerous combination, and as we lurch further into this decade of centenaries, remembering events that still shape the present, I believe that we as churches cannot be critical of people like Patrick Magee, or dissident/alternative republicans, or loyalist protesters regarding their ambivalence to violence, so long as we continue to be equally ambivalent. The concept of redemptive violence particularly beloved of Hollywood and particular strains of evangelicalism, is woven into the church's relationship with the state (whichever state that may be), whether there is an explicit state church or not, and it has been from the time of Constantine.

Can violence be redemptive? Well God is capable of anything... he turned the awful violence of the cross into the single most redemptive act in history... But Christ was the victim in that not the perpetrator of the violence (unless you have a truly warped understanding of the sovereignty of God),  the victim of religion and state forces working in an unholy alliance. As such the cross offers no justification for regarding acts of violence as redemptive in advance. The church should never be seen to bless the perpetrators of politically motivated violence, whether those perpetrators are states or resisting states. I will agree with Pearce in this, and this alone, war is a terrible thing, an evil thing, indeed I would argue that violence is evil. Is there such a thing as greater and lesser evils? Probably... But where possible we should leave God to work that out and seek to pursue an avowed path of non-violence... Praying that we never have to make the call between such greater and lesser evils.

And where we are called to participate in acts of remembrance we should beware of offering moral or religious justification for that which cannot be justified.

I would reckon I will be coming back to these issues again and again over the next few years... and perhaps other bloggers or their equivalent will be returning to them in 100 years...

(If you are interested Kevin Hargaden, a Presbyterian blogger and republican, makes a much more articulate but concise case for Christian nonviolence.)



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