Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review

Thu 14 June 2012, 3:16pm

In his latest book, Overcoming Violence: Dismantling an Irish History and Theology – An Alternative Vision (Columba, 2012), Rev Dr Johnston McMaster offers a challenge to everyone living on this island:

Entering into the increasingly talked about ‘decade of commemorations,’ how might we remember our painful past together, in order that we might walk forward together?

At the launch of the book, the Rev Harold Good emphasized its challenging character, saying:

‘I found this to be a very confrontational book. … If you’re open to being informed and disturbed and challenged this is your book.’

An ordained minister in the Methodist Church in Ireland, McMaster was a lecturer and co-ordinator of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ adult education programme, Education for Reconciliation, which has wound down after a 16-year run. This programme was located within the Belfast campus of Trinity College Dublin, the Irish School of Ecumenics, where I also work on the Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation.

McMaster is now an Adjunct Assistant Professor with the Irish School of Ecumenics and is also working with the Junction in Derry/Londonderry on its project on ‘Ethical and Shared Remembering.’

Overcoming Violence draws on McMaster’s experience researching for and teaching on the Education for Reconciliation programme. It is informed by his own scholarship, as well as the experience of interacting with people from diverse backgrounds who availed of the Education for Reconciliation courses, which were offered at 22 locations around Northern Ireland and the border counties.

McMaster’s experience of working in the community means that he is wise enough not to offer any glib or easy answers about how violence might in fact be overcome. Rather, McMaster is advocating an honest – and therefore difficult – critical examination of history on these islands, one that moves beyond memorialisation and commemoration and instead calls us to an ‘ethical remembering.’

For him, ethical remembering means thinking critically about the ‘culture of violence’ that developed in Ireland over a period of centuries, and understanding how religion (including violent conceptions of God) nurtured that culture of violence. Ethical remembering also means pondering the human cost of violence – which means giving victims a public voice in our contemporary period so that we can really understand how violence has affected them. It means asking ourselves what got us to a point where we resorted to such violence against each other, and whether this violence was justified.

The book itself is a wide-ranging mixture of history and theology, written in a ‘popular’ rather than ‘academic’ style that is accessible to all and that could potentially be used as a text in secondary schools or in community church forums or book groups.

The book traces the ‘roots of sectarian violence’ from the plantations, offering more sustained analysis of the events between 1912-1922. Here, McMaster examines how both Protestants and Catholics, using the religiously-informed traditions of covenant (the Ulster Covenant) and blood sacrifice (the 1916 Rising), constructed and justified a culture of violence. For him, Christian traditions on this island, as well as in Europe and North America, have been based on a ‘myth of redemptive violence’ that is a fundamental distortion of the gospel of Jesus.

McMaster spends several chapters making a theological case for rejecting redemptive violence. He confronts many of the violent texts in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament and explains why it is theologically irresponsible to read them as God’s endorsement of genocide or violence. For McMaster, to be theologically responsible means rejecting a literal reading of these texts and putting them in context. For example, they were primarily written by people in exile or living under an oppressive empire. Therefore, these texts reflect a longing for justice and highlight the futility of violence. McMaster concludes (p. 127-128):

‘The god of violence is a violent human construct and the projection of human fear and violence onto a deity. We read these brutal texts of violence in their exilic (displaced, dislocated) context as a cry of repentance, a turning away from the ideology of violence to a different way of life.’

The final four chapters of the book are where McMaster gets to work constructing an alternative, non-violent theology, based on how ‘the Bible critiques itself’ in the ‘counter witness’ of the prophets (and of Jesus) who confronted hostile powers through non-violent means. For example, chapter ten, on ‘Jesus and Active Non-Violence’, offers fresh interpretations of how the gospel admonitions to ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘walk the extra mile’ with a Roman soldier, or ‘give your cloak as well’ should not be seen as evidence of acquiescence or weakness, but rather tactics of non-violent resistance that could bring shame to perpetrators and prompt them to reconsider why they were using violence. Given these theological resources, McMaster laments (p. 204):

‘That no Irish church has produced a theology of active non-violence is a disturbing fact, which should cause every believer to seriously doubt their faith and the theological system of their church.’

Whether or not McMaster thinks the churches, as they are right now, are capable of producing a ‘theology of active non-violence’, or whether or not our churches can point the way towards ethical remembering, is not entirely clear. The book itself is  a sort of rallying call to Christians to take up this task, arguing that it is possible to draw on non-violent, biblically-based traditions to make a moral case for remembering violence, rejecting it, and building a new and better society.

I’ll close by giving McMaster the last word from his chapter on ‘Nurturing communities of resistance in active non-violence and compassion’ (p. 204):

‘Perhaps the only moral case to be made is that none of the violence and counter-violence was justified, that it was bloodlust let loose, revealing not heroism but the darkest side of being human. There was and always is an alternative way with historical precedents, and the voices have always been present but drowned out. And there are too many promises of history unfulfilled in Ireland to allow for an uncritical acceptance of the violence, or for unethical remembering.’

Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Delicious Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Digg Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Facebook Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Google+ Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on LinkedIn Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Pinterest Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on reddit Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on StumbleUpon Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Twitter Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Add to Bookmarks Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Email Share 'Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review' on Print Friendly

Comments (4)

  1. SDLP supporter (profile) says:

    I really look forward to reading this book after hearing Johnston McMaster speaking at an event organised by the local churches in St. Anne’s Parish Centre, Finaghy a few months ago. One of the points he made then was the sheer democratic vacuity of both the 1912 Covenant and the 1916 Proclamation with the assumption in both texts that ‘God is on our side’ and the justification of actual or threatened violence.

    Personally, I have had my eyes opened over the past year by reading Tony Judt’s ‘Post War’ and Rebecca West’s ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’ about the Balkans. The Irish dilemma is replicated all over Europe and, without minimising the intense suffering caused to the families of 3,600 dead and the many thousands injured in our latest bout of ‘Troubles’, this island can count itself lucky that we didn’t have 100,000 dead.

    My fear is that the violence virus is just incubating and lying temporarily dormant.

    Incidentally, the blurb on the West book states that she was born in County Kerry, whereas Wikipedia states that she was born Cicely Fairfield in Westbourne Park, London in 1896. Can anybody stand up the Kerry claim? Either way, she’s a hell of a prose stylist,

    What do you think?
    (Log in or register to judge or mark as offensive)
    Commend 1
  2. antoinmaccomhain (profile) says:

    The book traces the ‘roots of sectarian violence’ from the plantations, offering more sustained analysis of the events between 1912-1922. Here, McMaster examines how both Protestants and Catholics, using the religiously-informed traditions of covenant (the Ulster Covenant) and blood sacrifice (the 1916 Rising), constructed and justified a culture of violence. For him, Christian traditions on this island, as well as in Europe and North America, have been based on a ‘myth of redemptive violence’ that is a fundamental distortion of the gospel of Jesus.

    If only it were that simple. Because ‘Protestants’ in ulster, or rather the six-counties are put into a neat little box which is called PUL-Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist, it doesn’t therefore follow that Republicanism falls into an equal neat little box called CNR- Catholic, Nationalist, Republican.

    1916 Blood Sacrafice-

    1916 had just as much to do with WW-I as it had to do with Irish gaining Irish Independence through a blood sacrafice. The so-called blood sacrafice is a bit more complex than being pawned off as the opposite to the ‘religiously-informed traditions of the ‘Ulster Covenant’. Most of the volunteers who fought and died in 1916 came from Dublin. Dr. Ann Mattews compiled a list of the Irish Citizen Army which showed that over 95% of the Citizen Army volunteers came from tenement houses. The Irish Citizen Army were formed in 1913 to protect Irish workers striking against the boss’s. The Cumann na mBán women would have been the wives, sisters, girlfriends and daughters of these men. The grestest motivating factor behind their decision to fight i 1916 was to prevent Irish men from being sent to the trenches as cannon fodder. It most certainly had nothing to do with ‘sectarianism’. 95% of the Irish volunteers sided with the home rulers and made a conscious decision to be used as cannon fodder, in the great war.

    As late as the civil war in 1922 we find ‘volunteers’ from the Republican side came mostly from the ‘working class’. Take Óglach Richard Towhig for example, of 1 Connors’ Buildings who was executed on 24-10-1922 and who was employed at the Inchicore Works of the Great Southern and Western Railway. His father had been Killed in Action in the First World War, which establishes a motive for his son to fight for The Republic, later on. Again, in December 1922, all the volunteers who were executed in Kildare would have been labourers and railway workers. It’s safe to say that their understanding of Nationalism, and their motivation for fighting would have been based on Land and Labour. And not on some vague notion of a blood sacrafice, or romantic nor cultural nationalism.

    Óglach Stephen White, Abbey Street, Kildare, Labourer.
    Óglach Joseph Johnston Station Road, Kildare, Railway Worker.
    Óglach Patrick Mangan, Fair Green, Kildare, Railway Worker.
    Óglach Patrick Nolan, Rathbride, Kildare, Railway Worker.
    Óglach Brian Moore, Rathbride, Kildare, Labourer.
    Óglach James O’Connor, Bansha, Tipperary, Railway Worker.
    Óglach Patrick Bagnel, Fair Green, Kildare, Labourer.

    It’s wishful thinking to suggest that the 1916 Rising was a ‘blood sacrifice’, and that it was ‘constructed and justified a culture of violence from ‘religiously-informed traditions’. The Catholic Church excommunicated everyone and anyone that fought on the Republican side. As late as the 1930s, iirc, Republicans were still being ‘cast out’.

    The ‘isms’ of Republicanism-
    Socialism
    Non-Sectarianism
    Nationalism
    Secularism
    Seperatism

    Should we commemorate together? might we remember our painful past together, in order that we might walk forward together? No. Remembering together isn’t the way forward. Think about it this way- Should the buergeoise remember black ’47, the way they do? Or is it rather a form of abstract revisionism. It was after all the cottagier class who made the great sacrafice in 1847, and not the political class, or the buergeoise. Should everyone commemorate the 1913 Lock Out? No. Only the ‘working class’ themselves should commemorate the Lock Out. One would wonder why some are all so keen to commemorate these things now, all of a sudden. The political revisionism has begun in earnest. If a lie is told often enough it sometimes becomes the truth.

    What do you think?
    (Log in or register to judge or mark as offensive)
    Commend 0
  3. wild turkey (profile) says:

    “For him, Christian traditions on this island, as well as in Europe and North America, have been based on a ‘myth of redemptive violence’ that is a fundamental distortion of the gospel of Jesus.”

    Gladys

    the myth of redemptive violence is the ongoing elephant in the room in the history of my homeland, the USA. the basic model-T version was imported on the Mayflower, was crucial to the whole pushing back of the frontier thing, the civil war, manifest destiny (including the ‘how we “lost ” china’) then onto the cold war to the current ‘war’ on terrorism.

    being neither a theologian or scholar, i remain perplexed on those specific instances of new testament scripture that the advocates and/or practioners of redemptive violence do or would cite as justification.

    any help? should i buy the book?

    thanks

    PS staying away from the Boston Marathon was a stroke of genius. 47% of participants nearly died of heat stroke.

    What do you think?
    (Log in or register to judge or mark as offensive)
    Commend 0
  4. Hi Wild Turkey,
    Just seeing your question now …
    Of course I recommend buying Johnston’s book. :)
    A good person to read on how the Bible has been used in American history to justify all sorts of violence is Mark Noll, who spoke recently at Queen’s in Belfast:
    http://www.gladysganiel.com/churches-reconciliation/scandal-and-slavery-prof-mark-noll-comes-to-belfast/
    I would say that his ‘The Civil War as a Theological Crisis’ would be of interest to you, for the American aspect.
    Another useful theological source on the myth of redemptive violence is Walter Wink, whose work informs Johnston’s book:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Engaging-Powers-Discernment-Resistance-Domination/dp/080062646X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340185080&sr=8-1

    What do you think?
    (Log in or register to judge or mark as offensive)
    Commend 0

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Copyright © 2003 - 2014 Slugger O'Toole Ltd. All rights reserved.
Powered by WordPress; produced by Puffbox.
57 queries. 0.608 seconds.