Johnston McMaster’s Overcoming Violence – Book Review

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.’